Name: Mike Ekstrom
DOB: August 30, 1983
With a fastball that sits in the low-90's and has late run down in the zone, Ekstrom has developed into a top tier pitching prospect.
One of the more common phenomenon's for a pitcher who comes out of college and into the professional ranks is a loss of velocity. Ekstrom suffered that in each of his first two campaigns after being drafted in the 12th-round in 2004 out of Point Loma-Nazarene in San Diego.
In college, his fastball would hit 92 MPH and sit comfortably between 89-90 and that fell off slightly when he came to short-season Eugene in 2004 and it forced him to concentrate on pitching and hitting his spots in the subsequent 2005 season. Ironically, as he moved through a particular game his velocity would jump up, but the results were sporadic.
It is the pinpoint control of his fastball that has really set him apart since and the return of his velocity this season took it to a new level. Some believe it began when Ekstrom changed his arm slot from a more three-quarters delivery to straight over the top in 2005.
Now, the right-hander is pitching in the low-90's and even hitting 93-94 MPH. He notched a 228-to-145 groundout-to-fly out ratio and that number was nearly 2-to-1 against right-handed hitters, peppering them on the outside corner.
"I loved him," Padres pitching consultant Bob Cluck said. "It is very typical for guys to have a let down in velocity after they sign. It takes a year or so to get the batteries charged back up and that is probably what happened to him. He is a real pitcher. He knows how to move the ball around and do the things he needs to do. Guys like that will end up being like (Woody) Williams. He is a pitcher."
Over two leagues, Ekstrom induced 21 double play grounders.
"He pitches to contact, moves the ball well inside the strike zone and keeps the ball down," 2006 Lake Elsinore pitching coach Steve Webber said. "Throws his off-speed stuff for strikes."
With an aggressive mentality, Ekstrom's focus has been on letting his defense do the work and attacking a hitter from the outset.
"He is a great competitor," Padres minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "You can't count him out because he has a lot of heart. I think he is going to be a big league contributor."
"He is cool as a cucumber and I like that about him," 2006 Mobile pitching coach Glenn Abbott agreed. "I don't care what the situation is he is as calm as he can be out there. He doesn't get excited and he has an idea about what he is doing out there."
He has command of each of his pitches, offering a slider with nice bite and a circle changeup that keeps hitters off-balance. The development of his changeup has been essential to keeping the ball on the ground against left-handed hitters and his ability to keep the ball down over the last year has been a key to his turnaround. But the changeup remains a pitch that the Padres would love to see him use even more.
In 166.2 innings over two leagues, Ekstrom allowed four homers. He sported a combined 3.08 ERA with a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, whiffing 117 and walking 40. He allowed two earned runs or less in 20 of his 28 starts between High-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A Mobile. He yielded a combined four earned runs in three of his four losses for the Storm. His first three losses in Mobile came as the right-hander surrendered just four earned runs and six overall. The BayBears offense was also shutout in each of his first three starts while he was in the game.
One thing that has held Ekstrom back over the last two years has been his stamina. He has tailed off in August, his body wearing down from consecutive seasons with more than 160 innings pitched. He found his second wind over his final four starts with five earned runs allowed – on the heels of 19 runs surrendered in three starts in late July/early August.
"He got a little tired," Abbott concurred. "He got tired and his ball wasn't sinking like it was."
"Ek came in and did a nice job," 2006 Mobile manager Gary Jones said. "He competed. I think the biggest thing Ek learned as the season went on, especially his last four or five outings, is that sometimes you can throw too many strikes. At times, Ek would get ahead and then give hitters too many good pitches to hit ahead in the count. I think as the season progressed and as he got a little more experience at that level he learned that once you get ahead you don't always necessarily have to give the hitter a good pitch to hit. You can see if you can get him to chase a little bit or be a little finer. I think that is what happened and he started to have a little success, along with using his changeup more."
"He has a three-pitch mix that is interesting to me," Padres' director of scouting Bill "Chief" Gayton said. "Key is to use his changeup more. He goes through a lineup very easy. He has stuff to take him to the next level."
His workload this off-season has concentrated on gaining weight in the form of muscle and being better conditioned. He does not want to his that August lull again.
ETA: Ekstrom, 23, has 14 Double-A starts under his belt and is in line to head up a strong San Antonio rotation this season. Since his arrival into the Padres' farm three years ago, he has moved up twice during the season. Only his first year of full-season ball did he spend the whole season in one place – due to conditioning reasons. Ekstrom, who won't turn 24 until August 30, will move up to Triple-A as soon as a spot opens and putting him into the 2008 plans seems well within reach. His ability to make hitters pound his pitches into the ground will play well in PETCO Park.