In June, Eickhoff Increasing Slider Usage and Effectiveness

Much has been made of the importance of furnishing Jerad Eickhoff’s arsenal with an offering that complements his existing fastball-curveball combination.

After Eickhoff’s initial success in April that featured his curveball nearly every third pitch (4-for-48, .098 batting average and .244 slugging), hitters began to lay off his deuce and do damage against his fastballs. Only 26 at-bats in May ended in a curve. With a heater and a hook that the league had adjusted to, Eickhoff was faced with the most important hurdle all wannabe starters must surmount: what’s your third pitch?

Starters essentially can’t exist in the majors with only two offerings, regardless of how devastating they are. Especially not one who entered the season with just 51 major league innings on his resume. Eickhoff couldn’t effectively set down big league hitters once the book was out on both pitches.

In his newly polished slider, Eickhoff has found that elusive third pitch.

In 10 starts and 59.2 innings in April and May, he threw just 93 sliders. His ERA in those months was 4.07. In 25.1 innings in June, he’s already thrown the slider 110 times in four starts, more than his first two months combined, while posting a 2.13 ERA.

His slider has the highest strike percentage of any of his offerings (43.84%) while also prompting the best swing-and-miss percentage (22.17%).

The primary change for Eickhoff, looking past the increased usage, has been when he has used the slider this month.

Here’s Spencer Bingol from two months ago on Eickhoff’s 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.Spencer Bingol, April 20, 2016

Spencer raised a good point. Solely using the slider as a show-me pitch in low-leverage, first-pitch scenarios didn’t generate too much worry in opposing hitters. If Eickhoff hadn’t proved he could throw it to get outs, and wasn’t comfortable doing so late in the count, why worry about it? Better to lay off, simplify your hitting approach and sit on a fastball or curveball that was no doubt on its way. These are the breakdowns of when Eickhoff threw his slider in April/May compared to June.

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His April/May first-pitch sliders were empty gestures: he’d look to get cheap swings and misses off the plate, primarily to right-handers geared up for a fastball, and rarely go back to the pitch again. Just 7.5% of his two-strike offerings were sliders in the season’s first two months. That number has nearly quadrupled in June, as sliders this month have made up 27.4% of his two-strike pitches.

The change has translated into a sharp spike in slider-induced strikeouts. This month, he’s capped twice as many punchouts with sliders as he did in April and May combined. Becoming more confident with the pitch has allowed him to use it deeper in counts and produce some silly swings. Sliders are shown in blue.

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In the first two months, 25.53% of his sliders came on 0-0 counts. This month, that has also risen to 30.91%. While he’s thrown it more to begin at-bats, his increased comfort level using it later in counts strips the “show-me” tag from the offering.

His work this month includes his two most impressive starts of the season, given the talented offenses he faced. In those back-to-back starts against the potent Cubs and Blue Jays lineups, Eickhoff threw his slider 28 and 30 times respectively, more than ever before in his young career. Entering June, he averaged just 11 sliders per game in 17 career starts as a Phillie and hit double digits just twice this season (both in May).

Eickhoff held a dominant Cubs offense to two hits and one run over seven strong innings with two walks and eight strikeouts. Three came via the slider.

No game better exemplifies his willingness to throw the pitch in higher-leverage two-strike counts than that outing against the Cubbies. Eickhoff’s second punchout on the day came on a backdoor 1-2 slider to the left-handed Miguel Montero to end the third inning.

To lead off the fourth, the right-handed Addison Russell couldn’t check his swing on a 2-2 slider down and away.

Then to lead off the fifth inning, Eickhoff got Jason Heyward swinging on a 3-2 backdoor slider. Entering the game, Eickhoff had unleashed just six 3-2 sliders all year.

Let’s put those three strikeouts into perspective. His first punchout of the day came on a devilish curve to Dexter Fowler, the game’s first batter. Strikeouts two, three and five came via sliders as described above. His fourth, sandwiched between those sliders, came on a two-seam fastball. Remember that. His final three strikeouts, two against Kris Bryant and one to Anthony Rizzo, all came on nasty curves.

