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Nathan Eovaldi is elite in his first two times through the order

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After that things get a little shaky.

Tampa Bay Rays v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Nathan Eovaldi set off the MLB At Bat no-hit alert yet again on Sunday, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning, before Brandon Nimmo broke it up with a single to lead off the inning. It was the third time Eovaldi has taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning or later this season, and he has made only eight starts.

In his 2018 debut (after not having made a major league start since August of 2016), he was actually pulled before he allowed a hit, going six no-hit, one-walk innings against the Oakland A’s in the Coliseum. Two starts ago, he made it into the sixth with a no-hitter against the Washington Nationals before Bryce Harper hit a two-out double to break up the bid this time. Sunday was the best outing of them all, with Eovaldi lasting seven total innings with just one hit allowed, while striking out nine.

Even still, the manner in which Eovaldi’s no-hitter (this time a perfect game, as well) was broken up was notable. After two perfect times through the order, the first batter to see Eovaldi for a third time instantly got a hit.

That’s been a running theme for the Rays righty in 2018. Take a look at just how stark his time through the order penalty has been through 48.1 innings this season:

Eovaldi 2018 TTOP

TTO IP ERA SO:BB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
TTO IP ERA SO:BB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
1st 19.2 1.83 23:1 0.155 0.167 0.282 0.192
2nd 19.2 2.75 16:4 0.149 0.208 0.313 0.229
3rd 8.2 5.19 5:0 0.303 0.303 0.750 0.430
4th 0.1 81.00 0:1 0.667 0.750 0.667 0.586

We’re dealing with a small sample size for Eovaldi’s season as a whole, so breaking that small sample into even smaller sections is always going to lead to noise (the fourth time through the order statistics have literally no value, I just included them for the sake of completeness).

That being said, it’s been truly remarkable just how stark the difference has been. The league as a whole is catching on to the times through the order penalty, but Eovaldi’s 2018 is that phenomenon taken to the extreme. Just look at where Eovaldi ranks among some of the best in the game when it comes to shutting down batters the first two times through the order:

2018 Two Times Through Leaders

Player IP ERA SO:BB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Player IP ERA SO:BB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Justin Verlander 92.0 1.76 114:18 0.153 0.208 0.259 0.208
Nathan Eovaldi 39.1 2.29 39:5 0.152 0.188 0.297 0.210
Jacob deGrom 81.2 0.99 102:19 0.171 0.231 0.239 0.213
Luis Severino 90.0 1.60 111:28 0.164 0.238 0.254 0.223
Walker Buehler 41.1 2.18 44:10 0.193 0.253 0.255 0.230
Patrick Corbin 84.2 2.20 107:19 0.175 0.230 0.289 0.230
Blake Snell 87.1 1.55 111:31 0.165 0.244 0.280 0.235
Chris Sale 86.0 2.09 135:23 0.183 0.254 0.277 0.240
Max Scherzer 88.1 2.20 127:19 0.173 0.234 0.322 0.242
Aaron Nola 82.0 2.30 87:25 0.193 0.265 0.289 0.247

For those new to the sport, being surrounded by Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, and Luis Severino is a very good thing.

Of course, the flip side of that is his rank among starters on the third and fourth times through the order. Of the 149 starters who have gone through the lineup a third and fourth time as many times as Eovaldi this season, the hard-throwing Rays righty ranks 136th in wOBA.

Again, this is a nine-inning sample. It’s silly to write Eovaldi off entirely as merely a two-times-through guy based on those numbers.

However, even if we go by his career stats, the third and fourth times through the order have always given Eovaldi a bit of trouble:

Eovaldi Career TTOP

TTO IP ERA SO:BB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
TTO IP ERA SO:BB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
1st 295.2 3.35 243:72 0.243 0.292 0.367 0.290
2nd 288.0 3.75 207:93 0.239 0.306 0.375 0.298
3rd 177.2 6.18 123:66 0.332 0.390 0.507 0.388
4th 15.2 5.17 6:6 0.281 0.343 0.359 0.302

The gap for Eovaldi between the first two times through the order to the third (the fourth and fifth are too small of a sample size to even consider, as well as being self-selecting games in which he was pitching well enough, or against a poor enough opponent to be left in that long) is noticeable, and far greater than the typical gap. Eovaldi saw his wOBA jump 90 points from the second time through to the third. Across MLB, since 2011, starting pitchers averaged a 13-point jump.

Let’s see if we can pick up any trends that might lead to this struggle, both in 2018, as well as for his career as a whole.

Velocity

The most obvious solution to Eovaldi’s TTTO struggles would be if his velocity dropped significantly the later he went in the game. Eovaldi has elite heat, so dropping off that top tier could help to explain why hitters would have more success off him.

For his career, that’s certainly not the case. He loses about half a mile and hour off his pitches, but that’s not nearly enough to explain the jump.

It’s a littttttle bit closer to the possible explanation for 2018, but it’s still only one mile per hour lost, and it’s not as if Eovaldi is lobbing it up there the third time through. He’s still reaching 97 mph (96.98, to be exact), and his slider actually has a bit more zip.

Pitch Movement

Two of Eovaldi’s best weapons this season, the splitter and the cutter, are pitches that require movement off of that base fastball. Therefore, if Eovaldi began to lose depth on those pitches as the game powered along, that could explain hitters getting a better read off him.

For the sake of this article not including a million graphics, I’ll save you a minute and note that neither pitch, when looked at with the larger, full-career, sample size, differs much in terms of horizontal or vertical movement the more times Eovaldi goes through the order. His splitter loses a bit of horizontal movement, but that’s not the type of movement that the pitch thrives on, anyway.

Pitch Mix

For most of his career, Eovaldi has been mostly a two-pitch pitcher. In fact, it has been only recently that he has harnessed the power of his splitter and cutter.

That’s the chart for his career, and now compare it to 2018.

The new-look Eovaldi has a much better, and more diverse, pitch mix. This year, Eovaldi is using his secondary pitches an impressive 62.5 percent of the time the third time through the order. This gives me hope.

There is good evidence that pitchers with a deeper repertoire are able to take less of a penalty in additional times through the order. It’s a very intuitive conclusion, as batters simply have less to figure out with pitchers who only throw two types of pitches.

With that in mind, I’d love to see the Rays let Eovaldi’s leash go a bit longer, even despite his intense TTTO struggles this season. This is a pitcher still only eight starts removed from Tommy John surgery, and working with a different repertoire than in his past. While the results so far match what Eovaldi has done earlier in his career, there’s reason to believe that there’s been some change in process, so the Rays should let the sample size grow a little bit, and see what they have.

With such a ravaged rotation, a longer leash will also, obviously, help limit reliever use on the days Eovaldi gets the start.

Eovaldi’s third time through the order penalty has been bad in 2018, but it seems far more like a “let’s keep an eye on this” situation than a “let’s remedy this by pulling him after his 18th batter faced” situation.