INDIANAPOLIS — He wants to keep his teeth this season.
So far, so good but the real test for Tyler Eppler won’t arise for a few months. He’s been here — a dominating opening to the season — before at the Triple-A level.
Eppler did not allow a run in his first two starts with Indianapolis this season. He did so with very Eppler-like command, allowing just two walks and striking out 11 in 9.2 innings.
However, last year started out well for Eppler, too, posting a 2.45 ERA in April and a 3.23 ERA in May. On what was a pitching staff full of potential, Eppler started to create his own buzz.
But those good times didn’t last. And that brings us back to his teeth.
“Last year I got off to a good start and I was comfortable,” Eppler said. “Then I kind of got my teeth knocked in there towards during the middle of the season. And I kind of let that keep happening.”
It was rough, almost like a switch flipped as Eppler had an ERA over 7 for the next two months. Make no mistake, Eppler doesn’t expect to cruise through a season without struggles.
“I know that will come around, it always does,” Eppler said. “I mean, Nolan Ryan had it happen to him, so you’re crazy if you think it’s not going to happen to you. I know it’s coming around sooner or later, but it’s my job to make that adjustment faster and get back to what I do and to just go out there and compete everyday.”
Eppler is still throwing his slider-cutter combo, a pitch he initially started using in hopes of creating a secondary option but it later became possibly his best offering. Eppler adds in a fastball in the mid-90s, a curve and a changeup.
At this point in his career, Eppler isn’t likely going to be making any significant overhaul to his repertoire. And because he’s not going to overpower hitters, he’ll have to use movement and pitch location to achieve success. And he’s long been a pitcher that won’t give up many walks, limiting some of the opportunities to get into trouble.
At the same time, that consistency in the strike zone is what made him confused at times last year. Eppler knew he was throwing strikes and oftentime those pitches felt good, but he was still getting hit consistently.
“Then you go watch video and you see, yeah, they’re strikes, but they are down the middle, they’re up and very hittable pitches,” Eppler said.
Eppler said he had to be honest with himself about the type of strikes he was throwing and the need to not let hitters get so comfortable against him waiting for a fastball. So, a different approach has been developed.
“Now it’s just honing in on the quality strikes,” Eppler said. “It’s kind of been a focus in the past, but now it’s more of a selling-out to that. I know that my stuff may not be the nastiest and best stuff, so I’ve got to be a guy that locates stuff and a guy that has command. We talk about the difference about control and command. Control is being able to throw strikes and command is being able to put the ball where you want to. I think I did a good job of that, especially with all four pitches (so far this season).”
Eppler was new to the Triple-A level last season, so despite his early success he was likely not going to be a candidate to be promoted. Especially considering the depth Indianapolis had on its pitching staff last season.
But that might be different this season. Eppler has more experience and he’s looked like the second-best starting pitcher so far this year behind Nick Kingham.
If the Pirates need a spot starter or a bullpen arm for long relief situations, Eppler might be on the short list for a promotion if he continues to pitch like he has to open the year. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington mentioned so much to Eppler at the end of spring training, noting the right-hander is in a mix of candidates that could fill such a role.
That trust probably wouldn’t have been there at this point last season, making the adjustment from the Double-A levels.
“I would like to think so,” Eppler said. “I think I’m more polished now. … I hope there is a little more trust.”
Eppler has shown he has the ability to pitch well at the Triple-A level. Now, it’s just a matter of sustaining that success through an entire season. Rough stretches will happen, so it will be a matter of how quickly Eppler can make adjustments.
If he can make those adjustments quickly Eppler can keep his teeth and maybe even earn a sport in the major leagues.