Q&A: Eric Stults, Poor-Man’s Randy Jones

Eric Stults didn’t represent the San Diego Padres in last night’s All-Star Game. He arguably deserved the honor, which is remarkable given where he’s come from. The 33-year-old left-hander was claimed off waivers last May after being released by the White Sox. Three years ago he was pitching for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Stults had 8 career wins when he joined the Padres. Last year he doubled that total while logging a 2.40 ERA. So far this season, in 20 starts, he is 8-7 with a 3.40 ERA and 3.32 FIP. His 1.91 BB/9 is seventh-best among National League starters. He’s been the Padres best pitcher, and, surprisingly, one of the better lefties in the league.

More than a decade after being drafted by the Dodgers out of Bethel College, Stults has evolved into a poor man’s Randy Jones. In the mid-1970s, Jones won a Cy Young award and had a pair of 20-win seasons for the Padres. The southpaw did so with a fastball that could barely break a pane of glass. Stults is also similar to his skipper. Bud Black epitomized the term “crafty lefty” throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Stults talked about his evolution as a pitcher, including his ability to change speeds with the best of them, when the Padres visited Fenway Park earlier this month.

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Stults on being compared to Randy Jones: “I’ve heard it a few times. I mean, especially with Randy being in San Diego. He’s in our clubhouse quite a bit and helped instruct in spring training. He actually likes to say that I remind him of himself.

“I’ve changed the way I pitch. Early on in my career, I was really just a two-pitch pitcher. I was fastball-changeup and didn’t throw my breaking ball much. I also threw harder.”

On evolving as a pitcher: “I was 92-93 [mph] early on in my career. My first two years in the big leagues, I would pitch at 88-92 when I would start. I don’t think I could hit 92-93 anymore, but I can still get 90-91 on occasion. But what I’ve learned is… at a younger age I was trying to throw everything max effort. I think a lot of young guys overthrow a little bit. And that would take away from my control. It’s hard to pitch — especially at the big-leagues level — when you’re behind batters 1-0, 2-0 and have to throw a strike.

“I’ve learned that I don’t have to throw that max fastball every pitch; I can kind of pick and choose the situations for that good, hard one. And I’ve really developed my breaking pitches. I’ve got a slow curveball and a slider. Like I said, early on I was mostly fastball-changeup. I’d throw an occasional slider or curveball, but those weren’t pitches I had a lot of confidence in.”

On changing speeds on his fastball: “The hitters I’ve talked to say the hardest pitchers to hit are the guys that really change speeds. I even change speeds on my fastball. I’ll throw a sinker at 82-83 and then a four-seam at 91. An 8-9 mph difference in a fastball is quite a bit if they’re reading fastball out of the hand. A lot of hitters will say that guys who throw 94 with an 89-90 mph slider, or an 89-90 mph changeup, are a little easier to hit because there isn’t that big of a change in speed. There’s really nothing to keep them off balance. I think my range of velocities keeps guys a little more off balance.

“My fastball is generally going to range anywhere from 84-88 throughout the game, with maybe a few 89-90s mixed in. Then you’ll probably find some 82-83 fastballs where I’m trying to get a guy out front, or maybe I think he’s going to give me that first pitch.

“It’s kind of a different effort level in the way I use my lower half on some of those pitches. I’m not a guy that’s max effort or herky-jerky. I’m pretty fluid; my delivery is nice and easy. It’s just that sometimes I’m going to give a little bit more at the end, to throw that harder one.”

On two- and four-seams fastballs: “I don’t throw too many two-seamers. A lot of times it might be the first pitch of the at bat. If I think a guy is going to swing early, I’ll try to sink it a little bit to maybe get that roll-over ground ball. But I would say, throughout the game, I probably throw maybe five two-seamers. So it’s not a lot, but I do get pretty good run with my fastball. And I tend to get more run the slower I throw it. When I throw that good, hard fastball, I’ll get a little better spin and it stays truer.”

On his changeup: “It’s a two-seam circle, so I tend to get a lot of fade. But I kind of grip it in an unorthodox way. I don’t hold any of the seams with any of my fingers. It’s not like on a fastball, where you really want to hold the seams. I’d have to show you, but I kind of split the seams through my ring finger. I think that takes a little bit of velocity off of it. It’s just always felt comfortable for me, and the key, just like anything else, is for it to have the same arm speed — the same look — as my fastball.”

