For a relief prospect, Mark Ecker is one of those rare few who doesn’t feel like a wild card. As he enters his age-23 season, the Texas A&M product is a well-rounded pitcher with good control of his full repertoire. After making a successful transition to the Double-A level in 2017, Ecker requires only a little fine tuning to be major league ready.
Ecker rose up draft boards after sophomore and junior seasons as a dominant closer for the Aggies. The Detroit Tigers selected him in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. As an advanced college reliever, he was expected to move quickly through the farm system, and he has. The Tigers started Ecker at Connecticut after signing him, and quickly moved him up to join the West Michigan Whitecaps. He was good as advertised, having no trouble at all with Single-A competition.
In 2017, Ecker tossed 61 2⁄3 innings between Advanced-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. He punched out 81 hitters to just 25 walks, with a 3.06 ERA overall. Ecker allowed runs in only two of his 15 appearances with the SeaWolves, including several multi-inning outings. He wrapped up an excellent first full season with 5 1⁄3 shutout innings in the Arizona Fall League.
While Ecker does possess a good fastball, he’s that rare Tigers relief prospect who doesn’t lean too heavily on the heater. What stands out most about Ecker is his command of three pitches. He packs a changeup generally regarded as a plus pitch, and a slider that will flash plus as well, though it’s not as consistently strong as the changeup.
At his best, Ecker is able to spot his fastball to any part of the strike zone. He’s also capable of rearing back and blowing hitters away up in the zone, and his changeup has the depth to play off it well. TigsTown loved the fastball-changeup combination last spring.
He owns a high-octane fastball and pairs it with above-average changeup that sits in the mid-80s and features splitter action.
Ecker used to throw more of a hybrid breaking ball, as well as true slider. But, as Ecker told BYB in an interview last year, he improved the command on his slider during the 2016-2017 offseason, and stuck with it as his breaking ball this past season. He also took another weapon into the 2017 campaign, a sinker taught to him by Indians pitcher Boone Logan.
“That’s actually where I learned my sinker pitch. It was from Boone Logan. We were just throwing one day out out the field and he said with my arm slot that if I changed up my two-seam grip a little bit, it would be a sinker for me and it worked out really good.”
Ecker is already adept at mixing speeds and location to keep hitters off balance. While he has tended to allow more fly balls than grounders, a good portion of those fly balls are pop-ups. He disguises the changeup well with good arm speed. At the A-ball levels especially, hitters haven’t been able to deal with it. He can also put them away with the breaking ball when ahead in the count. Ecker struck out almost 12 batters per nine innings with Lakeland, and still managed a respectable nine per nine with Erie.
Ecker is at a point where refinement of his command is the final step. He doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. His walks rates did spike a bit in 2017 as he faced a more schooled class of hitter. Otherwise he is pretty close to being a reasonably polished final product, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, there really isn’t much projection left for Ecker’s stuff. He doesn’t profile as a flame-throwing late innings reliever. On the other, he already has solid command of a starter’s set of pitches and probably wouldn’t require much improvement to pitch in a middle relief role in the major leagues. There was even a time when some scouts thought a future role as a starter might be possible for Ecker, but the Tigers never really entertained the possibility, with good reason.
Ecker didn’t start games in college, and, at 6’0 and listed at 180 pounds, doesn’t really have the frame for it. So don’t expect him to consistently sit in the high-90s. He is going to work in the mid-90s for the most part out of the bullpen.
Because of his modest frame by big league pitching standards, Ecker doesn’t get great downward plane on the fastball, or especially good movement. Hitters more experienced with a good changeup may be able to exploit the fastball a little more if Ecker’s command isn’t sharp. It’s a good pair of fastballs, but not a dominant one. As long as Ecker has the changeup to pair with them, and good location, that’s a tough mix for hitters to deal with.
Projected Team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
The last hurdle for Ecker now is to trim the walks back down, challenge hitters at the Double-A level, and take his chances. It should be very interesting to see how his stuff plays at the upper levels this season. A little more refinement and consistency in his command will get him to Detroit eventually. This season should give us a better grasp of what to expect whenever he arrives. The Tigers have an awful lot of arms between Ecker and his first crack at the majors at the moment. But that will no doubt change as the season progresses. If Ecker settles in with the SeaWolves and continues to excel, he’ll be in line for his first cup of coffee this season.