Fullerton pitcher Thomas Eshelman could earn a degree in accuracy

Fullerton pitcher Thomas Eshelman could earn a degree in accuracy
Cal State Fullerton's Thomas Eshelman pitches during an NCAA regional game. On Monday, he earned a save. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Maybe it was the dog collar, the one designed to give electric shocks to encourage proper behavior.

It's as good an explanation as any for Cal State Fullerton pitcher Thomas Eshelman's accuracy when throwing the baseball.

Eshelman has walked 17 batters in 362 2/3 innings over three seasons with the Titans.

His precision can be traced to childhood. Eshelman was a human guinea pig for his brother Sam, who is eight years older. If Sam saw something on television, or had an idle thought, Thomas was his beta test.


It is how Thomas became a pitcher. Sam watched Chan Ho Park throwing on the tube one day, then took his 10-year old brother to the backyard to experiment.

"He's a guy who is really analytical about the game, no matter what the game is," Thomas said of his brother. "I was kind of like his dummy. He brought me out to mound and we'd do things."

There was no end to Sam Eshelman's inquisitive mind.

"Yeah, he put a dog shock collar on me when I was 11, just to see if it would work," Thomas said. "It did. I was gullible. Maybe that's why my arm is the way it is."

Sam laughed, and said, "I can't believe he told you that one. But maybe we could talk to some pitching coaches about this."

Maybe. If there was a way to bottle and bond Thomas Eshelman's abilities, pitching coaches would put their money down.

Fullerton plays at Louisville on Saturday in the opener of a best-of-three-games NCAA super regional and Cardinals batters should be advised to come out swinging. Eshelman is going to throw strikes.

"It's crazy," Fullerton Coach Rick Vanderhook said, then rued, "It's going to be a sad day when he leaves."

That depends on what dugout you're in.

"He seems like a grounded, blue-collar, humble kid," UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie said. "I'll just be glad when he's gone."

Ask Eshelman when he last walked a batter, and he has a quick answer: "[UC] Santa Barbara."

That was a month ago.

Ask about the previous batter he walked, and, again, Eshelman, has it on the tip of his tongue: "Maryland," he said.

That was nearly two months ago.

It was Eshelman's last loss — which he took despite not allowing an earned run in a 2-1 decision. In six starts since, he is 5-0 with a 0.54 earned-run average.

Overall, Eshelman has a record of 8-5, but Fullerton scored four runs in those losses.

Eshelman had a no-decision in the Titans' marathon 14-inning victory over Arizona State in the Fullerton regional last Saturday. He went nine innings and threw 143 pitches, 103 for strikes. His 14 strikeouts were a career high.

"He paints my glove," catcher A.J. Kennedy said. "Maybe I have to reach for a couple pitches."

Kennedy attributes Eshelman's efficiency to his work ethic.

"A lot of people — fans and scouts — see the view from the stands," Kennedy said. "They don't see the off-the-field stuff. He excels in the classroom. He excels in the weight room. He does everything right."

He showed up at Fullerton with a degree in advanced placement.

"We always run a string across the plate in the bullpen, about knee high, and he kept plucking it the first day he was here," Vanderhook said.

That kind of accuracy makes it strange, in hindsight, that Fullerton was the only Division I school to offer Eshelman a scholarship.

"If you're a right-hander and not throwing 94-95 [mph], you tend to get overlooked," Gillespie said.

Eshelman's fastball hits the low 90s.

"He still has to fight that stigma," said Sam Eshelman, an assistant basketball coach at the Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad. "It motivates him, keeps him humble."

Sam helped with that as well. "I thought our parents were too soft on him," he said, laughing. "I was the older brother, so I tried to give him bruises."

He gave him a lot more.

"Sam really taught me the coachable part of the game," Thomas said. "I was able to adapt to what he was telling me to do. It was an advantage, especially in my college career."

Eshelman has a 28-11 career record at Fullerton, with a 1.65 earned-run average. He started his college career by going 64 innings without walking a batter.

"I had played with some pretty high-level guys in high school," said Kennedy, a junior. "At first, I thought, 'Who is this goofy guy?' Then I saw him pitch and went, 'Wow.' "

It wasn't just Eshelman's accuracy. "His stuff is legit," Kennedy said.

It has to be. Being so accurate means batters show up ready to hit. Eshelman serves a variety of off-speed pitches.

"He doesn't use a lot of the plate," Gillespie said. "You feel like you better try to sit on location early in the count."

And how did Gillespie's team apply that strategy? "Unsuccessfully," the coach said.

UC Irvine can get in line. That tends to be the case for opponents when Eshelman is on the mound.

"I will be shocked if he is not a first-round pick," Gillespie said.

Shocked. Good choice of words.

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