CLEARWATER, Fla. — The task has been the same for Jerad Eickhoff as he entered each of the past five offseasons: find a change-up. The task's results — a pitch that fell flat and a grip that lacked comfort — have also been consistent. Eickhoff has never found a change-up that lasted. But this time, the 27-year-old right-hander said Friday, might be different.
Eickhoff gathered input from other pitchers over the last six months to find a grip that he could use. He threw just 15 change-ups last season and struggled without a fourth offering to accompany his fastball, curveball, and slider. His new grip — which places each of Eickhoff's four fingers on top of the ball — is almost like a palmball. He throws it with his fingertips, trying to not manipulate its path. He has found comfort, and the pitcher, so far, is pleased.
"I'm trying to stick with this one as long as I can," Eickhoff said after a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh. "It seems to be something I can control in the zone and locate."
Eickhoff, behind a steady curveball, was the team's most dependable starter in 2016 before he was plagued by injuries last season. His fastball — sapped of velocity — was hammered as opponents slugged .504 against it. Eickhoff pitched 70 fewer innings than he had in 2016. He didn't look like the same pitcher.
But he showed enough promise in 2016 for the Phillies to cling to hope that Eickhoff can be reliable again. And that reliability could be stemmed in his ability to have confidence in his change-up. He has relied so heavily on his curveball that his pitches might have become too predictable. A change-up would provide a needed boost.
"To be able to throw the fourth pitch in there is huge," Eickhoff said. "It can put you at another level. It'll make my fastball better."
Eickhoff allowed four runs Friday on five hits in 3 1/3 innings. He struck out three and walked none. He has eight strikeouts, no walks, and a 7.36 ERA this spring in 7 1/3 innings. Elias Diaz tagged Eickhoff's slider for a solo homer in the second. Eickhoff struggled to command his curveball with two strikes. But the change-up, Eickhoff said, felt good. And perhaps that pitch's development is more important than a pitching line with three weeks left in spring training.
"I'm happy with the speed and the counts I'm throwing it in," Eickhoff said. "I've been getting good feedback on it, so it's pretty exciting as far as the change-up is concerned."
The Phillies have praised Eickhoff the last few seasons for his workmanlike attitude. Manager Gabe Kapler said Eickhoff "grinded" on Friday. It is that demeanor that Eickhoff is using as he searches for that fourth pitch. And he still has plenty of time in Florida — before starting the Phillies' second game of the season — to find that comfort.