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Should Jerad Eickhoff return to the starting rotation?
by Scott Butler 5/13/18

Jerad Eickhoff

To even suggest Jerad Eickhoff may not have a guaranteed rotation spot on the Phillies gives you an idea of just how well the 2018 season has begun for the Fightins.

Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta have been studs at the top of the rotation. Nick Pivetta has demonstrated tremendous growth, as well as tremendous movement and command of his curveball. Vince Velasquez reminded us of his potential on Thursday with a 12 strikeout performance. Zach Eflin, with two healthy knees entering a season for the first time, put up two dominating performances.

If you are Gabe Kapler, what story can you possibly create to tell one of those five men that they no longer have a place in the rotation for the Phillies? Kapler will not make up a story unless one of his current starters gives him a reason.

If this was May of 2017 and Eickhoff was returning from the DL, it might be a very different situation. Coming off a 3.65 ERA in 33 starts in 2016 with a career ERA in 41 starts of 3.44, Eickhoff was a bulldog.

But the year is now 2018, and Eickhoff is coming off a 2017 season in which he posted a 4.71 ERA in 24 starts. With the guys currently pitching for the Phils doing their jobs, it is now up to Jerad to prove that he can still do his.

My guess is that Eickhoff will do just that and be pitching in the rotation (for meaningful games?) in September. Eickhoff was as consistent as they get early on in his young Phillies career, and the hope is that his struggles last season can be attributed to injuries, not ability. He becomes another intriguing storyline in a very intriguing season for the Phils.

Entering this season, we hoped Aaron Nola could continue his nice run to end last season. He has, and people are now throwing around the word ace with regularity.

Jake Arrieta had an equally nice finish last season. We hoped he would continue that momentum and maintain his velocity. He has and he has.

We hoped at a minimum that Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez would improve on their embarrassingly high ERA's of 6.02 for Pivetta and 5.13 for Velasquez. Pivetta's ERA this season is 4.15. His development so far gives him the look of a potential foundation piece for this rotation for years to come.

Velasquez has more question marks and an ERA of 5.05 that mirrors last season, but if the Phillies end up with one legitimate starter out of those two, the Phillies front office will be very, very, happy.

And that brings us to Zach Eflin, who is the reason we are having this conversation in the first place. Before letting two fantastic starts cloud our judgment here, let's pump the breaks once.

Eflin had two starts in a row last year in April when he gave up one run in seven innings and two runs in seven innings, finishing the month with a 1.89 ERA in three starts.

He finished the season with a 6.16 ERA.

In a span of six starts, he allowed 6 runs once, 7 runs twice, and 8 runs once. He even had two starts at Lehigh Valley in August where he gave up a total of 19 hits in 11 innings.

That's the bad.

Here's the good. Eflin is not that same pitcher anymore. Eflin to this point has been a pitch-to-contact sinkerball pitcher who relies on a two-seam fastball. With two healthy knees, the Phillies asked him to pitch angry this season, relying more on a harder four-seam fastball.

Last season, he threw the two-seamer 45 percent of the time and the four-seamer 23 percent of the time. On Monday night, he threw just 16 two-seamers.

“I think I'm throwing the four-seamer a little more,” he said. “I just seem to have such better life with it. Now that I'm using my legs, I'm really getting extension.”

Not only are his legs healthy, he is also stronger. According to Jim Salisbury:

The 6-6 right-hander has added 20 pounds of muscle — he’s up to 220 — and a couple of ticks to his fastball in the last year.

The difference is evident. He threw 55 four-seam fastballs in his last start that averaged 94.2 miles per hour and topped out at 96.9 mph.

With his added strength, Eflin is pitching more like a power pitcher.

“It’s more trying to become a guy who can blow people away. It’s more of being aggressive from the first pitch of the game,” Eflin said. “There’s games in the past where I kind of just nibbled the corners or not really thrown pitches aggressively. It’s changing. I have to do that every pitch. My stuff plays up a lot more now that I am aggressive with every pitch. I’ve kind of taken it that way.”

Eflin has made two big league starts this year and allowed just seven hits in 13 2/3 innings. He averaged over 10 hits per nine innings and just 4.7 strikeouts per nine in 22 starts over his first two seasons in the majors.

What Gabe Kapler is looking at now is a game of musical chairs. If that game has just five seats (it obviously would surprise nobody if Gabe went with a six "chair" rotation), it's hard to find one with Eickhoff's name on it. If that continues to be the case in a few months, it probably means this intriguing Phillies season has becomes a VERY intriguing season.

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