On his cutter-slider: “I throw a slider that’s kind of a cutter. It’s not a big, loopy slider; it’s a shorter slider. Against righties it’s a little harder with a little shorter break — more of a cutter. Against lefties, I try to make it a little bit bigger and it turns more into a slider. It’s the same grip; I maybe just turn the ball a little bit different when I throw it.”

On his curveball: “The curveball is a pitch I really didn’t start throwing until probably five years ago. It wasn’t a pitch… I rarely used it. You were lucky if you saw five a game. But now it’s a pitch I really even kind of rely on. I think that has helped me, just because of the change of velocity. I’ve thrown some in the low 60s — even 61-62 — and then come back with a 90 mph fastball. A 25 to 28 mph range is a big difference in speeds. That’s something I’ve started to throw quite a bit in, really, just the last two years. I’ve had games where I’ve thrown over 20 curveballs. Early on in my career it would have taken me a month to throw 20 curveballs.

“It’s not what you’d call a 12-to-6; it’s more probably more 11-to-5. I’ll throw some at 69-70 mph. The count kind of dictates speed. If it’s early in the count, I’ll throw the slower one. And then, maybe if I’m trying to get a chase curveball, I’ll throw it a little harder and try to bury it.”

On reading hitters and pitching backwards: “I like to try to figure out what a team’s approach, or a hitter’s approach, is going to be. For a guy like me, who is more a finesse guy, you kind of learn to pitch backwards.

“I try to keep the reports with me, even in the dugout, as a refresher. But you also have to kind of feel out the game as it goes along. You have in the back of your mind, ‘OK, these are the pitches this hitter struggles with,’ or ‘this is the pitch I feel I can get him out on,‘ but sometimes you deviate from the game plan, based on how you’re reading hitters. As the game goes on, I’ll get a feel for what the hitter is trying to do against me, and maybe I’ll have to change things up a little bit. But, as a pitcher — especially for me — you’ve got to use your strengths, no matter’s who’s at the plate.

“If your change up is your best pitch, but the hitter hits .350 on changeups, yeah, you might be a little more careful. But that doesn’t mean you can’t throw your changeup. You still have to stick with your strengths.”

On command and getting ahead: “That’s definitely a key. I’m not a guy who is going to punch out a lot of hitters. Walking guys can really hurt me at times, so throwing strike one and getting ahead of hitters is definitely part of what my game plan has to be. If I fall behind, I can’t just pump three fastballs by a guy. Limiting walks helps limit the damage for me.

“You have to throw the ball over the plate, but there are times where… there are lineups I’ve faced that have been really aggressive, and I felt like I didn’t need to be over the plate as much. If I can make it look like a strike out of my hand, or at least keep it around the plate, I can get some bad swings. That’s kind of dictated by the lineup you’re facing that night.”

On his secrets to success: “I’m comfortable with who I am now. When you’re younger, you want to fit in with the guys who are throwing hard. Too often, guys turn around and look at the radar gun; they want to see how hard they can throw. I stopped worrying about that and just started worrying about executing pitches. Once I did that, I felt I was more focused on the pitch I was going to throw next, rather than how fast it was. I think that’s part of the reason things have changed a little bit for me.

“If I can keep a hitter off balance — if he doesn’t know what I’m going to throw — the advantage is mine if I execute that pitch. I have four pitches I can throw for strikes, I can change speeds on them, and I can pick different spots in the zone to throw them to. That’s something else I’ve learned. If I can mix my pitches and not get into patterns, I can be successful.”

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BUD BLACK ON STULTS

“Is he similar to me when I pitched? That’s a fair question and there probably isn‘t much difference. We had similar styles. Eric probably has a better changeup than I did. I probably threw just a little bit harder — one or two mph — on average. But he could throw harder if he wanted. We have similar curveballs, although mine was a touch harder. Mine was 70-72 and his is closer to 66-67. His fastball is usually 85-86-87, while mine was 87-88-89. But what’s most important is that he changes speeds. He throws 66 and 90, and everything in between. Disrupting timing is the key. He can throw slow for a strike and he can throw hard for a strike. He keeps hitters off balance. That’s what makes him successful.”



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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