This story originally appeared in the May 4, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine here. All stats are through May 5.
Candy Cummings was a 5'9", 120-pound righthanded pitcher whose Hall of Fame career spanned six major league seasons and included stints with the New York Mutuals, Baltimore Canaries, Philadelphia Whites and Hartford Dark Blues. In addition to inventing the curveball, Cummings was renowned for his otherworldly command. He retired in 1877 having issued 0.47 walks every nine innings, still the fewest in baseball history. The sport’s most celebrated marksmen were wild by comparison: Cy Young walked 1.48 per nine, Christy Mathewson 1.59, Greg Maddux 1.79.
Those names and numbers provide perspective when appreciating the precision of a redheaded righthander named Thomas Eshelman. Two years ago, Eshelman started his career at Cal State–Fullerton by working 63 1/3 innings without a walk and finished the season with three walks in 115 2/3 innings. Now a junior, he has handed out all of 16 free passes in 328 career innings, amounting to 0.44 walks per nine. At 20, he’s already stingier than the Candy Man.
“Nobody in college baseball has ever seen anything like him,” says Titans coach Rick Vanderhook. Eshelman grew up in the San Diego suburb of Carlsbad, firing balls at a chalk square he drew on the gray brick wall next to his family’s garage. He was a strike thrower, but he wasn’t a control freak. Then he arrived at Fullerton’s Goodwin Field, where the coaches tie a white string to a chain link fence in the bullpen and run it across home plate, knee-high. “Hit the string,” they told Eshelman. He peppered that twine like a banjo picker.
Eshelman stands 6'3" and weighs 210 pounds, armed with five pitches he can put on the black. “Most days,” says catcher A.J. Kennedy, “I don’t have to move my glove.” Three-ball counts prompt murmurs in the bleachers. “People look at me like something’s really wrong,” Eshelman says. When he walked an Oregon batter on four straight last season, Vanderhook bolted to the mound. “You’re coming out if you throw a ball to the next guy,” the coach warned. Eshelman struck him out on three consecutive sliders.
Eshelman’s favorite movie is Bull Durham, but besides his high stirrups, he has nothing in common with Nuke LaLoosh. “I guess I don’t hit the bull too often,” he allows. After he went his first two months of college without a walk, his coaches tried inducing one, curious how he’d respond. On a 3-and‑2 count against UC Santa Barbara, they called for a changeup, and he pushed it outside. He cursed himself as the crowd at Goodwin rose for a standing ovation.
Despite his aversion to walks, Eshelman understands the importance of pitching around potent hitters. But they don’t let him. Opponents have abandoned all hope of working the count. “You’re just going to be down 0–1 anyway,” says Cal Poly coach Larry Lee. In a loss to the Mustangs on April 2, Eshelman was erratic by his pinpoint standards. “First time I’ve ever seen him without his command,” Kennedy said. Yet he still didn’t walk a soul.
The Titans mess with Eshelman—“Throw some balls once in a while!” implores reliever and roommate Chad Hockin—but treasure his efficiency. His starts often end in time for him to grab a bite at Oggi’s, his favorite pizza joint, before it closes at 10 p.m. Last summer, Eshelman made the USA Collegiate National Team, and Arizona State closer Ryan Burr introduced him around: “Here’s the guy who doesn’t walk anybody.” Infielders fell in love. With Eshelman, the ball gets pitched, the ball gets hit, the out gets made, rinse and repeat. “He’s not a machine,” Kennedy says, “but he’s close.”
Eshelman, who is 5–5 with a 1.94 ERA, is much more than your standard soft tosser painting corners. He is a two-time All-American with a cartoonish 17-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a fastball that touches 90 miles per hour. But big league teams typically spend first-round picks on power arms. “The control is incredible, and it’s why we’re all here,” one scout at Goodwin says. “But if you don’t have more velocity, the margin for error is slim.”
Skinny as a string but plenty wide.