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Farm Tracker: Tom Eshelman’s Control

Phillies farmhand Tom Eshelman possesses an average-at-best pitching repertoire but with one exceptional quality.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Cal State Fullerton vs Vanderbilt
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

RHP Tom Eshelman is an unusual prospect. In 2015 Baseball America ranked him 126th on its list of the top 500 draft-eligible players. He throws a fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider, all of which grade out as average or lower. Still, last summer the Astros drafted Eshelman 46th overall (before shipping him to Philadelphia as part of the now-lopsided-looking Ken Giles trade) thanks to the one quality that sets him apart from nearly all other pitching prospects: his exceptional control.

Eshelman’s control is as legendary as it is pinpoint. In three seasons at Cal-State Fullerton, where he started 50 games and pitched a combined 376 innings, Eshelman struck out 321 batters while issuing only 18 walks. As a freshman he walked only three batters while striking out 83. These incredible, eye-popping control numbers explain why a college hurler who lacked an above-average offering in his arsenal of pitches would generate enough pre-draft helium to be selected in the second round.

As a professional, Eshelman’s control has regressed from otherworldly to exceptional. Through 81.1 minor league innings he already has walked one more batter (19) than he did in three years of college. Still, the 22-year-old Eshelman has moved with alacrity through the Philadelphia system and now finds himself at Double-A Reading. The question for fantasy owners, of course, is what kind of pitcher Eshelman projects to be once he reaches the Majors.

Recent outings offer a glimpse of what to expect. From the last week of May through the end of June Eshelman made five appearances between High-A and Double-A. He compiled a 1.67 ERA with a very Eshelman-like 24 strikeouts against only one walk.

On the other hand, Eshelman’s first July start, which came last weekend at home versus the Harrisburg Senators (Nationals), showed what else we might expect on occasion from a pitcher with such outstanding control.

Eshelman’s first inning began well enough with a groundout to third followed by a strikeout on a nice changeup, which, for what it’s worth, looks like it could have above-average potential. From there, however, things unraveled. A sharp single to right, followed by a pair of opposite-field doubles, put Harrisburg ahead, 2-0. All three hitters took an aggressive approach. They attacked the first pitch of the at-bat in part, one presumes, because they knew Eshelman would be around the plate with his pitches.

Although Reading answered with three runs in the bottom of the first, Eshelman would not be long for this game. He allowed five hits in the second inning, only one of which--another RBI double--was hard-hit. Still, the parade of bloop singles took its toll on the young pitcher, as evidenced by the fact that in this one half-inning he issued two walks.

Although we cannot draw meaningful conclusions from a single start, this is the sort of thing that can happen to a control pitcher from time to time. Aggressive hitters can attack him with confidence, and a few hard-hit balls might make him nibble around the plate more than he otherwise would. In this case, Eshelman threw first-pitch strikes to four of the first five batters and then only four of the next ten, which suggests mounting timidity on his part.

Based on Eshelman’s overall performance as a professional, both the Phillies and dynasty-league owners have plenty of reason for optimism, particularly if his changeup develops into an above-average out-pitch. His pinpoint control will continue to be an asset--except on those rare occasions when it isn’t.