Positive signs from expectation-exceeding Jerad Eickhoff
Scouting baseball players has traditionally relied on the 20-80 scouting scale. It’s a system for grading both individual skills (called “tools”), and total value of the player. It mirrors the 68-95-99.7 Rule in statistics, referencing the percentage of values contained within one, two, and three standard deviations of the mean of a normal distribution. A “50” grade player represents a Major League average talent, a “60” grade player represents a well above-average talent (a likely All-Star), and a “40” grade player represents a talent equally far in the opposite direction (a bench player, sixth starter, etc.).
As the name implies, the scale extends in both directions to evaluations of “20” (organizational filler) and “80” (a superstar). This system doesn’t imply that there are an equal number of 20-grade and 80-grade talents in the world – obviously, the former outnumbers the latter – however, it attempts to describe the distribution of talent in the Major leagues, and organizational filler very rarely receives a roster spot.
Enter Jerad Eickhoff.
As a Rangers prospect, the young starting pitcher received some modest hype as a potential backend starter. Entering the 2015 season, FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel ranked Eickhoff in the team’s 45 future value tier, meaning he projected to be a 4th/5th starter in the Majors. MLB.com’s list agreed with that assessment, and both sources had similar reasons for that grade. Each cited a plus fastball and above-average curveball with average command, while also mentioning his other still-developing secondary pitches (the slider and changeup). Both sources also broke out Eickhoff’s tools into individual evaluations.
Fast forward to April 2016, and Eickhoff is eleven exceptional starts into his Major league career. He features a 2.44 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and a 24.9 percent strikeout rate, culminating in 1.9 fWAR in only 70.0 innings pitched. To date, his performance has certainly exceeded the expectations set by the 45 future value projection. Paul Sporer wrote a great examination of Eickhoff’s performance at the end of last season, and the conclusions he drew (small sample size acknowledged) were pretty encouraging for the Phillies.
However, I had an idea that seemed interesting, and wanted to attempt to craft some pseudo-objective 20-80 evaluations of Eickhoff’s repertoire through eleven starts, using the 68-95-99.7 Rule and publicly available PitchFX data. Having only thrown 1022 total regular season pitches, small samples are obviously involved here (specifically for the changeup he’s only thrown 62 times). I want to find out what about his offerings is currently exceeding his projections – his ability to keep sustaining those features is a completely different story.
FanGraphs’ custom pitching leaderboards are used here, filtering for starting pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched from the beginning of the 2015 season. To create the “grades,” I generated the average and standard deviation for each pitch type’s value/hundred pitches, and compared Eickhoff’s offering to the rest of the league, creating a Z-Score. That score was then converted to a number on the 20-80 scale, and rounded to the nearest multiple of five. To mirror a standard scouting report, Eickhoff’s zone percentage is also included, as a proxy for control.
These results are stark, but maybe not altogether surprising if you’ve watched his recent starts. A lot has been written across the internet about Eickhoff’s curveball – the pitch has a ton of bite and he can place it wherever he wants (transcending good control, and into good command). Look at where the pitch has been located against right-handed batters:
That’s consistent down-and-away placement. It also features ridiculous drop – the curveball’s 8.4 inches is well above the league average, and interacts with his fastball, which sees well above average rise in the opposite direction. The resulting gap of 18.6 inches of break is deadly to opposing batters. In fact, after Eickhoff pounds the zone with fastballs (52.9 zone percentage), batters have had a difficult time even determining which curveballs to swing at. Opponents have currently swung at curveballs out of the zone at a high 37.3 percent clip, while only swinging at curveballs in the zone at a minuscule 41.7 percent rate (almost 1:1). Keeping batters off balance in this way, in addition to his strong command, has resulted to date in a 15.7 percent whiff rate, 59.0 percent strikeout rate (!), and 55.6 percent pop up rate (!!).
His fastball itself features almost exactly average velocity for a starter (91.0 mph) and almost exactly average arm-side run (4.5 inches). The defining positive trait is the pitch’s rise, which has allowed the pitch to generate a lot of pop ups (32.6 percent). Similar to the curve, Eickhoff has demonstrated good command of the pitch, which compensates for the lack of above average stuff. Overall, an average grade on the pitch feels pretty appropriate.
Eickhoff’s changeup has not been a successful Major league pitch in the small sample it has been used. It does feature good horizontal movement, but doesn’t really play off of the fastball. The movement doesn’t look like any of his other offerings, and the 6.8 mph velocity margin between the fastball and changeup is below average. It has always been his least effective pitch, and it’s current low use reflects that. However, with three average or better pitches already at his disposal, Eickhoff might not need the change.
The slider is the most perplexing of his pitches. It features almost exactly league average velocity, run, and drop, but somehow still generates 23.2 percent whiffs, only 3.2 percent walks, and opposing batters have still yet to hit an extra base hit off of the pitch. In particular, batters rarely make contact in the zone, having so far only managed a 64.3 percent z-contact rate. How does a pitch with distinctly average velocity and movement grade out to better than plus? This may have something to do with the slider being Eickhoff’s best located pitch, with very few deviations from the bottom-left six tiles in this zone profile.
However, it may also have something to do with when Eickhoff uses the slider. Despite the whiffs on the pitch, Eickhoff rarely uses it in a two-strike count and doesn’t record as many strikeouts with the pitch as his curveball. In fact, he most frequently fires it as a first pitch. Seeing a breaking pitch when expecting a fastball, and having it thrown for an outer half strike, is a good way to throw batters off balance and generate swings and misses. However, Eickhoff is still less than half an MLB season into his career. Is this pitch so successful because batters aren’t used to seeing such a pitch in certain situations? If so, once there’s a “book” on Eickhoff it becomes more likely that the results of the pitch will regress. However, it is still an average pitch with above-average command; there’s a floor as well.
Does any of the above analysis give us an idea of Eickhoff’s performance moving forward? The results he’s seen so far have been great, but it’s too small a sample to project forward using ERA or opposing hitting metrics. I don’t feel confident saying much about the changeup to date, other than that it has been in line with previous scouting reports and the pitcher himself doesn’t seem to trust it enough to rely on it. So far, the fastball has played below previous reports due to lower, but still usable velocity. Its interplay with the curveball is genuinely exciting. Also encouraging is the way he maintains velocity throughout starts, although we’ve yet to see how it holds up over a full season.
The breaking pitches are the meat here, and the curveball seems to be a legitimate better-than-plus offering. I would expect continued pop-ups and whiffs on the pitch. Opposing batters’ most likely area of adjustment may be against the slider, and we may begin to see more appearances begin in 1-0 counts than 0-1 counts if Eickhoff doesn’t adjust in return. All of the above offerings have been tied together with good control and command, so they should see some additional benefit.
He may not continue to look like a number two starter, but an average fastball, an average to above-average slider, and potentially elite curveball is still a repertoire that makes for an effective big league starting pitcher.