Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Nathan Eovaldi took a huge step forward this year, reaching the majors sooner than anticipated. He has a 3.18 ERA in his first 34 major league innings, but can this be sustained?
Eovaldi was drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round in 2008, from high school in Alvin, Texas. His draft position was deceptive: he was considered a first-round possibility at one point, but his draft stock slipped due to Tommy John surgery and a firm commitment to baseball at Texas A&M. He ended up signing for $250,000, above-slot money but a possible bargain if all goes well.
Eovaldi emerged with a solid season in the Midwest League in 2009, posting a 3.27 ERA with a 71/41 K/BB in 86 innings, showing some command issues but impressing with his fastball. A lateral muscle injury limited him to 98 innings last year and he wasn't that effective, posting a 4.30 ERA with a 72/37 K/BB and 108 hits allowed, split between High-A and 13 rehab innings in rookie ball. He entered 2011 with a reputation as a "live arm, needs refinement" type.
Opening at Double-A Chattanooga, Eovaldi went 6-5 in 19 starts with a 2.62 ERA and a 99/46 K/BB in 103 innings, with just 76 hits allowed and a 1.49 GO/AO. So far in the majors he has the aforementioned 3.18 ERA, but his 23/17 K/BB isn't too impressive, and his FIP (4.02) and xFIP (4.46) are much weaker than the ERA.
Eovaldi's best pitch is his fastball, a mid-90s pitch that can be overpowering at its best. His secondary pitches still need work, his slider drawing good reviews but his curveball and changeup needing more work according to Southern League observers. He's relied almost exclusively on the fastball and slider in the majors, but he'll need to make more effective use of his other pitches as he moves forward. As the FIP and xFIP show, his current ERA isn't likely to be sustainable without improved control and/or a better strikeout rate.
Nevertheless, Eovaldi has made substantial progress this year, and is well ahead of where he was at this time in 2010. If his secondary pitches come around and his command sharpens up, he could be a number two starter down the line, although I would not expect that next year. Keep in mind that he's only 21 years old.