To heck with the radar gun, Jerad Eickhoff will win his way

To heck with the radar gun, Jerad Eickhoff will win his way

Larry Bowa called this one.

The Phillies legend, now a front-office adviser with the club, was talking ball during the 93-minute rain delay that preceded Friday night’s first pitch.

Bowa speculated that Jerad Eickhoff would pitch a good game against the Miami Marlins. His reasoning: Eickhoff features an excellent breaking ball and the Marlins struggle against those pitches. Indeed, a check of the stats showed that the Marlins were hitting just .188 against breaking balls.

The math checked out. Eickhoff relied heavily on his curveball and slider in delivering seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball, and J.T. Realmuto, Maikel Franco and Bryce Harper all homered as the Phillies beat the Marlins, 4-0, at Citizens Bank Park (see observations).

Eickhoff’s story has often been told. He came to the Phillies from Texas as part of the Cole Hamels trade in July 2015. He was the team’s best starting pitcher in 2016. Big things were expected in 2017, but he struggled with injuries. He made just one start in the majors last season due to a condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. He had surgery for the issue in October, opened this season in the minors and has come on quickly with two strong starts since being brought back to the majors 10 days ago.

Friday night’s win was his first since Aug. 25, 2017.

“It’s kind of surreal to think it’s been that long,” Eickhoff said. “It just goes to show that every time you go out there to pitch is a great opportunity to get a win. It’s really special. Any time you get one, whether it's one or 20, each one is pretty awesome.”

Eickhoff did not allow a hit until the fifth inning. He walked one and struck out six. Five of his strikeouts came on curveballs. In all, he got nine swings and misses on breaking balls, five on his slider, four on his curveball.

Though he has the body of a power pitcher — 6-4, 245 pounds with a strong “engine room,” as Johnny Podres used to call a pitcher’s thighs and backside — Eickhoff is not a power guy. His best fastball Friday night was 91 mph. What the right-hander lacks in velocity, he makes up for in old-fashioned “pitch-ability” and that starts with his ability to command two plus breaking balls.

“I think he's kind of a throwback,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “He's not a 2019 pitcher — a stuff guy with big velocity and a fastball with a big spin rate. He's super-crafty. It's changing speeds, it's location over velocity, it's throwing a ball when he wants to throw a ball and it's being in the zone when he wants to be in the zone.

"The change in speed is what really stands out. The 73, 74, 75 mph on the curveball is a lot different than 91. A lot of times when a pitcher has a pitch like that, they don't have as much command as Jerad has on his curveball. So I think the change in speeds and the big, 12-6 break are what sets him apart. There aren't a lot of guys like Jerad Eickhoff in most rotations if you look around the game right now.”

Eickhoff tinkered with the grip on his slider over the winter and the pitch has gotten sharper.

“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s another weapon. I feel like I’m throwing all three pitches in a way that you can’t really sit on one.”

Though Eickhoff started the season in the minors, no one thought he’d be there all season. The season-opening assignment to Triple A was understandable. The Phillies had five guys that had earned looks in the season-opening rotation and it wasn’t going to hurt Eickhoff to get some innings in the minors after missing most of last season.

Now that he’s here, with two good starts under his belt, he’s looking to make up for the time he lost the last two seasons.

“It just makes everything a little sweeter now,” Eickhoff said. “I think that's what I've kind of learned from this whole experience. I'm just pitching for these guys, not necessarily for myself. It's for these guys, to keep us in the game. We're trying to win a World Series and that's what I'm here to try to help do.”

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Will more changeups equal more fun for Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta in 2020?

Will more changeups equal more fun for Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta in 2020?

