BRADENTON, Fla. – If you’re a pitching prospect, it’s easy to get lost in the Pirates’ farm system right now. The Indianapolis rotation has two of the top pitching prospects in the game. They’ve got three other talented prospects in Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams, who could all be starters in the majors one day.
Not every pitching prospect will work out, but it’s difficult to look beyond that group right now, plus Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano in the majors, and imagine that the Pirates will need starting pitching from the prospects in the lower levels. Guys like Mitch Keller or Gage Hinsz in the lower levels stand out as replacements or upgrades down the line. But if you’re in that middle group from Bradenton to Altoona, with no immediate spot in the future Pirates’ rotation seemingly available.
That’s not to say that there aren’t legit prospects at these levels. And it would be foolish to think that the Pirates wouldn’t need these prospects, as that would ignore the key point that prospects don’t always work out, and that Indianapolis rotation isn’t immune to this.
One of the standouts from that middle level, and one of the guys who gets lost in the system when he really shouldn’t, is Tyler Eppler. The tall right-hander has impressive stuff, with a fastball that sits 92-94 MPH, touching 97. He’s comfortable throwing a changeup, and relies on that as his main off-speed pitch, which isn’t common with most guys who can touch 97. The big weakness right now for Eppler is his breaking pitch.
Eppler came in to the system with a curveball and a slider. The only problem was that neither pitch was a good offering, and neither one gave him a strikeout pitch. So the Pirates removed the curve from his mix, and changed his slider from a cutter to a slurve. He now only focuses on three pitches, and only has one breaking pitch to focus on, with the hopes that this will lead to more strikeouts.
The slurve came into the mix for Eppler last year at the end of his run in Bradenton. He carried that over to Altoona, working with Justin Meccage. The two continued their work in the Arizona Fall League, aiming to get the movement of the pitch more vertical than horizontal. He’s also talked with Jameson Taillon and Clay Holmes, trying to pick their brains on how they throw their slurves.
“[I’m] just trying to work on depth and consistency,” Eppler said of the slurve. “Throwing it for strikes when I need it to, and as a strikeout pitch when I need it.”
The AFL was a big challenge for Eppler. He got experience in Altoona at the end of 2015, but the AFL rosters are packed with top prospects, making it difficult for guys who don’t have a lot of upper level experience. Eppler said that this forced him to work on pitching, rather than just throwing, which is something he’s carried into Spring Training this year. He also said the AFL gave him confidence that he could throw in the upper levels.
“I think the Fall League was a good experience,” Eppler said. “It was a lot of fun being out there with those guys. Some of the top guys you get to face. You get to see kind of where you’re at. It was a fun experience.”
The slurve is a key pitch for Eppler, as it gets hitters off his fastball/changeup combo. Right now, the scouting report against him is that he relies on the changeup as his primary off-speed pitch, so hitters know what to expect. He’s also good enough with the changeup that he falls back on the pitch when the fastball is off. So if his fastball isn’t working, there is currently only one pitch hitters have to focus on. Adding the slurve would prevent that. At this point, along with consistent movement, Eppler needs to improve knowing where the pitch will end up.
“That’s the main thing right now, with the consistency,” Eppler said. “Before I was kind of throwing it, and hoping it would do this. Now it’s kind of zeroing in on that spot. You want to start at the mask and finish at his left foot or right foot. Wherever you want it.”
The Pirates really seem to like Eppler. They promoted him to Bradenton during his first full season, which is a move that they’ve only done with the best college starters that have come through the system. They promoted him to Altoona at the end of 2015, which is something they didn’t do with Chad Kuhl, Adrian Sampson, or Justin Wilson — the only other non-first round college starters who got that push. Then they finished the year with him pitching in the AFL.
All of this is even more impressive when you consider that Eppler missed the start of the 2015 season after experiencing tightness in his elbow. It turned out to be something that could be handled with rest, and the Pirates were being cautious with him. This year, Eppler doesn’t have to worry about that, and is looking for a full season in the upper levels.
“My arm feels good,” Eppler said. “Being healthy is the main thing. Get away from what happened last year, with tightness and stuff. It feels good. Just kind of working on the slider right now, and trying to find more consistency with that.”
Thanks to the pitching depth in Indianapolis, the Pirates don’t have to rush Eppler. They can keep him in Altoona the entire season and let him work on the new pitch, hoping for improvements. Scouts I talked to in the AFL called the pitch a below-average offering, although that’s to be expected of a pitch he just started throwing. If he can develop the pitch into an above-average offering that can get strikeouts, then he would have a nice weapon to pair with his fastball and changeup, and would be a pitcher that definitely wouldn’t get lost in the mix in this system.