Top 40 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #29 Mark Eichhorn

Mark Anthony Eichhorn | RP | 1982, 1986-1988, 1992-1993 | Career Stats | AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year (1986)

Mark Eichhorn had one of the most interesting career paths to the majors. Drafted 30th overall by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 1979 amateur entry draft, Eichhorn's pitching style was rather conventional. He pitched from a three-quarters deliver and possessed good velocity on his fastball, which at the time was his go-to pitch. However, after suffering a shoulder injury in 1982, he was forced to alter his deliver to compensate for the velocity he lost on his fastball. The May 5th, 1986 edition of The Sporting News explains how the transition took place:

Dr. Frank Jobe revealed that Eichhorn had a strained shoulder muscle. At the suggestion of Blue Jays pitching coach Al Widmar and coach John Sullivan, who had managed in the Kansas City organization and had helped Dan Quisenberry develop as a reliever, Eichhorn altered his delivery. He went from three-quarters motion to throwing from down under. "Once I changed my delivery it was like I was resting my shoulder," he said. "It gave my arm a year of rest. Then, as it got stronger, I brought the angle of my delivery up to throwing side-arm."

Prior to his injury, he had the potential to be an everyday major league starter. In fact, in a game that pitted the two most recent expansion teams at the time, Eichhorn had a perfect game through 6 1/3 innings against the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome. Manny Castillo, who would go on to hit only three home runs all season, hit a home run in the 7th inning to put an end to his bid for a perfect game. It would be somewhat foolish, however, to suggest that he was destined for a long, somewhat successful major league career as a starter prior to his injury. Although he was successful at times, his numbers were less than stellar. Consider his stats prior to his injury, taken from Batter's Box and The Baseball Cube:

Age   Year    Team            W     L     ERA     G     GS    IP     H      HR    BB    SO
20    1981    Knoxville-AA    10    14    3.98    30    29    192    202    23    57    99
21    1982    Syracuse-AAA    10    12    4.54    27    27    156.2  158    18    83    71
21    1982    Toronto-MLB      0     3    5.45     7     7     38     40     4    14    16

His SO/BB rates were subpar and he allowed more than a hit per inning pitched. A look at his numbers after his injury but prior to his change in delivery suggest that the switch probably salvaged his career:

22    1983    Syracuse-AAA    0    5    7.92     7     5     30.2     36     8    21    12
22    1983    Knoxville-AA    6   12    4.33    21    20    120.2    124    17    47    54
23    1984    Syracuse-AAA    5    9    5.97    36    18    117.2    147    13    51    54

Low strikeout rates, abysmal ERAs, far too many baserunners allowed - Eichhorn looked to be a failed prospect. However, after he altered his delivery, he became a completely different pitcher. Rather than relying on his fastball, he consistently threw one of the best change-ups in all of baseball. In fact, in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Eichhorn's change-up is listed as one of the very best of all time.

In The Scouting Report: 1987, Eichhorn's change-up is described in the following way:

Normally hitters argue about how hard a pitcher throws but in Eichhorn's case, the opposite is true. Even the most veteran hitters say they have never seen a major league pitcher throw a pitch as slow as Eichhorn does.

After achieving good results with his new delivery throughout the 1985 season, Eichhorn posted one of the best seasons ever by a relief pitcher when he burst onto the major league scene in 1986. In 69 GP, he posted a record of 14-6 with an ERA of 1.72 and a microscopic WHIP of 0.96. Moreover, his ERA+ was an otherworldly 246. Had he pitched five innings in addition to the 157 he had thrown that season, he would have qualified for the ERA title and would have easily taken the crown away from Roger Clemens, whose ERA of 2.46 that season was remarkably higher than Eichhorn's. Legend has it that Eichhorn kindly turned down the chance to throw those five extra innings; a very classy gesture indeed. However, had he not missed two weeks of the season due to a brief DL stint, he would have likely qualified, regardless.

Although none of his subsequent seasons would ever match that magical 1986 campaign, he continued to be a reliable option out of the bullpen the next season. For instance, in 1987, he tied an AL record by appearing in 89 games that season.

By 1988, Eichhorn began to lose his effectiveness. According to BaseballLibrary.com, he slightly altered his pitching delivery:

But his effectiveness declined as he attempted to change his delivery so he wouldn't be so easy to steal on and as righthanded batters learned to lay off his wicked breaking ball.

Eichhorn did have trouble holding runners, which led to very high stolen base percentages by those who stole against him.

Year    SB    CS    SB%
1986    15    5     75
1987    32    4     88.9
1988     6    1     85.7

His effectiveness against right-handers began to diminish, as well.

Year    OPS vs. RHB
1986    .351
1987    .646
1988    .847

After absolutely owning right-handed batters, Eichhorn became below league average within two seasons. As a result, the Blue Jays lost confidence in him and sold him to the Atlanta Braves in 1989, where his struggles would continue. That wouldn't last for long, however, as his career was salvaged with the California Angels. He once again owned right-handed batters -- though not to the same extent as he did in 1986 -- and he no longer had trouble holding runners.

In 1992, he was traded by the Angels to the Blue Jays in exchange for Greg Myers and Rob Ducey. In what turned out to be a good trade for the Blue Jays, Eichhorn helped won two championships in his second stint with the organization. And until his final season in 1996, he consistently posted above average totals.

In the end, the quality of Eichhorn's career is probably overlooked by most contemporary baseball fans. In a Baseball Prospectus article entitled "The Top Pitchers of the 1990s," Eichhorn is listed as the 6th best relief pitcher from 1990-1998.

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