The Texas Rangers drafted Jerad Eickhoff in the 15th round of the 2011 draft and then sent him to Philadelphia in the Cole Hamels trade in 2015. Eickhoff showed out for his new team with an impressive rookie season, going 3-3 with a 146 ERA+ in eight starts, and then he followed up with a 114 ERA+ in 33 starts the following season. Initially considered an afterthought without much major league promise, Eickhoff had blossomed into a reliable starter, albeit on a team with very little pitching talent. And then the injuries came.
Eickhoff missed starts towards the end of the 2017 season due to numbness in his fingers that persisted over the next two seasons. In particular, he complained of pain when he threw his curveball, and couldn’t get a solid diagnosis for his nerve damage. He finished the 2019 season with a 78 ERA+ in 10 starts and then signed with the San Diego Padres in the offseason. The Padres kept him off the major league roster until August, where he was promoted and waived a few weeks later without making an appearance. After a two-month stint with the Rangers, he was once again waived, and then signed with the Mets to a minor league contract in December.
Eickhoff didn’t come into the league with much hype and hasn’t pitched an above-average season since 2016. Now with a fastball that averages below 90 mph and a long list of mysterious injuries to his throwing arm, it’s easy to see why he hasn’t pitched since 2019. But despite his recent track record, teams likely keep giving him a chance because of something new he showed in 2019: Eickhoff dramatically increased the spin on his fastball and curveball.
He unfortunately couldn’t turn this positive development into good production, posting a career-worst 6.15 FIP in 58 innings pitched, but the development was so stark that it’s worth keeping an eye on. From 2015-18, Eickhoff never eclipsed the 50th percentile in fastball spin rate nor the 75th percentile on curveball spin rate. All of a sudden in 2019, Eickhoff found himself in the 83rd percentile on his fastball and 81st on his curveball. Those are both massive jumps. It may ultimately not matter if Eickhoff’s fastball can no longer touch 90 or if it still hurts to throw a curveball, but it makes sense that teams keep giving him a chance with such an impressive peripheral increase.
If Eickhoff were on most other rosters this season, or even the Mets’ 2020 roster, his history of major league success and improvements in 2019 would give him a strong chance of seeing starts throughout the season. But unfortunately he finds himself with the 2021 Mets, who for the first time in years find themselves with significant starting pitching depth that may be Eickhoff’s biggest obstacle to the majors.
David Peterson and new arrivals Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto will almost certainly place ahead of Eickhoff on the depth chart. One of Peterson, Lucchesi, and Yamamoto will slot into the fifth starter role to begin the season, and the Mets may choose to keep another in the bullpen as a long-relief option or emergency starter. The Mets may also decide that Franklyn Kilome, Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Díaz, or even Sam McWilliams may deserve starts over Eickhoff to give young prospects major league experience. But if Eickhoff performs even at their level in the spring and keeps up his performance in the minors, the Mets may look to his experience over a younger pitcher if they’re in need of high-leverage starts later in the season.
That still means a lot has to happen for Eickhoff to get major league playing time. Likely more than two of six regular Mets starters needs to miss significant playing time, and then Eickhoff needs to outperform one of Yamamoto, Peterson, or Lucchesi and then pitch just as well as the younger players to merit a spot based on experience. It may sound insurmountable, but it certainly could happen, especially if he keeps spinning his pitches like he did in 2019.