Why the Red Sox Wild Card Starter Needs to be Nate Eovaldi

If you were Alex Cora and tasked with setting the rotation for a playoff series, you would feel pretty good about your chances right about now. Not only do you have three above-average starters in Natan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodgriguez, and Nick Pivetta, but Chris Sale is back. No need to discuss things any further, those are your four starters for any playoff series the Red Sox would be lucky enough to play in. But therein lies the problem; the Red Sox might not make it to the playoffs. They would first have to win the Wild Card play-in. The question is, who should start that game. Who should be the Red Sox Wild Card starter?

In any normal season, the answer is “Chris Sale.” But this is not a normal season. As the Red Sox showed through the end of August and the beginning of September, this is definitely not a normal season. No. This is the type of season where teams are told “tough luck” when half their roster has to miss games due to Covid. But despite that tough luck, the biggest blow to the Red Sox was the absence of Chris Sale. It felt like the early-season success of the Red Sox was their way of making his absence moot, but then the July hit.

July felt bad at the time because their .520 winning percentage was by far their worst mark of the season. But like Homer Simpson giving the worst parenting pep talk ever, it was only their worst mark of the season… “so far!” Because if Sox fans thought July was bad, August reminded them things could always get worse. The Red Sox followed a 13-12 July with a 12-16 August. Granted, most of that could be attributed to the Covid-decimated roster, but something else was amiss. That something else was Chris Sale.

Chris Sale the Bulldozer is the Red Sox Wild Card Starter… This is the Magician

If you looked at Chris Sales’ line and thought everything was great, you could be forgiven. Sale is 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA in just six starts. Those are great numbers. Very Sale-like numbers. But if you look closer at the numbers, you would realize something is wrong. While the Red Sox clearly have Sale on some sort of workload limit (topping out at 95 pitches in his longest start back on September 1st), Sale is pitching almost like he has restraints on the fastball. While most still believe every pitcher comes back throwing harder after Tommy John, this is not true for Sale; his average 93.4 MPH fastball is identical to before his surgery.

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/savant-player/chris-sale-519242?stats=statcast-r-pitching-mlb

From Baseball Savant on September 21, 2021: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/savant-player/chris-sale-519242?stats=statcast-r-pitching-mlb

But there is another number you have to look at when it comes to the old-school pitching lines; his strikeout to walk ratio. Normally Sale is one of the best in baseball at collecting strikeouts while not issuing free passes. Yes, he is still good this year, but his 5.17 K/BB ratio would be his worst in the category since 2016. When you look at the more advanced stats it makes sense what is happening. Although Sale is still frequently punching people out (9.3 K/9), that number is a far cry from the 12s and 13s we are used to seeing from Sale.

The problem is the strikeouts are coming, but they are tougher to get. Normally Sale has two wipeout pitches: his fastball and his slider. But this season, opponents are making contact on those pitches in a way they haven’t in years. Opponents are clipping the fastball at their best rate since 2016 (the year that compelled him to drop his sinker for more elevated 4-Seamers) while hitting the slider better than they ever have in Sale’s career. Just to make matters worse, the changeup is getting pretty much nobody out. So yes, Sale’s numbers are good, but this is not Sale the bulldozer, this is Sale the magician. It is impressive, but is it Red Sox Wild Card Starter impressive?

If Not Sale… Then Who?

No. That honor belongs to Nathan Eovaldi. While Sale’s ceiling is definitely better if he puts it all together, Eovaldi is the surer bet. Not only has he been more consistent than Sale–allowing three runs or fewer in each of his last eight starts, and no home runs in his last three–but we know Eovaldi has no problem under pressure.

The lasting image for most from the 2018 World Series might be Machado screwing himself into the ground on Sale’s final pitch, but for most, it is Eovaldi’s last stand. The image of Eovaldi running out in relief, inning after inning, after he had pitched in both Game 1 and Game 2, is the indelible mark from that 2018 World Series. 97 pitches, six innings, three hits, two runs, one earned… and a loss.

But the loss does not matter. Eovaldi proved himself that night. He didn’t need to because he previously beat both the Yankees that postseason (7 IP, 1R, 1ER, 5K/0BB) and the Astros (6 IP, 2 R, 2 ER, 2ER,  4K/2BB), but Eovaldi went out and showed his worth against the Dodgers. In the World Series. And that is the question at hand; “who should be the Red Sox Wild Card Starter?”

If this was a normal season, Sale is the man. But this is no normal season. And while it might sound like a gamble, Eovaldi is actually the better bet. Not only has he been the more consistent of the two pitchers and you can bet on what to expect, but you have the added bonus knowing the pressure does not get to Eovaldi. Red Sox Wild Card Starter, ALCS Starter, or marathon World Series reliever, the pressure does not get to Eovaldi. It is time Alex Cora recognized it and handed him the ball as the Red Sox Wild Card starter.