After two years of experiencing Cal State Fullerton right-hander Thomas Eshelman through box scores, Twitter updates and grainy online streams, I got to see him in person. And instead of the excitement and anticipation -- or even the mythical, Zen-like state of journalistic objectivity for which you're taught to strive -- I felt a new emotion: overwhelming anxiety. Even though I had absolutely no personal stake in who won, and even though I wasn't even really at Fullerton's series against Indiana to write about Eshelman specifically, I was freaking out inside as I drove to the ballpark and found the press box.
I wasn't nervous because Eshelman is so great, even though since the moment he first stepped onto a collegiate mound the 6-foot-3 righthander has been among the best amateur pitchers in the world. He's a veteran of USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, a two-time All-American, the first freshman to start on Opening Day for Fullerton since 1987. But I didn't feel this way about seeing Mark Appel or Carson Fulmer, or even Roy Halladay, for the first time.
It's because of the manner in which he's so great. Eshelman is probably the best control pitcher in the history of the college game. As a freshman, he struck out 83 batters against just three walks, though since then his career K/BB ratio has dropped all the way to an even 16. He's been consistently dominant, pitching more and better innings than just about anyone in college baseball over the past three years, and he's done it without top-notch velocity or a knockout breaking pitch.
"This is the best command I've been around in my 15 years of coaching," said Fullerton pitching coach Jason Dietrich. "I've never been around a guy who's walked (15) guys in almost 300 innings. Once every 15 years you get a kid like this."
He does it through precision -- exquisite, meticulous, 80-grade command, pounding the zone with his average stuff, daring hitters to bet that the fastball on the black is really a couple inches outside, or to try to pull a backdoor curveball and not roll over on it and ground out weakly to the second baseman.
What Eshelman does is baseball's version of bear-baiting. If Fulmer makes a mistake or mislocates a pitch -- either his mid-90s fastball with arm-side run, or that curveball that bends so hard and so quickly it makes you think that maybe you should call a cab instead of driving home after all -- the hitter might swing and miss anyway. And if Fulmer lets a man on, he can just out-throw whatever trouble he faces.
Eshelman is the opposite of Carson Fulmer. His delivery is quiet and effortless, his raw stuff is rather pedestrian and his location is perfect. And it must be perfect, because if he slips up, even a little, or even for a moment, he'll get blasted all over the yard.
That's both why I find Eshelman so impressive and why I was so anxious about seeing him live. When the expectation is that Eshelman will be perfect, you start to get nervous about what'll happen when he's not.
"I think we've been spoiled for two and a half years, almost three years of what he's done," Dietrich said. "It's been so consistent that, unfortunately, it can be pushed upon him … He's a human being and this is baseball and anything can happen."
You can imagine what that pressure would do to a 21-year-old kid who's been the lead dog from the moment his freshman season started for a team that relies on its starting pitching as much as any in college baseball. Who's been the fixed point by which the Titans have navigated. Who's helped drum up immense expectations in each of the past two preaseasons, then watched his team disintegrate around him like a poorly packed snowball both times. You can imagine. But as it turns out, nobody is less nervous about Eshelman's performance than Eshelman himself.
"I'm not trying to be perfect," Eshelman said. "I'm just trying to hit my spots and let the hitters get themselves out. I'm trying to mix pitches and play the game in my head as well as the hitter's head. It's a fun game to pick whether to throw this pitch or that pitch."
To a certain extent, Eshelman's mentality -- which Dietrich believes is what sets his ace apart -- is the result of his experiences. The way Eshelman talks makes it tempting to describe him with some sort of pablum about the stereotypical Southern California surfer attitude. But it's not that simple.
All the success that's come in the past three years is found money to Eshelman, who had no illusions about becoming the Friday night starter as a freshman.
"I just wanted to make the travel roster. That's what my goal was," he said.
Eshelman's risen from those modest expectations to these incredible heights through two gifts: athleticism and curiosity.
We often think of athleticism in Olympic terms -- higher, faster, stronger -- but that's not all there is to it. Athleticism, particularly for a pitcher, is flexibility, balance, and the ability to create muscle memory, all of which Eshelman has in abundance.
