The Phillies currently have seven players on the disabled list, and one of them is Jerad Eickhoff. The young starter has been rehabbing a strained right lat since the spring and has been scheduled to be a part of the Phillies’ rotation when he returns later this month, a sentiment stated at different times by both Matt Klentak and Gabe Kapler.
Jerad Eickhoff pitched today in an extended spring training game. Gabe Kapler would not commit to Eickhoff having a rotation spot when he returns from the DL. Kapler said two weeks ago that Eickhoff would rejoin rotation when he returns.— Matt Breen (@matt_breen) May 8, 2018
Noncommittal??! They might as well DFA him!! Where is the loyalty in today’s game?!?! GABE KAPLER HAS A KUMQUAT FOR A BRAIN.
[Straightens out suit from outburst]
Heh heh, anyway. “Not committing” isn’t the same thing as reversing a decision, but it does make you wonder: If Eickhoff doesn’t have a rotation spot waiting for him, who is filling it? And why shouldn’t it be Eickhoff’s?
Who he was supposed to be: High ‘90s four-seamer, creative curve that many called a slider. He’s been repeatedly slotted as a future No. 4 starter. People seem insistent on that exact placement. Like, he’s not going to be the worst guy in your rotation, but he’s not starting any playoff games. People really want you to know that they aren’t getting their hopes up.
Who he has been: In 2017, Pivetta got 26 starts for the Phillies after about two months of Triple-A (I mean, you resist promoting a 24-year-old with a 1.41 ERA and 18.5 SO/W through five starts). His 6.02 ERA is a product of him being a warm body the Phillies threw at a league that was eating their staff alive all through the 2017 schedule. Pivetta got absolutely thrashed in August of last year, only making it as far as five innings at most, and in one particularly unwatchable disaster, he faced only twelve Marlins hitters before getting the hook.
Now, he’s trying to make things a little more interesting. Pivetta is throwing strikes and missing bats. Just not Bryce Harper’s the other day. In the past he’s been careful about using his slider, his most effective pitch, and relied on an onslaught of heaters and curves. By the close of 2017, he’d enough bright spots for some to say he still belonged on the staff, but enough meltdowns and Ryan Braun grand slams for most people to say his spot may be in the bullpen.
Throwing six or more effective innings as a member of the Phillies’ staff when your name isn’t Jake Arrieta or Aaron Nola is going to get you some attention. Pivetta has done that... twice in seven starts this season. Part of that is Gabe Kapler’s need to fire a starter’s pistol at some point during every game, signaling that it’s time for the pitching staff to begin scrambling around and on top of each other like a pile of hamsters.
But the other part is that there have been encouraging, if abbreviated appearances by Pivetta this year—April 5 against the Marlins, he lasted 5.2 innings, but struck out nine (his current season high), walked none, and allowed no runs; he was just flirting with 100 pitches a little earlier than Kapler liked—the cost of amassing K’s. It was reminiscent of a start he made last year against the Red Sox, in which he struck out nine, walked none, and allowed no runs, but was allowed a slightly longer leash (107 pitches) to make it through seven frames.
The point is, Pivetta is most effective when he’s making batters swing and miss. And if he can’t do that, then he can at least not let hitters feel good about how they’re hitting him.
Per Fangraphs, the Phillies have 4 of the top 6 starting pitchers in the majors in least hard contact allowed:— Corey Seidman (@CSeidmanNBCS) May 8, 2018
1. Jake Arrieta — 17.7%
2. Aaron Nola — 21.6%
3. Jose Berrios — 22.4%
4. Vince Velasquez — 22.6%
5. Brandon McCarthy — 23.3%
6. Nick Pivetta — 23.5%
Even getting smushed by the Nationals and barely surviving a single inning in his last start hasn’t been enough to quell the conversation around Pivetta remaining a starter. He’d entered his last start against the Nationals after receiving applause from teammates and coaches in his pre-game bullpen session. The timing of Harper’s wrath just wasn’t great, as it reminded everyone watching of the pitfalls this promising starter can fall into when he’s not avoiding the barrels of bats.
Who he was supposed to be: Another guy lauded for his control. But instead of a 97 mph heater or a monstrous curve, Eflin was noted for an “above-average change-up.” Upon his acquisition by the Phillies, it was off to the minors to make a third pitch out of his curve ball.
Who he has been: I think a fair summation of the battalion of young pitchers the Phillies have acquired, inherited, or promoted over the last few years is that in most cases, there have been flashes of brilliance from which we mine our hope for their overall success. How many times have you seen Vince Velasquez’s 16-strikeout start against the Padres mentioned, and how many starts since then have we waited to see it repeated?