From the final out in the second through the fourth inning, six of seven batters on the MLB’s best offense went down on strikes. After establishing the curve in the game’s first at-bat, he used the slider (and a two-seamer) to do damage before going back to his bread-and-butter curveball later in the game.

The introduction of Eickhoff’s productive, two-strike slider kept the Bryzzo Souvenir Company honest, preventing them from gearing up for a predictable curveball out-pitch. Take a peek at his final strikeout, ringing up the reigning National League Rookie of the Year.

Six days later, Eickhoff held Toronto scoreless through six three-hit innings. Just one of his five strikeouts came with a slider. This absolute doozy, once again, came on a 3-2 count to Kevin Pillar and spun him into the ground.

Eickhoff’s most promising use of the slider, however, came on the game’s first at-bat facing Jose Bautista. Going 1-1 against Bautista with two fastballs, a foul and a ball outside, Eickhoff threw consecutive sliders to Joey Bats. Of the first slider taken by Bautista, SI.com fantasy baseball writer Michael Beller wrote: “[Bautista] undoubtedly identified it on its way to the plate, but you don’t identify that tight a slider that quickly without a good scouting report. The word on Eickhoff’s slider, both its effectiveness and increased usage, is getting around. Bautista shows us that by how calmly he takes the pitch.”

When a pitcher averages 5.8 sliders in his first five starts and has averaged 26.2 sliders in his last five starts, the league takes notice.

But here, he fools Bautista and backs up his slider with yet another one.

Then a low and away fastball that was fouled back, keeping the count at 2-2. Here’s Beller again: “Go back to Pitching 101, and you’ll find a professor suggesting a slider here. You can afford to miss, knowing that you can come back with a fastball in a full count.”

Having set his trap, Eickhoff defies convention and sneaks a 92 mph four-seam fastball over the inside corner as a punch-drunk Bautista (I couldn’t resist) raises his arms and barks at the home plate umpire in protest. Eickhoff surprised an established power hitter with a fastball in the location he most effectively feasts on fastballs.

The scenario above most notably illustrates the benefits of Eickhoff’s increased slider usage this month. It takes the pressure off his fastball, and both his two- and four-seamers play much better into his pitching approach.

With the uptick in sliders, Eickhoff’s two-seamer has become a more viable weapon. Opponents hit .488 against his two-seam fastball in April and .400 in May. But in June, coinciding with his reliance on the slider, opponent batting averages against the sinking fastball have been cut in half to .211. At nearly the same speed as his four-seamer, the arm-side run and slight dive on the pitch play perfectly off the slider.

Early in the season when Eickhoff only used his four-seam fastball and slow hook, the two-seamer didn’t play off anything. His slider’s increased usage is as much about adding the pitch to his arsenal as it is about its role as a foil to his existing pitches, especially the two-seamer.

A four-seam fastball with above average rise, a sinking two-seam fastball that dives in on a righty, a sharp slider and devastating curveball make for a four-pitch arsenal that can be used to attack hitters on both sides of the plate.

It’s a lofty notion that Eickhoff will have four above average pitches, and it makes the assumption that he can increase his comfort level with the slider and two-seamer while maintaining their effectiveness as the league adjusts to his new game plan. If he can execute his changeup, as he has briefly flashed from time to time, it could prove a fifth offering, four of which initially appear to be fastballs out of the hand.

Two are: one exhibits good rise, the other good tail. The changeup dives downward out of the zone with some tail of its own and the slider bites down and away. Not to mention his big knee-buckling, nightmare-inducing curveball.

Eickhoff’s June performance is precisely what you want to see from a second-year player. He’s established success with an elite-level pitch, seen the league put him in check by adjusting to his go-to tendency, thus forcing a change in his approach. Through four starts this month, his adjustment has played out quite well.

(Special thanks to Chris Jones of The Good Phight – @LONG_DRIVE – and his phenomenal .gif production.)

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2 comments

  1. Berdj Rassam

    June 22, 2016 10:44 PM

    Yeah, Eickhoff is the ace of this staff – and he will get better.

  2. Major Malfunction

    June 23, 2016 01:49 PM

    It almost makes me wonder how in-depth Sabermetric stuff like this would match up against the scouting reports done under the RAJ regime.

    Excellent write up. It was full of stats and nerd stuff I drool over!!

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