BRADENTON — Tyler Eppler found himself in good company at the start of the year. The right-hander, taken in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, was slated to go to Bradenton, skipping over West Virginia. The Pirates send most of their college pitchers to West Virginia, with some of them getting promoted to Bradenton in the second half of their first full season. But only a few have skipped that step like Eppler has.
The biggest guy who skipped West Virginia was Gerrit Cole, but that was expected for a first overall pick. When it comes to the middle rounds, the list shrinks. The only other guys to join Eppler with that placement were Justin Wilson (5th round, 2008), Adrian Sampson (5th round, 2012), and Chad Kuhl (9th round, 2013).
Wilson went on to a Major League career as a dominant left-handed reliever. Sampson was just traded for J.A. Happ, and I believe he’s got a career ahead of him as a starter in the majors. Kuhl has really stepped up this year, hitting 97 MPH with his fastball recently, and putting up some great numbers in Altoona. The Pirates saw something in all of these guys, with each guy looking more advanced than the normal college starter. That led to them getting an aggressive push from day one. They saw the same thing with Eppler.
It’s not hard to see why they like Eppler. He’s a tall right-hander who sits 92-94 MPH with his fastball and can touch 96-97. He’s got good control numbers, and a nice slider that leads to strikeouts. He also has a great feel for a changeup, which was really working for him in his last outing on Monday, leading to seven shutout innings with just two hits.
“When he’s getting swing and miss out in front on the changeup, that’s when you know it’s really good for him,” Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said after the start. Eppler’s changeup was on that night, including fooling top prospect Dominic Smith a few times on the evening.
“That’s kind of always a pitch I know I’m going to have. If I don’t have a fastball or slider, I know the changeup is always going to be there,” Eppler said. “It’s always been one of my better pitches, and one that I can fall to if I need a pitch for a groundout or a swing and a miss.”
Eppler’s last two outings have been fantastic, with 12.2 combined shutout innings and an 8:2 K/BB ratio. This comes after a few outings where he struggled by leaving the ball up in the zone, leading to seven earned runs in eight innings, despite just 11 hits and three walks during that span.
“The last two outings I kind of switched the mindset, stopped trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong, and just competing,” Eppler said. “Using what I have to get outs, and making sure my misses are down in the zone.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Eppler came after his outing on July 20th. He came in the game in the sixth inning, piggybacking with Cody Dickson and inheriting a one run lead. He responded with four shutout innings, giving up two hits and striking out six.
“I came into that outing with a different mindset than coming in and throwing as a starter,” Eppler said. “Dickson had a one run lead, so I was trying my best to not give up that run and to blow his lead.”
After that outing, Bradenton pitching coach Scott Elarton asked Eppler what he was thinking during the outing. He told him about not wanting to give up the lead, and Elarton suggested he take that mindset into his starts from pitch one.
“I’ve kind of come in to my starts now, and just starting with that [reliever approach] from the first inning,” Eppler said.
So far, Eppler is living up to the hype. He has a 3.27 ERA in 52.1 innings on the year, with a 37:13 K/BB ratio. The innings are down due to elbow soreness that he had in Spring Training, which delayed the start of his season. As the season has gone on, he has gotten better, with a 2.78 ERA in 45.1 innings in the second half. If he can build off the most recent starts and finish strong, then he could continue his aggressive movement through the system and make the jump to Altoona next year, much like what we saw from Wilson, Sampson, and Kuhl.