Lawrenceville, Georgia —— You’re sleeping on Thomas Eshelman, and you shouldn’t be.
That’s the Philadelphia Phillies right-handed pitching prospect and former Houston Astros farmhand who came over to Philly as part of the December 2015 Ken Giles/Mark Appel trade. Eshelman is now in Triple-A Lehigh Valley (along with Appel), and the former Cal State Fullerton righty is tearing it up in 2017 split between the Double-A Eastern League and the Triple-A International League: 17 starts, a 2.39 ERA and a 10-2 record, two complete games, and just 97 hits and 15 walks allowed in 113.0 innings pitched (a 0.99 WHIP) against 80 strikeouts.
The southern California native is the best pitcher I’ve seen throw the ball this year, and I’ve seen one or two who can spot it up a bit. But rather than taking my word for it, here’s a great look at the Philadelphia Phillies prospect — every single one of his pitches from his most recent July 17 start on the road against the Gwinnett Braves:
Like that? Looking for more? Please click here and subscribe to the Baseball Census YouTube channel. Feel free to check in and out of watching the video as you read below; I’ll refer back to it a few times to pick up points on what Thomas Eshelman is doing on the mound right now.
Having predominantly seen west coast affiliates this summer and no longer tuned into Thomas Eshelman since his Cal State Fullerton days, I ignorantly took for granted that he was a ranked prospect on the Phillies’ top 30 list for most publications. When I saw him on the docket to start Monday night against the Atlanta Braves‘ Lucas Sims, I couldn’t wait to knock out two great pitching prospects in one game. Imagine my surprise, then, when I see after the game Eshelman isn’t on any top prospect list. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he’s good enough to be a frontline arm, but after watching him Monday, how is everybody sleeping on this kid?
Outwardly, I get it; if you only scout the stat lines, you see 80 strikeouts in 113.0 innings and figure his stuff isn’t going to be good enough to miss bats and fool hitters in the big leagues. If you’ve moved past scouting stat lines to do some rudimentary leg work, you’d have learned the Philadelphia Phillies farmhand works just 88-91 mph with his fastball—not exactly territory for a frontline starting pitcher in 2017.
But get past both of those things, and just watch this guy pitch—it’ll tell you everything you need to know.
Yes, Thomas Eshelman rarely cracks 90 mph on the radar gun, but he legitimately has three different fastballs. On Monday night, he was very fond of his cutter, and he kept going back to it on both sides of the plate at 88 mph to give hitters fits. He also can dial up a four-seamer that’s predominantly made for up and in situations, especially to right-handers, when he’s ahead in the count. And if he doesn’t want to cut you to death, he’ll flip the fastball grip and show a two-seam sinker that runs arm-side and can tie up righties down and in or leave lefties rolling it over for weak ground balls to second base. All three fastballs are commanded extremely well, sit in the same velocity band (four-seamer can run slightly higher), and come out of the same release point, and his ability to sequence them within the strike zone is impressive.
Further, I think there’s a significant difference between Eshelman’s real and perceived velocity. It wouldn’t surprise me if opposing hitters would tell you his fastball feels quite a bit harder than 88 mph. You can see it on video; Thomas Eshelman hides the ball extremely well for a very long time behind his back, and short, quick arm action has the ball up over the top and out of his hand before hitters can ever pick it up at hand break. That should help him sneak a few fastballs by people, or perhaps more likely, give him some decent margin of error with hitters who have to work twice as hard just to pick up the pitch in the first place. Combine the ability to hide the ball with those three different fastball wrinkles that go in three different directions, and suddenly you have a guy who can legitimately carve people up on the corners.
Coupled with the fastball, the Philadelphia Phillies righty shows off three other pitches: an 82-83 mph slider, a 76-79 mph changeup, and a 73-74 mph curveball. All three do what they should do; the slider in particular has more sweeping, off-speed break than the cut fastball and is good enough to be a distinct pitch. The changeup is ideal to get left-handed hitters out on their front foot, though Eshelman can also back door it on occasion to righties, and aim it low-middle in other situations to get ground balls. It’s the curve that he went to most often on Monday night, though. As you’ll see in our video above, Eshelman doesn’t throw a single curve the first time through the order, but the moment Ozzie Albies steps in for his second at-bat, the hook comes out. It comes out again for second hitter Ronald Acuna, and again and again later on through the second time in the order, indicating Eshelman not only has exceptional feel for the pitch after shelving it for three innings, but also that he’s not afraid to use it often. His modest strikeout totals are being aided by the curveball, which is tight and consistent in its 11-to-5 break, giving the Phillies farmhand a bat-misser when he really needs a strikeout, especially with a right-handed hitter up at the plate.
Crashing back to reality, though, there is a reason that Eshelman isn’t on anybody’s top prospect radar, and it’s not because everyone but me has magically overlooked him (I know of at least one other evaluator who has been impressed by Eshelman). The righty’s velocity is (far) below average. Not only that, but an 88-91 mph working range at the start of the night on Monday had dwindled slightly by Eshelman’s sixth inning of work, and he popped a few 86-87 mph fastballs late. Plus command is a wonderful tool to have, but when you’re legitimately a mid-80s pitcher, plus command alone will not get you by in every situation when you really need to draw weak contact.
In fact, one of those exact situations came up on Monday night. Watch our video clip above, and start at the 9:54 mark. It’s the sixth inning, and the speedy Albies is on first base with Eshelman’s Lehigh Valley team up by a run. Young phenom slugger Acuna is at the plate for the Braves. Watch how many times Eshelman picks over to first base, plainly concerned about Albies’ lead and ability to run, before finally delivering a pitch that Acuna absolutely does not miss, depositing it off the facade past the left field fence for a two-run home run. (Reportedly, Acuna’s exit velocity on the homer was 114 mph.)
That was an 87 mph fastball out over the plate. Now, even 97 mph fastballs over the plate are liable to get tagged, and Albies deserves credit for distracting Eshelman enough for the righty to make the mistake, but that’s the point: no pitcher has perfect command all the time, and sub-par velocity will eventually come back to bite you when you do finally miss. In the upper 80s, Eshelman’s margin of error for a miss is significantly smaller than someone throwing 95 mph, or even 92 mph, and because of that, exemplified in real time by Monday’s home run, it’s maybe pretty evident why people are relatively low on Eshelman.
I get that, and so maybe I’ll just end up being higher on Thomas Eshelman than most/all other evaluators who have really sat down and watched him pitch. But this kid has chops, man; he works the inner half of the plate extremely well and he’s fearless on the mound. Good velocity or not, he really trusts his stuff, too; even speaking beyond his command, it’s clear Eshelman is not shy about pitching to contact. The intent behind his work down in the zone is evident. He’s not a future ace-to-be for the Philadelphia Phillies, or anywhere close to that, but I think it’s likely he sneaks up on all of you and ends up filling out the back end of a big league rotation for about a decade. Or maybe, after watching triple-digit flame throwers who can’t find the plate if their life depended on it, I’m just excited about a guy who can work quick and paint the black.