THE GAME: Monday May 8, 2017 against the Rochester Red Wings. Not only was the game the first of a four-game series and the first of a homestand, but it marked the Triple-A debut of pitcher Tom Eshelman, who had been promoted earlier in the day from the Reading Fightin Phils.
THE BACKGROUND: Eshelman had made five starts with Double-A Reading, with his last two being particularly impressive. he threw six innings against Harrisburg on April 26th, allowing two earned runs and striking out a season-high six batters. He topped that in his next start, going seven innings against New Hampshire and keeping them hitless for six full innings. Through his first three starts of the season, Eshelman had thrown 16 innings and posted a 3.94 ERA. In his last two, he pitched 13 innings with a 0.69 ERA for Reading.
It wasn't until about 10:30 Monday morning that Eshelman got the news that he was going to be starting for Lehigh Valley instead of Reading on Monday night. After the team arrived home late from a road trip, Eshelman got to bed around 2:00 a.m. and was hoping to sleep-in. Around 10:30 he checked his phone and realized he had five missed calls, three from pitching coach Steve Shrenk and two from manager Greg Legg. Figuring something big was up, Eshelman called Shrenk and got the news that he had to make the 45-minute trip to Lehigh Valley where he would start that night.
The Phillies had acquired Eshelman from the Houston Astros in exchange for reliever Ken Giles.
WHAT HE SHOWED
Swinging Strikes/Called Strikes/Foul Balls: 27/30/6
First pitch strikes: 23 out of 29
Fastest Pitch: 90 (15 times). Slowest Pitch: 72 (four times)
Leadoff men allowed on: 1 out of 8
Line: 8 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, WP (1-0)
Eshelman wasn't overpowering and if you weren't watching very closely, you'd have to ask how he was getting guys out. As one scout said after the game, "he was truly pitching." The right-hander mixed his pitches well and had total command of all his pitches, continuously working ahead of hitters and being able to simply challenge them. With his highest velocity reaching 90 mph, he wasn't going to blow anybody away. Instead, he relied on putting pitches right around the fringes of the strike zone and getting hitters to chase.
Manager Dusty Wathan said after the game, that he thought the strike zone was a little tight throughout the game, but that Eshelman didn't worry about it and just worked with what he was given by the umpire.
"That's a kid who has an idea of what to do on the mound. He didn't worry about what the umpire was calling, he knew that he could command his pitches enough so that he could get strikes and get guys to chase," said Wathan.
As for going right after hitters, Eshelman was amazingly impressive in that regard. His approach should be studied by guys like Vince Velasquez and other young pitchers who prepare to nibble and push their pitch counts sky-high. Here's a stat for you; Eshelman threw more than four pitches to a batter just twice in the game, and the first time it happened wasn't until the fourth inning. 19 times, the at-bat ended in three pitches or less and he retired the hitter in 15 of those 19 plate appearances.
As the game wore on, Rochester hitters were getting more aggressive to try to jump on an early fastball. Problem was that with Eshelman's command and the way he was mixing his pitches, they weren't able to find many early fastballs that they were able to jump on. While his slider and change-up aren't quite plus pitches, the fact that he can command them through the zone makes the fastball more impressive and seem to have a little more jump to it than it really does.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Both Wathan and Eshelman credited the development of the slider as a key part of Eshelman's development. Wathan had Eshelman at Reading last season and seeing him now, he said that the slider is the biggest change that he sees in his development.
"The slider has always been a pitch that was close to being a real equalizer for him and now, he seems to have not quite mastered the pitch, but he's got more confidence in throwing it in different situations and it's a better pitch for him," explained Wathan.
"I think a lot of it is confidence," said Eshelman. "I worked with Shrenk at Reading on the slider and it's gotten better, but the thing is to go out and put it to use and be able to get guys out with it. Lately, everything has just clicked for me and I'm feeling good on the mound. When you get the results then, the confidence goes up not just with that pitch, but with what you can do against hitters."
Most scouts see Eshelman as a back of the rotation type starter, and if his secondary pitches don't become better than they were, he could even wind up as a middle-reliever type pitcher. One scout who has seen Eshelman a few times was also impressed with the development of his secondary pitches.
"He's always been able to throw his pitches for strikes, so that wasn't a surprise. What was a surprise was that there is more movement to his pitches, he's mixing them better, and he's doing the little things like working quickly and controlling the game. You never know with finesse pitchers, because everything has to be in line for them, but right now, he's throwing really well and was impressive," said the scout.
For now, Eshelman is slated to pitch again on Saturday against Buffalo, but that is still a bit of a question mark. He was brought up to Lehigh Valley because the Phillies have had to raid the IronPigs starting rotation lately to fill holes. Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Jake Thompson are all with the Phillies, after having had a spot in the IronPigs rotation this season. It's possible that one or two of them will be returned soon and that Eshelman will head back to Reading. Right now, Buffalo is fifth in the International League in hitting with a .254 team average, while Rochester is ninth (.248). While the numbers aren't far apart, Buffalo has a few more seasoned hitters who would be fun to watch against Eshelman.