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Updated 36 minutes ago
SARASOTA, Fla. — Tyler Eppler never had a problem finding the strike zone with his pitches.
Over the past three seasons in the minors, Eppler issued 61 walks in 54 starts (302 2⁄3 innings). Going back to his days at Sam Houston State, the right-hander always was a pitch-to-contact guy.
That's a big part of the upside the Pirates saw when they used a sixth-round pick to nab Eppler in the 2014 draft. Yet, it has some drawbacks.
“I've always been known to throw strikes,” Eppler said. “It's kind of a strength and a weakness. If I let the hitter get comfortable, he knows a strike's coming and he can sit on it. That's something I've got to change.”
Eppler's four-seam fastball has decent giddy-up (92-94 mph) and a little run to it. His changeup is reliable, too. However, the action on his slider and curveball became too similar for either to be a plus pitch.
To deepen Eppler's arsenal, minor league pitching coordinator Justin Meccage brewed a new pitch that's a hybrid of a slider and a cutter.
In other words, he's throwing a ... slutter?
“That's what we call it,” Eppler said with a laugh. “But sometimes when we tell other people that, they're like, ‘Really?' So, it's like it's our joke. That's what we're calling it right now. I tell everybody else it's a slider-cutter.”
Whatever the name, Eppler, 24, hopes the new pitch helps him get over the hump toward reaching the majors.
“It's a hard pitch, an aggressive pitch,” Eppler said. “It's got more depth than a regular cutter would have. I think the slider-cutter will be more of a ‘miss-a-barrel' type pitch, and the curveball will hopefully be a strikeout, ‘miss-a-bat' pitch.”
Both pitches are geared toward inducing less contact and making Eppler more of a strikeout pitcher.
Last season, Epplier made 27 starts for Double-A Altoona and went 9-10 with a 3.99 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP.
“I got stuck in the same old sequences, and hitters knew the fastball was coming early it the count,” Eppler said. “They sat on it, and I got hit around pretty hard.”
Something positive came out of that carnage, though.
“I learned about who I am and who I need to be,” Eppler said.
It's a significant jump to from Double- to Triple-A — a time when many pitchers see their playing careers begin to flame out.
Eppler's slider-cutter zips along at 86-89 mph. It's a good set-up pitch for his fastball.
“It's one of those pitches where, if I get in a 2-0 jam and the hitter thinks a fastball is coming, I can mix it in there,” Eppler said. “It's got fastball spin, but then all of the sudden it's not there. I also throw it 0-0 and even sometimes as a strikeout pitch. You can throw it whenever, which is why I like it.”
The slider-cutter should be a great complement to his curveball, which clocks in at 80 mph with a sharp 1-to-7 break.
“The biggest thing he's got to do with the curveball is commit to it and throw it,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “We're in a good place, and I can only see the curveball getting better.”
A new grip has improved Eppler's curve. Previously, he threw a spike curve with his index finger on top of the ball. That gave it more drop but also made it more difficult to control.
Now, Eppler's index finger is off the ball, pointing outward. It's the same grip used effectively by Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals. Eppler finds the grip gives his curve more spin and depth
“It gives more of a loose feel, and it's easier to rip it now,” Eppler said.
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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