LAKELAND, Fla. — Nick Pivetta says it doesn’t matter what role he pitches in this season, that he just wants to have fun playing baseball — that’s something that was missing last season — and help the Phillies win games.
But deep down inside, Pivetta desires another chance to pitch in the starting rotation. That’s why he spent his off-season working on his changeup.
“Every day,” he said. 
“I need a fourth pitch to make this starting rotation,” he added. “For me to take my next step, that's the pitch I'm going to have to have.”
Pivetta made his spring debut in the Phillies’ exhibition opener Saturday against the Detroit Tigers. In two innings of work, he threw 35 pitches. Seven of them were changeups. He will continue to work on the pitch all spring as he competes for the fifth starter’s job against Vince Velasquez and dark horse candidate Ranger Suarez.
Pivetta is 18-28 with a 5.42 ERA in 71 starts for the Phillies over the last three seasons. The clock is ticking on the 27-year-old right-hander. It’s time for him to turn some of his huge potential into consistent performance. The Phillies thought they were going to get that from Pivetta last year. They awarded him with the second start of the season, but he was sent to the minors just a few weeks later. He eventually made it back to the majors and bounced between the rotation and the bullpen. Along the way, he butted heads with manager Gabe Kapler and struggled to adapt to some of the philosophies of pitching coach Chris Young. Baseball wasn’t much fun. It never is when you have a 5.38 ERA.
It’s a clean slate for Pivetta now. Joe Girardi is in as manager. Bryan Price is in as pitching coach. Pivetta is upbeat.
“I just want to have fun playing baseball,” he said after his outing Saturday. The Phillies and Tigers played to an 8-8 tie on a chilly Florida day.
Using a more compact delivery and shorter arm action — he said he’s simply trying to be “more efficient” — Pivetta enjoyed a 1-2-3 first inning with his fastball reaching 96 mph. He allowed two doubles, two singles and two runs in the second inning. Two of the hits were soft.
Girardi has said the competition for the fifth job won’t begin in earnest until the pitchers have made a couple of starts and broken in their spikes. But Girardi liked what he saw of Pivetta his first time out.
“His velocity was good,” Girardi said. “He used his fastball down in the zone and up in the zone well. I thought his curveball had bite to it. His slider was pretty consistent. He threw some changeups. I thought his tempo was great. To me, you can really build off that. I don’t necessarily look at the early numbers, right? He didn’t walk people. He was ahead in the count. You start doing that and your location gets better as you get more innings under your belt and you’ve got something.”
Girardi had watched a lot of video of Pivetta. He liked the more compact delivery.
“I think his fastball is going to get on people, especially as he starts to use his off-speed more," Girardi said.
Girardi also liked what he saw of Pivetta’s spring project, the changeup.
“I think it’s a weapon for him that he needs to learn how to use to right-handers and left-handers,” the manager said. “I think he’ll continue to develop it. We’ve got time to develop it down here and we’ll see how it goes.”
Pivetta lost confidence in his changeup last season and threw it just 1.2 percent of the time. When he landed in the bullpen, he threw mostly just fastballs and curveballs.
So far in camp, pitchers have raved about their dealings with Price, whose style is to have pitchers work to their strengths. 
Pivetta recalled his first conversation with Price this winter. The two spoke about the importance of improving the pitcher’s changeup.
“With Price, when I first talked to him on the phone, something that really clicked with me was just making sure the pitch is down in the zone,” Pivetta said. “Just make sure it's down. Let the pitch do its work.
“Bryan is really, really good. I've really enjoyed Bryan. He has a lot of really good knowledge. I look forward to continuing to get to know him more on a personal level and really dive into the knowledge he has. He has such a vast and long history in major league baseball.”
The Phils host Pittsburgh in Clearwater on Sunday. Aaron Nola will start. Velasquez will get the ball Monday against Baltimore.

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Phillies, J.T. Realmuto move on to Act 2 of contract drama

Phillies, J.T. Realmuto move on to Act 2 of contract drama

CLEARWATER, Fla. — All along, J.T. Realmuto's salary arbitration hearing was just going to be the first act in one of the biggest storylines of the spring in Phillies camp.

Regardless of whether the arbitration panel ruled in favor of Realmuto or against him, he was going to be well paid in 2020.

Realmuto ended up losing the case but will make $10 million this season, a 69 percent raise from last season and a record amount for a catcher eligible for salary arbitration. 

Realmuto, who had sought to make $12.4 million, said he was not disappointed with the amount of money he will make, but in the arbitration system that views catchers through a different prism than other position players.

"It's so outdated," he said. "There's a separate catchers' market. That's what the team's main case was on, that you can't go outside of the catchers' market. But if you line my numbers up with position players, that's where our figure comes into play. It's never happened before where catchers go out of the catchers' market, but it's not in the rules that says you can't. The team knows that they had a pretty strong case just for that and they took advantage of it.

"I wanted to do something for future catchers and that didn't work out for us. In that aspect, I'm disappointed, but I'm not disappointed in my salary."

Now that the hearing has come and gone, the Phillies and Realmuto will turn their attention to negotiating a long-term contract extension.

Realmuto said the hearing left him with no ill will toward the club and he's still open to a deal.

"What we went through in arbitration, what we went through in the hearing doesn't change anything from my outlook," the All-Star catcher said.

The stakes will be a lot higher in Act 2 of this contract drama because Realmuto can become a free agent after this season.

The Phillies have said they'd like to get a deal done by opening day so that gives them about five weeks.

With the ability to walk at the end of the season, Realmuto has more leverage in extension talks than he did in arbitration. But playing out the season would come with risks such as health and poor performance. Are they risks Realmuto would be willing to take?

"I haven't really thought about that yet, to be honest," he said. "Me and my agent have been focused on arbitration for the last couple of months. We haven't had those conversations. We'll have those conversations and relay them to (general manager Matt Klentak)."

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is expected to seek a deal that could approach or beat $23 million per season — that would match Joe Mauer's record average annual value for a catcher — over five or six years.

He was asked if a record AAV was a goal.

"Again, I haven't even spoken with my agent about that," he said. "I have no idea what's going to happen. I can't predict the future. I don't know where we're going to go with it. Obviously, we'll have those discussions. Whether it matches up or not, that's to be determined."

Realmuto went through a full workout Friday. After taking batting practice at Spectrum Field, he stopped and chatted with John Middleton, the team's managing partner, who had been watching quietly off to the side. The two men talked for about 10 minutes and walked off the field together. Maybe they were talking about who has the best grouper on Clearwater Beach. Maybe they weren't.

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