When the Padres claimed Eric Stults off waivers last May the expectations were low. The move, though documented in a Transactions Analysis column, received little-to-no thought at the time. Injuries had thinned San Diego's rotation to the point where Jeff Suppan made a few starts. A team in need of a warm body appeared to net a warm body and little else in Stults, who, in addition to a big-league ERA threatening 5.00, had career ERAs in Triple-A and Japan eclipsing the mark. Marrying pedestrian stuff with awful numbers is a set-up for a quick divorce.
Yet Stults' performance never prompted the Padres to consider an annulment. The journeyman southpaw compiled a 2.92 ERA and a 2.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 92 1/3 innings. Those are numbers not crafted only within the forgiving confines of Petco Park. In addition to pitching more innings on the road than at home, Stults also posted a better ERA, K/BB ratio, and batting average on balls in play while staying in hotels. Even a strained shoulder, which cost Stults close to two months of the season, did not stop him from posting a strong second half. Nor finishing with three consecutive quality starts to end the season—each consisting of exactly six innings and three earned runs.
Those efforts last season earned Stults a spot in the Padres' Opening Day rotation, and continued one of the oddest career arcs in the game. Not often does a pitcher struggle in the majors, minors, and overseas before returning to the majors as a competent big-league hurler. Of course the story brings to mind Ryan Vogelsong, who accomplished much of the same. But Stults is not Vogelsong. He doesn't feel like Vogelsong. Whereas Vogelsong's command-and-control skill set is safe and comforting, Stults is something less sustainable. Stults is an old-fashioned junkballer.
During any given start none of Stults' pitches will top 90 mph. His fastball comes closest but rarely deviates from a mid-80s comfort point nowadays. The rest of his arsenal is a study in quantity over quality. He throws a slider and a changeup, both clocked in the mid-70s, as well as a slow curveball that comes in between the mid-to-upper 60s. Pitchers are often described as dictators of action. To survive in the majors Stults has to be a reactor. That means reading swings and adjusting on a fly.
Stults made his first start on Thursday, against the Mets, and by recording more strikeouts than innings pitched accomplished a feat he did not reach in 2012. He threw that slow curveball eight times throughout his appearance. Often slow pitches are thought of as tricks. Stults' fastest curve on Thursday registered at 68 mph, or about 10 mph quicker than Paul Maholm's trick breaking ball. Stults uses his slow bender too often to label it a trick. Figuring out how to deploy it without serving up a home run, now that's the trick.
Here is where Stults' craftiness comes into play. He may have thrown the curveball eight times on Thursday but he avoided patterns. There are a dozen possible ball-strike counts. Stults threw a curveball on five of them, repeating only on 1-1 and 2-2. He had five possible preceding pitches: he could have led into the curve with a fastball, a slider, a changeup, another curve, or as the first pitch in an at-bat. He used three of those options, throwing a curve four times after a fastball, three times after a slider, and once to start an at-bat. The location didn't vary a lot but you wouldn't expect otherwise. Stults even showed a willingness to throw the curve to the same batter multiple times, even within one at-bat.
In the fourth inning of Thursday's start, Stults started Lucas Duda off with a curveball below the zone for a ball. Duda had seen the curve in his first at-bat as well, having fouled it off on a 1-1 count. He would see it again here on a 1-1 count and again would offer at it. This time he would swing through the pitch with his swing telling Stults and everyone watching all about his intent. Stults would again go to the curveball after Duda took a slider down and away for a ball and fouled off a fastball up and away. This time the curve was on the inside corner and elevated. Duda took a rip and hit it well beyond the right-field wall, and well to the right of the foul pole for a long strike. You couldn't blame Duda if, after fouling off a slider low and away with a defensive hack, he had the curve on his mind again. But Stults did not have the curve on his mind and instead froze Duda with a fastball at the knees away for strike three.
Stults changed speeds so religiously that Duda never got the same look twice. He started at 63 mph, added 14 mph, subtracted 10 mph, added 12 on, added 7 more on, took 17 mph off, then added 10 again before finishing things off with an extra 9 mph. The at-bat demonstrates Stults' carefulness and resourcefulness as well as it demonstrates his shortcomings. Even in an at-bat where Stults won in the end he had to use a lot of pitches and a lot of looks. Stults has to continue to mix patterns and velocities because he has no other choice. There are no security blankets for junkballers.
Even on good days Stults runs the risk of being overexposed from just two trips through the lineup. Given his success in a Padres uniform it's tempting to think he's up for the job. But the sample size is still limited and it's tough to give someone with Stults' stuff and background a resounding vote of confidence. Those who buy in would still probably call him a no. 5 starter. The rest may admire his conviction and cunning while holding out for an emergency starter label. No matter which side you stand on, this is a story about getting more than the sum of the parts suggested. It's true for Stults and just as true for the Padres.