Yes, I’m finally back at the keyboard. Hopefully, this becomes a bit more of a habit for me. I sit here today because my family and I attended another baseball game last night in Allentown. And as luck would have it, we drew Tom Eshelman as the starter. Now I know the roster here is loaded with prospect names and there are so many guys to talk about but the one that has my attention right now is Eshelman. How does he do what he’s doing in 2017? Let’s examine.
Tom Eshelman was one of the five pitchers the organization aquired in the Ken Giles trade. While Vince Velasquez and Mark Appel were the names people discussed the most, Eshelman was not a throw in. His calling card in college was pinpoint control, more accurately, his lack of free passes. In 376 innings of work, Eshelman issued just 18 walks (0.43 BB/9), with only three of them coming in 115.2 innings as a senior (0.23 BB/9). Those numbers at Cal State Fullerton were historic and got him drafted in the second round of the 2015 draft. After the draft, Tom threw 10.1 innings over four starts in the Gulf Coast and Midwest Leagues where he walked five batters. Not exactly what the world was expecting.
Fast forward to 2016, where Eshelman spent his first season in the Phillies’ organization. He split the season between Clearwater (A+) and Reading (AA), making 24 starts, throwing 120.2 innings, and walking 28 (2.09 BB/9). For most kids in his situation that’s a pretty solid walk rate, but still not to the standard Tom set in college. Eshelman’s issue in 2017 was 137 hits allowed (including 11 long balls) and a .281 average against, .307 in Reading alone.
Everyone knows how much I hate minor league numbers for pitchers but it’s interesting to compare Tom’s 2017 numbers to the ones above. Where is the biggest difference? Allowing 72 hits over his first 88 innings of 2017 for a .226 opponent’s average and a 0.94 WHIP. His home run rate is up overall but with fewer runners on base, the damage has been limited. Especially when you pull out just his innings at Lehigh Valley. Over 59 innings at AAA, Eshelman has allowed 45 hits, 2 HRs, and 6 walks, with a 0.86 WHIP and a .210 average against. I saw both the 2016 Reading Eshelman and the 2017 Lehigh Valley Eshelman so naturally I want to examine and explain it.
Last night’s game vs Syracuse was a prime example of what Eshelman does and how he’s successful. He went through the order three full times, facing 27 total batters, and used only 88 pitches in those 7 innings. Of those 88 pitches, only 23 were balls (73.9% strikes). What do we learn from this? The kid throws strikes. Looking at his career walk numbers, that goes without saying. It has to be a “quality of strikes” type thing.
Watching Eshelman throw, there’s nothing that jumps out at you, except his command. His fastball sits in the 88-90 range, with an occasional 91 or 92 on the stadium gun. He will mix in a low 80s change with good arm action and a low 70s loopy curve, but stays mainly with his fastball. His fastball is rarely left in the middle, staying mainly at the bottom of the zone. It seems to run a bit to the glove side on occasion (cutter?) and while it isn’t significant it is noticeable. Eshelman also will run the fastball at the top of the zone from time to time but is careful to locate it where he wants it when he does. Right now, he just isn’t missing his spots and when he does its not to the hitter’s favor.
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t figured it out completely but it is something I want to keep an eye on. In watching him again last night, its not a fluke. We’ve seen similar stories in the past that didn’t end well. Please recall the magical 2012 season of Tyler Cloyd in Allentown. Eshelman has more velocity and command of the zone, but both mainly use variations of the fastball to allow the hitters to get themselves out. It was when Cloyd made it to Philly that his command did him in. If Eschelman continues to progress, I don’t see a similar ending for him however. Honestly, I had been thinking the same thing about Ben Lively and his progress in the same vein and that’s gone OK so far. How do they do it?