The Pittsburgh Pirates have two relief pitchers in their farm system that have followed very similar trajectories and have experienced some of the same difficulties along the way. This past summer they found them selves together as the one-two knockout punch combination in the bullpen for the Altoona Curve (AA Affiliate of the Pirates) in the Eastern League, for the majority of the season.
Matt Eckelman was drafted in the 21 round of the 2016 June MLB Amateur Draft out of St. Louis University. An imposing figure, Eckelman stands 6’3” tall and weighs in anywhere between 240 and 280 lbs. When the Pirates drafted him Eckelman had just spent his senior season as the #1 starter for the Billikens, where he posted an impressive 8-4 record with 3.12 ERA. He rebounded during his senior season after his junior season was cut short by an elbow injury that limited him to only 14 innings.
Beau Sulser was drafted one year later in the 2017 June MLB Amateur Draft in the 10 Round out of Dartmouth College, where he had followed older brother Cole Sulser to from Escondido, CA. Cole is currently a relief pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization, after appearing in 7 games with the Tampa Bay Rays this past season. The younger Sulser performed very well at Dartmouth, earning the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year as a senior; ranking second in the nation in WHIP (.80), third in ERA (1.40) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.40) and seventh in walks per nine innings (1.0). However, his college career was not without its setbacks as he had to sit out the entire 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation.
The 2018 season was a turning point in the careers of both Eckelman and Sulser. Eckelman started the season for the Bradenton Marauders (High A Affiliate of the Pirates) in the Florida State League as the team’s closer. After only 17 appearances for the Marauder’s, Eckelman was promoted to the Altoona Curve. For the season between the two levels he had a 5-1 record, a 2.05 ERA, a 1.241 WHIP and 17 saves. This earned him some attention from the big league club and a spot in the Arizona Fall League after the season. Unfortunately for Eckelman, he struggled in his 9.0 innings; posting a 13.00 ERA, walking 11 batters and only striking out 3. This was a disappointing ending to an otherwise successful season for Eckelman.
Sulser started and ended his 2018 campaign in the same place that Eckelman had been the year before; with the West Virginia Power. He also met the man who had been Eckelman’s pitching coach with the Power, Joel Hanrahan. Everyone should remember the “Hammer!” Hanrahan was the Pirates dominant closer during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, when he accumulated 76 saves. In his 4 seasons with the Pirates, Hanrahan posted a 2.59 ERA, 82 total saves and 265 Ks in only 229.1 total innings. Now as the pitching coach for the Power he was going to start working with Sulser on his mechanics and instilling a bullpen mentality within him. Under Hanrahan’s tutelage Sulser produced a 2.35 ERA, 63 Ks and only 4 walks in 52.1 innings; the best in the South Atlantic League. It was thought that Sulser had earned a promotion to start in Bradenton the following year, but for him it went even further than that. He had gotten into the mindset of being a shut down relief pitcher/setup man.
Prior to the 2019 Eckelman was expected to start the season in AA-Altoona due to his struggles in the Arizona Fall League, Sulser would start in High A-Bradenton due to his success with the Power the previous year and Hanrahan may have earned himself a promotion to Bradenton as well. As it turned out the first assumption was correct, Eckelman would start the year in Altoona. However, due to some organizational coaching position changes and more evaluation of Sulser’s performance the previous year, Hanrahan and Sulser would both be joining Eckelman in Altoona.
For the first three plus months of the season, and in spite of some early season struggles from Eckelman, everything was going better than any of the three could have planned it. Sulser was sporting a 1.99 ERA, had 33 Ks and had a 6-0 record in 19 appearances as a reliever. He even earned a spot in the mid-season Eastern League All-Star Game, where he retired both batters he faced. Eckelman did struggle in April and May by giving up 16 ER in 16.2 innings and only striking out 13 batters. It should be noted that one of his worst outings was when he was deployed as an “opener” in late May. He gave up 6 ERs on 6 hits, including 2 HRs. June was a completely different story. He didn’t allow a single run the entire month in 11 games and 11 innings, while striking out 11 batters and earning 8 saves. Eckelman success continued in July and most of August as he added 10 additional saves in 19 appearances. He ended his season in Altoona with a 3.33 ERA, 23 Saves and 45 Ks in 48.2 Innings.
For Sulser, July was when he was quickly transitioned back into a starting role, which was not the smooth for him at all. I mean it could have been worse, but it didn’t make any sense to make a change to something that was going so well and put him back into a role that he hadn’t filled since his first taste of the pro’s back in 2017 with the Black Bears. As a reliever Sulser was 7-1, with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.176 WHIP. As a starter he was 1-2, with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.393 WHIP.
As the 2019 baseball season came to an end things didn’t get any better for Sulser. He earned an invitation to the Arizona Fall League, but posted a 3.14 ERA, a 1.605 WHIP and had 13Ks to 9BBs in 14.1 Innings. The season didn’t exactly end well for Eckelman either. He earned a late season promotion to the Indianapolis Indians (AAA Affiliate of the Pirates) of the the International League. However he had a 15.34 ERA, a 4.286 WHIP and only 2 Ks in 3 appearances.
So after two very anticlimactic ends to their seasons, what does the future hold for Eckelman and Sulser? It is tough to see anything other than Eckelman remaining in Indianapolis and Sulser staying in Altoona to start the season. Where they go from there is pretty much up to them. As I stated in a previous prospect article, the Pittsburgh Pirates were ranked in the bottom third of the league (23 out of 30 teams) with a 4.91 ERA and 4.37 Walks per 9 Innings.
Both of them have to play to there strengths, which they have shown the ability to do at different times in their professional careers. Eckelman is a mountain of a man who lets his 95 mph fastball speak for itself, which was enough for the batters in AA this year. Sulser is more of a finesse pitcher that relies on pitch placement and changes in velocity to lull hitters into a false sense of security, although his fastball routinely reaches 92-94 mph. The real secret with this type of pitcher is limiting walks. If Eckelman and Sulser are able to tap into their potential, it is possible that Pirates’ fans could see both of these guys at PNC Park this year. I just hope that the new front office sees the key to success given to them by Hanrahan for a good portion of the season in Altoona this past summer. Sulser as the set up man and Eckelman doing his best “Hammer” impersonation, closing down games in the ninth.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement