Raising Questions

Room for growth with Jerad Eickhoff?

eickhoffIt’s a beautiful thing when trade throw-ins surprise you.

Every baseball team has those one or two guys they threw into a trade. They never expected much to come from it, since it usually just filled out a trade to an acceptable volume after long bouts of negotiation. They’re the guys whose general managers say, “Fine, we’ll add so-and-so to the deal; can we just put this to bed so I can make it home for my kid’s soccer game?”

Then those throw-ins embrace the change of scenery and live up to the potential that got them signed in the first place. The Phillies were on both ends of that phenomenon in 2016. Former marginal prospect Phillies prospect Jonathan Villar, hardly the centerpiece of a 2010 trade to Houston that brought the Phillies back Roy Oswalt, suddenly developed into a possible cornerstone the Milwaukee Brewers can build around. Last season he lead the National League in steals with 62 and rated at 3.9 WAR.

But the Phillies have one of their own in starting pitcher Jerad Eickhoff. The lowest-rated piece of the haul the Phillies nabbed for Cole Hamels, he’s so far shown the most adaptability to the big-league level than anyone else included in that trade. His short 2015 debut was splendid, but because of his lack of pedigree, the small sample size and the fact that he jumped a level from double-A to the bigs, there was nothing wrong with wondering whether his brief 2015 success was sustainable.

Turns out, it just may be. Eickhoff was the most durable of the Phillies’ starters, the only member of the Opening Day rotation who made every one of his scheduled starts. He also was the most consistent – he only got hit particularly hard in two games, and one of those times was in Colorado. Only twice did he fail to reach the fifth inning, and once was a late-season game when the Phillies were trying to limit his pitch count to save his arm. He led the Phillies in starts, innings pitched, strikeouts, walks per nine innings and ERA+.

Even more encouraging was that at a time when a second-year pitcher on a losing team might have hit the wall or mailed it in, September and October were easily Eickhoff’s best months. It may have been aided by a little bit of a luck (.211 BABIP against), but he was due for some improvement against the mean after his BABIP was abnormally high the first four months. He threw 35 innings through those final five weeks and walked just four batters, good enough for a 0.869 WHIP. That nearly mirrored his closing five-week stretch of 2015, so perhaps we can think of Eickhoff as a late-season dynamo.

Eick’s downfall

Which is what makes his sixth-inning troubles so weird. Wait, troubles? Oops. That should actually read “horrific hall of nightmares that a replacement-level player would be embarrassed by.” His 2016 sixth-inning numbers were an unmitigated disaster, with a 9.72 ERA, a 1.103 OPS against and .354 BA against. Basically, it’s as if the 126 batters he faced in sixth inning of games last year were all in-his-prime Miguel Cabrera. The colossal fallout from his numbers through the first five innings suggest that he wears down as the game goes on. Pitchers who throw mid-90s and wear down to the low 90s late in the game can get by. But when you sit in the low-90s like Eickhoff does and are throwing 88 mph fastballs by the sixth, you won’t survive at this level, no matter how stunning your curve.

And Eickhoff’s curve is special, by far his most effective pitch in 2016 when the league hit just .158 against it, per Fangraphs. But he threw it only a little more than 24 percent of the time. He threw his four-seam fastball about 36.5 percent of the time and his two-seam fastball about 16 percent of the time. That two-seam fastball got hit at a .341 clip – maybe it’s time to retire it.

That’s part of the promise of Eickhoff, he’s still learning how to pitch and how to be effective. The problem is, there isn’t as much time as there usually is with a pitcher entering his second full-time season. He’s been older for his development stage his entire career, and he’s entering his age-27 season in 2017. The sixth-inning issues and the end-of-season mastery seem diametrically opposed, but here we are with more than a full season’s worth of evidence of Eickhoff’s pitching tendencies.

Eickhoff’s status as a former trade throw-in won’t affect his future on the Phillies. He won’t be left off the 40-man roster at any point just because he wasn’t a first-round pick, and he won’t be a throw-in on any trade the Phillies make. He’s clearly established himself as durable, and that in itself makes you valuable in these days where the words “Tommy John” are more commonly associated with a starting pitcher than “200 innings.” He’ll be a key cog on a Phillies team just hoping to get to 80 wins, though that isn’t a true reflection of his value because of the overall lack of dependable starting pitching on the team. He could also be used as a valuable trade chip if the other Phillies’ young arms eventually pass him out.

Until he can conquer his sixth inning demons, he’ll sit at the back-end of the rotation or morph into a rubber-arm bullpen swingman on a good team. If he does figure out those later innings – whether it’s an improvement on stamina, pitch selection, mental adjustments or a combination of all three – there is enough stuff there and enough room for improvement to believe Eickhoff can be a durable mid-rotation starter who gets stronger as the season goes on. Every team wants one or two of those. Well, except for the Red Sox, who apparently will accept only dominant No. 1 starters in their rotation.

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