Asher Wojciechowski delivered some strong starts for the Orioles in 2019. Tom Eshelman, meanwhile, scuffled through the season.
In 2020, however, the roles were basically reversed.
Eshelman was the better-than-expected pitcher for a better-than-expected Orioles team. And Wojciechowski was the one who just couldn’t find a rhythm in this COVID-shortened summer.
There was a need for someone — anyone — on the Orioles’ pitching staff to step up this year, particularly after Dylan Bundy and his 161.2 innings departed to join the Angels, and Eshelman surprised a lot of fans by picking up some of the slack. The 26-year-old made 12 appearances and started four games, going 3-1 with a 3.89 ERA. Eshelman gave Brandon Hyde both a starting and relief option and was particularly effective early on, with a 2.75 ERA, .182 opponents’ average and 0.763 WHIP across his first six appearances.
He did this with a fastball that didn’t break 90 miles per hour, and a measly strikeout rate of only 4.2 batters per nine innings. He also did it after a forgettable rookie season in 2019 that saw him go 1-2 with a 6.50 ERA across 10 appearances and four starts. His WHIP was higher (1.611, compared to 1.240 this year), as was his opponents’ average (.313, versus .260).
Eshelman wasn’t facing high expectations this year, but it still has to be encouraging to see a jump made by the 2015 second-round pick, whom the Orioles acquired as a result of some institutional knowledge. Eshelman was actually taken by the Astros out of Cal State Fullerton when current Orioles general manager Mike Elias was still with the team, and after being traded to Philadelphia along with former first overall pick Mark Appel later in 2015, he was acquired by Elias, this time in Baltimore, for international money in 2019.
Eshelman immediately came to Triple-A Norfolk, and was so-so there (4.70 ERA in seven appearances) before getting the call to the big club. The 2019 season didn’t offer much promise, but 2020 did, even if Eshelman will have to prove his September (5.40 ERA, .338 opponents’ average, 1.867 WHIP) wasn’t a return to his earlier form.
Meanwhile, while Eshelman had encouraging flashes, Wojciechowski stalled. The 31-year-old had bright points in 2019 (remember when he flirted with a no-hitter against Boston?), and even though it culminated in a lukewarm 4-8 record and 4.92 ERA, the hope was that he could bring some stability and consistency to an Orioles rotation that was needing it.
That train never really got on track. Wojciechowski finished 1-3 with a 6.81 ERA across seven starts and 10 games, with a 1.622 WHIP. He had some solid moments, such as five innings of three-run, five-hit ball in a win over the Nationals on Aug. 15 and a start against the Marlins in which he allowed two runs in five innings in a 2-1 loss, but for the most part, mediocre outings were a theme for the former first-round pick.
Wojciechowski was taken 41st overall by Toronto in 2010, and came to Baltimore first as a free agent in December of 2017, and then again a second time in a transaction with Cleveland last July. He went to Triple-A Norfolk and pitched well there, going 8-2 with a 3.61 ERA, but the success hasn’t translated completely to the major league level.
According to Baseball Savant, Wojciechowski wasn’t the same pitcher this year that he was last year. He threw a cutter on nearly 20 percent of pitches last year, but traded that pitch in this year for a curveball that he threw roughly 27 percent of the time. The biggest change, however, was the fastball; in 2019, hitters hit .252 off of Wojciechowski’s four-seamer. In 2020, hitting at a .348 clip, they couldn’t wait to see it.
So Eshelman and Wojciechowski have taken different paths to this exact point. Where they are in the plans going forward, as the Orioles continue in their mission of building a winner, is unclear.
Wojciechowski has served as a space-filler in the rotation while the young, touted arms make their way up, but after he was assigned to Norfolk late in the season, it appears his run with the team could be over. Eshelman, meanwhile, has more slack given his younger age, and projects to be part of the Orioles’ plans on a year-by-year basis. Whether that’s starting, or whether that’s relieving as rotation spots start to go to pitchers like DL Hall or Grayson Rodriguez, remains to be seen.
If Eshelman is back, expect focus to be on either upping his strikeout rate or sharpening his control. Some pitchers have jaw-dropping “stuff,” while some like Eshelman don’t. How well he gets around those limitations will determine exactly what role he plays in 2021 and beyond.