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Nine mph: How two young Orioles pitchers show path to major league longevity isn’t measured with a radar gun

Look only at their pitching lines on the Orioles’ stat sheet and it would be hard to tell any difference between Branden Kline and Tom Eshelman.

Entering Wednesday, they have thrown about the same number of innings at the major league level this season. They have almost identical 6.00-plus ERAs. They’ve given up the same number of home runs.

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Of course, they couldn’t be more different. Kline’s fastball tops out at about 98 mph. Eshelman’s fastball doesn’t break 90.

Kline, 27, is the ultimate power prospect, trying hard to harness all that energy to stick in the major leagues as a late-inning reliever. Eshelman, 25, is the consummate control pitcher, trying to find his inner Jamie Moyer to establish himself as a major league starter.

What they both share is the knowledge that success at this level isn’t determined by the radar gun but how they exploit their strengths.

“There are a lot of people in this clubhouse who can attest that if you can keep hitters off balance, move the ball in, move the ball out, change speeds — no matter how hard you throw, you can get guys out,” Kline said. "There are guys in the big leagues here that throw 100 [mph] who are backing up bases and there are other guys who are throwing 85-86 and carving up lineups.”

Orioles pitcher Branden Kline warms up during spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla.
Orioles pitcher Branden Kline warms up during spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla.

Eshelman agrees, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes envy that Kline has extra velocity in his back pocket every time he goes out to the mound.

When you throw your fastball in the 85-89 mph range — and usually closer to 85 than 89 — it’s more of a chess game than a test of strength and will.

“Absolutely, because my 86 will get crushed a lot easier than his 98," Eshelman said. “He has a little more room for error than I do, but if I am hiding the ball well, I do believe my fastball plays up a little bit more because they can’t see it and it gets on them a little bit faster. It’s more of a setting up kind of thing.”

Still, if you listen to both of them, you’ll hear them say a lot of the same things about what it takes to get hitters out, whether you can throw the ball through a wall or need to depend on sleight of hand.

“I think BK and me are completely different pitchers in a way," Eshelman said, “but we still have the same mindset of being in attack mode and getting the counts in our favor.

“If you watched him pitch [Monday] night, he struck out [New York Yankees infielder] Gleyber Torres on a slider. He set up that slider pretty well. It’s just kind of a thing where it doesn’t matter how hard you throw. Do you hide the ball well? Do you throw stuff off your fastball that makes it play up?"

There was a time a few decades ago when 98 mph would have been more than enough. But the current emphasis on arm strength and enhanced training methods has increased average fastball velocity significantly and forced hitters to adapt to a sport filled with 95-plus mph pitches.

“Obviously, you see that here at the big league level, no matter where the pitch is, for the most part, especially if it’s in the middle of the plate, they can time it up,” Kline said. "Especially if you’re behind in counts and they’ve been able to see it two, three or four times. I’ve seen myself get hurt a bunch up here doing that.”

So Kline is still in the process of refining his command and learning when it’s the right time to speed up the bat of a dangerous hitter to get him off the fastball.

Tom Eshelman of the Orioles pitches during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park July 30, 2019 in San Diego.
Tom Eshelman of the Orioles pitches during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park July 30, 2019 in San Diego. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

“It’s nice to know that, if I need it in a situation I can rear back and try to throw it by a guy," he said, "but at the same time, it’s all about reading swings. The hitter will be able to tell me what and where I should potentially throw the ball. It’s nice to know I have that in my back pocket, but it’s still about executing pitches and throwing them to the right spot.”

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Eshelman has no choice but to hit his spots and he has done that well throughout his amateur and minor league career. He set an NCAA Division I record at Cal State Fullerton for the lowest walk ratio after pitching his first 63 1/3 innings without allowing a base on balls.

He knows that can work at this level because he followed the latter part of the career of Moyer, the veteran pitcher who won 269 games over 25 seasons — including three years with the Orioles — with a well-documented “slow, slower, slowest” approach in his later years.

Eshelman got the opportunity to talk to Moyer about that and does a better job of hiding his fastball than hiding his admiration for the pitcher who best validates the notion that velocity isn’t everything.

“He was a smart son of a gun," Eshelman said. "He knew what he was trying to do out there. He kept the ball low in every count. Moved it around, up, down. ... Someone to aspire to be, for sure. He was definitely confident in everything he did.

"That’s something you’ve got to have when you don’t throw too hard. You’ve got to have some cockiness about it because you’ve got to have guts to pitch here with that philosophy.”

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