On April 13, in his second start of the season, Jerad Eickhoff reached back and fired a 95.2 mph fastball by Padres first baseman Wil Myers for a strikeout. It was the hardest fastball Eickhoff had thrown at the major-league level and probably his entire life.
Since then, Eickhoff has thrown just three fastballs at 94 mph or better and they resulted in a Yoenis Cespedes triple, a Lucas Duda double and a Jason Kipnis single.
On Wednesday, Eickhoff allowed four runs (three earned) on seven hits over 4⅓ innings as the Phillies lost, 5-1, and he fell to 1-5 with a 4.43 ERA on the year. Six of the Braves' hits came against Eickhoff's fastball, which aside from that at-bat against Myers, has been a very hittable pitch in his 15 career big-league starts.
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This season, Eickhoff's opponents are hitting .366 against his fastball - that includes four-seamers and two-seamers - with 16 extra-base hits and a swinging strike rate of just 6.1 percent. (The league average swinging strike rate against four-seam and two-seam fastballs is 7.2 percent.)
But that curveball of his is still a money pitch - opponents are just 4 for 48 (.083) with four extra-base hits and a 13 percent swinging strike rate this season in at-bats ending with an Eickhoff curveball.
Simply put, Eickhoff needs to spot his heater better. If you throw 94, 95, 96 mph, you can get away with poorly commanded fastballs here and there. It's not like Vince Velasquez has hit every spot all year long, but he's missed a ton of bats because his velocity affords him the occasional mistake.
Eickhoff's velocity does not. His fastball averages 91.5 mph this season, making it a below-average heater in this day and age. If he's not spotting that thing on the inside or outside corner, he's going to get hit. And when Eickhoff misses, he tends to miss high in the zone, which results in a lot of these extra-base hits.
Eickhoff has thrown 639 pitches this season - 361 of them have been fastballs and exactly 200 were curveballs. That means just 12 percent of his pitches in 2016 have been something other than a fastball or curveball. That 12 percent has been sliders and changeups, pitches Eickhoff has but doesn't use often.
Few starters across baseball can get away with being a two-pitch pitcher. Heck, think about how dominant Cole Hamels' changeup was; it wasn't until Hamels developed a cutter and improved his curveball that he really took off.
Aaron Nola is another example. Nola has excellent fastball command and a breaking ball that can freeze and devastate a hitter. But he still needed a third pitch to reach a new level and that was a changeup to stave off lefties. Nola has thrown the changeup just 7.4 percent of the time this season, but his opponents have swung through it 17.3 percent of the time.
Not every pitcher has game-changing velocity. Not every pitcher needs it. But for Eickhoff to overcome throwing 91, he needs either exceptional fastball command or a third pitch if he's going to truly take off. (Maybe give Roy Halladay a call and talk about a cutter.) If not, Eickhoff may be able to get by as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter for the Phillies with that fastball-curveball combination just because the curve is so good. But he's created higher expectations than that by shutting teams down in seven of his 15 career starts.
Let's see how Eickhoff adjusts next Monday against a young Marlins team that loves hitting the fastball but can be beaten with breaking balls.