Pitchers don't get to Eshelman's levels of endurance and command without refining their delivery, training their bodies to repeat the same motion with every pitch. Eshelman's delivery allows him to throw four pitches -- fastball, curveball, cutter, changeup -- from the same arm slot, with minimal stress, every time.
"That takes repetition," Dietrich said. "That takes (mental) focus. That's why I think he separates himself."
An added bonus to Eshelman's delivery is that he hides the ball extremely well, only revealing it to the hitter at the last possible second.
"He's always had a short arm," Dietrich said, "and it gets on guys quick. I think that's what kind of surprises people. They can't pick up the ball, so that 88-91 [mph] might look two or three miles an hour faster."
The athleticism also helps him field his position well, an attribute he shares with (let's stop kidding ourselves -- this was always going to end up going in that direction) Greg Maddux, a pitcher he admired along with Jake Peavy and Mat Latos as a young Padres fan.
Not only that, but Eshelman's athleticism also made it possible for him to catch while growing up, which allowed him to learn how to pitch by observation.
"As a catcher, I was one of those guys who'd make sure that these guys would command both sides of the plate and work hard on that," Eshelman said. "I think I took that [to] the mound and really understood how I could get a hitter out by going in and out with a fastball. It was a good thing for me to experience at such a young age."
That turned out to be a tremendously valuable bit of education not only for Eshelman, but for Fullerton's No. 2 starter, converted shortstop Justin Garza.
"It's helped them to understand the game a little more from a hitter's perspective, watching it from a different viewpoint, and then taking that knowledge," Dietrich said. "They're always inquisitive, they always want to learn more."
From there, Eshelman has leaned on his capacity to learn -- not only his ability to seek out information, but his ability to incorporate it into his own game.
He and Dietrich keep an open line of communication throughout his starts for more nuanced instructions, and Eshelman attributes his success to that forthrightness.
"I was blessed to be put in the hands of good pitching coaches and coaches in general, and coming here to a school like Cal State Fullerton, the coaches do a great job," he said. "They help me out with any tics or things I need help with."
"Every outing, whether it's good or bad or what have you, is a learning process," Dietrich said. "So we always try to talk about what we saw, what we felt, what I felt, and … pick his brain on his thoughts, what he thought about his outing."
Dietrich said he and Eshelman were able to make some changes on the fly when Eshelman got into trouble against Indiana, a game in which he took a no-decision in a Fullerton loss. Eshelman's curveball, usually his best secondary offering, wasn't working, so they improvised until he could get it straightened out.
"I have that with all my pitchers," Dietrich said. "It's like, 'If you're not feeling good with this pitch, let's go with the pitches you feel most comfortable with, and if you find that pitch, let me know.' So there's communication nonstop."
At Fullerton, the cardinal sin a pitcher can commit is to issue a walk. Dietrich and head coach Rick Vanderhook preach pounding the strike zone, and as a result, their pitchers don't fear contact. Evidence of this can be found throughout the roster, but Eshelman took the doctrine to, and perhaps beyond, its logical extreme.
"They're really adamant about walks -- they don't like walks," Eshelman said. "I remember in Oregon one game I threw a four-pitch walk and Hooky came out and said, 'If you walk this guy, I'm pulling you out of the game.' And I was throwing a shutout in the eighth inning. Then I struck out the next guy."
And it's just that simple to Eshelman. His coach told him not to walk anyone, so he doesn't.
The result is an interesting dynamic between the two; while Eshelman praises his coaches, Dietrich seems to have a greater appreciation of the fact that not all pitchers can just go up there and decide they're not going to walk anyone. The result: Eshelman seems to think Dietrich had a bigger impact on him that Dietrich himself does.
"He's beyond his years in regard to pitching, in regard to understanding the little nuances of who he is," Dietrich said. "That's important. Some guys … throw 92, 93 all the time. And he'll touch it on occasion, but he goes, 'That's not who I am.' That's, to me, why he's different. Because he understands who he is, trusts who he is. He's going to make a lot of good pitches. I mean, jeez, I can't tell you how many games I've been a part of where I just continuously think, 'This guy's just fearless.'"
And why shouldn't he be? When you can throw whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, and have been rewarded for that ability with those results? There's absolutely no reason to be anxious.