ALLENTOWN — Tom Eshelman was far from the centerpiece of the deal for the Phillies when they traded Ken Giles to Houston in 2015. That title probably belonged to former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel, or maybe Vince Velasquez.
But Eshelman, the Astros’ 2015 second-round selection out of Cal State Fullerton, came to Philadelphia as a plus prospect. After he compiled a 2.40 ERA in 23 starts between double-A Reading and triple-A Lehigh Valley last season, the big leagues didn’t seem too far away.
His 2018 numbers tell a different story.
At the IronPigs’ all-star break, Eshelman has a 6.32 ERA in 84 innings, a 1.79 WHIP and 27 walks — one fewer than the most he has had in any full season as a professional. And his lone victory in 17 starts? That came April 13.
“Baseball is a game of failure,” Eshelman said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself this year. I’ve learned a lot about what I can do, what I’m capable of, and what I’m not capable of. … I think it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Not much about Eshelman’s ability has changed. His fastball doesn’t have great speed, yet the righthander has enough movement to strike out batters regularly.
The difference has been an inability to control that fastball.
“It’s the No. 1 ingredient for him,” Lehigh Valley pitching coach Dave Lundquist said of Eshelman’s fastball. “He’s a guy that has natural deception, some late movement, but without the command, those ingredients don’t play.
Eshelman returned to Allentown this year, and within a month, his ERA sat at 6.75. With a pair of seven-run outings in mid-June, including one in which Eshelman recorded just one out, it swelled to nearly 8.00.
The 6-foot-3 Californian, however, might be slowly turning a corner. Eshelman has averaged nearly six innings in his last five starts, allowing just 12 earned runs and throwing strikes on 64 percent of his pitches over that stretch. He struck out seven in seven innings of one-run ball last Tuesday, and Sunday, he made it through 6 2/3, even though Rochester managed five runs and 10 hits off him.
Eshelman’s biggest mistakes of the day, a two-run homer and a two-run double, came on off-speed pitches. He didn’t walk a single batter. There could be a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’ve got to understand that my fastball is still a good pitch and trust it and still attack with it,” Eshelman said. “I think that I gave some hitters too much credit at times and I didn’t attack them the way I wanted to attack them.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to set up a pitch in a certain situation, and sometimes you throw a pitch off that setup pitch that may not work. I’m just learning how to use certain stuff in certain situations and understand what your ball’s doing that day.”
Drinking a beer after Sunday’s victory, a fourth straight walk-off win for Lehigh Valley, Eshelman appeared happy for a three-day respite as his team entered the all-star break atop the International League. But a year ago, he was on the field at the triple-A midsummer classic instead of on his couch.
Eshelman hopes to “keep this momentum going” as he rediscovers shades of 2017.
“It’s got to be frustrating, but Tom is not a pitcher that shows it,” Lundquist said. “He knows he’s pretty good and just that he was one click away from where he needs to be.”