Eflin is similar, in that he was absolutely decimated in 2016 in what was potentially the worst major league debut of all time, then went on to throw two complete games that July, one of which was a shutout through which he cruised on only 92 pitches. Then, more patches of success teased the idea that he may be on his way to the next level: Three straight starts last April saw him go seven innings without allowing any walks.
This was after receiving double knee surgery, mind you, to fix some patellar tendinopathy that had been plaguing him since his youth. But that success didn’t last thanks to both recovering from his knee problems and some sprouting shoulder issues. He left 2017 with 11 starts and a 6.16 ERA.
Now, Eflin is back, baby. Enough pitchers have gotten hurt for the Phillies to reach into those Triple-A reserves, and Eflin, while concerns about durability or just general anxiety linger, has thrown two good starts: One against the Marlins, in which he went six innings, allowed no walks and only a single run, and the other against the Giants to open the Phillies’ current series, which saw him go 6.2 innings, throw a career high in strikeouts (9) and walk three. They were the kind of starts that don’t make you eager to cycle a guy out of the rotation.
Tear up the old scouting reports. This Zach Eflin is throwing almost 97 mph. He’s reaching career highs in swings and misses. And if you don’t like? F you.
“Some of our pitching coaches in the organization have worked with him on being more aggressive and having more conviction, like bringing some anger, some physicality, some … uh, we say some ‘F you,’“ Kapler said. “Deliver the ball with some ‘F you.’ Make sense?”
Really, Eflin is why we’re having this conversation at all. It was just two starts, but the Phillies like what they’ve seen to be a little cagey about the return of Eickhoff, who is said to have undergone some changes of his own.
Who he was supposed to be: Less velocity, more control. And that curve ball.
Eickhoff's 5th K comes on a beautiful curve pic.twitter.com/8Z5RQmgYjq— chris jones¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@LONG_DRIVE) June 14, 2016
Who he has been: Behind Nola in 2016, Eickhoff was the second most promising young starter who’d arrived as a part of the rebuild. His stuff was good, his curve was sexy, and he never followed a rough outing with another rough outing. His consistency was astounding and he made 33 starts, pushing almost 200 innings of work for the season with a 3.65 ERA, impressing most of all with his control, which resulted in 42 walks and a 3.98 SO/W. Last season, he became part of the mess of poor pitching behind Nola, the sole seasonal stand-out, appearing in fewer games (24) but walking more batters (53) and causing that SO/W to suffer (down to 2.23).
Now, he was supposed to be a big part of the rotation, one of several bounce-back candidates, but strained his right lat in March and was reported to return to the team by late May. His velocity is apparently bumped up—he averaged 90.5 mph last season and hit 91-93 mph in a recent bullpen session—thanks to a slight mechanical tweak that has apparently paid dividends. He just hasn’t had the chance to use them against big league hitters. Yet.
In conclusion, to say the Phillies have too many effective young starters to try out still feels like an oversell. All of these pitchers have had more troublesome periods than success, but all of them have given the Phillies a reason to think they are worth cultivating.
So, what’s the Phillies’ plan here? Gabe Kapler gave a pretty predictable “Everything’s fine, just fine” response to the issue, given that it exists because there’s too much encouraging pitching happening for the Phillies right now, as weird as that is to suggest. And sure, by the time Eickhoff actually gets here, maybe this post and others like it will seem all the more foolish in retrospect because Pivetta gets taken apart in six consecutive starts and Eflin gets carried off by a giant bird.
But this team is built to give everybody a chance. It’s flawed in that way, because as cool as an idea it is to massage playing time and expand the starting roster, players are going to want to play a position. The pitching staff is the same: if Pivetta, Eflin, and Eickhoff see their preliminary success and adjustments continue to pay off, they’re all going to want a spot in the rotation.
At this point, I find myself intrigued by Eflin’s early run and Pivetta’s previous effectiveness, but, beyond using it as an opportunity to warm him up before giving him a start, it seems unideal to slip Eickhoff into a bullpen role. People need that curve to survive, man; they’re gathering in the streets and chanting its name. Hear them? It’s faint, but it’s there. Just because Eickhoff seemed set up for this job before the season doesn’t mean it’s owed to him, but he’s got a down 2017 to scratch and claw his way back from as well.
I’m sorry. We’ve reached the end and I don’t have an answer. I lean toward Eickhoff, because I am anxious to see him on the mound again and I believe his is a higher ceiling than Pivetta and Eflin. But you give guys a chance to surprise you, and, well. Sometimes they do. A lot can change in the next few weeks, but at the moment, the Phillies getting repeated effectiveness from two young starters like Pivetta and Eflin is not bad news.