Jerad Eickhoff had been the model of consistency, allowing more than 3 earned runs only 6 times in all of 2016 and never going consecutive starts without lasting at least 6 innings.
The past month has been a different story. Eickhoff has thrown 6 innings only once in his last five starts, allowing 4 earned runs once and 5 twice. In his worst – a no-decision against Seattle – he didn’t make it through the fourth inning. In those 5 starts, which range from April 22 to May 16, his ERA was 5.88.
Per Brooks Baseball, Eickhoff’s curveball, which is his most valuable pitch and one of the stronger curveballs in the league, has lost a good deal of its vertical movement in 2017 compared to years past, and the same has happened to the horizontal movement of his slider. The curve, which averaged a 7.8 inch drop during his successful 2016 campaign, has been dropping only 5 inches this season.
It doesn’t sound like a big difference, but the axiom that baseball is a game of inches is perhaps most true when it comes to batted ball contact, where fractions of an inch and milliseconds in timing can be the difference between a homerun and an infield popup. For that reason, the lack of movement might explain why opponents’ wOBA against Eickhoff was .368 in his three consecutive dud starts— if his pitches straightened out, they’d be easier to square up.
Fortunately, Eickhoff and the coaching staff feel assured that they’ve found the underlying cause of his struggles.
Following his 3.2-inning, five earned run start May 9, Ben Harris reported on MLB.com that Eickhoff and assistant pitching coach Rick Kranitz found a “mechanical hitch” that hindered his command.
A week later, following Eickhoff’s return to form in a quality start against Texas Rangers, Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly explained the correction, writing that Eickhoff had been “collapsing his back side too much” and, in this start, “stayed taller on the mound.”
While the alteration didn’t get his curve to drop like it had throughout his career, the results spoke for themselves: six innings and a pair of earned runs (and an unearned one). The team took the loss for the game, but a return of Eickhoff’s ability and consistency would be a major win in the long run.
Eickhoff also mentioned bad luck as a factor in some of his rough outings, which is hard to rule out. The good thing about bad luck is that it rarely lasts without some other underlying cause, and the club has been diligent in working those out, too.
The team will be holding out hope that the easy fix is all it takes. In a pitching rotation hampered by injury and volatility, Eickhoff’s consistency and workhorse nature are essential now more than ever, especially as the bullpen implodes night after night. He’ll need to not only give up fewer runs in his starts, but pitch further into them.