2020 was a necessary step forward for Zach Eflin. He reverted back to being primarily a sinkerball pitcher and with that, he found success. A 3.97 ERA in 59 innings seems rather pedestrian, but a deeper dive tells a different story.
Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average (DRA) is a stat that operates on the same scale as ERA and FIP but takes numerous external factors into account such as park adjustments, catcher framing and quality of opponent.
According to DRA, Eflin ranked among the top starting pitchers in Major League Baseball in 2020.
|2020’s Top 10 pitchers in DRA (min. 50 innings pitched)||2020 ERA||2020 FIP|
|1. Shane Bieber – CLE – (2.58)||1.63||2.07|
|2. Aaron Nola – PHI – (2.58)||3.28||3.28|
|3. Pablo López – MIA – (2.65)||3.61||3.16|
|4. Jacob deGrom – NYM – (2.66)||2.38||2.27|
|5. Corbin Burnes – MIL – (2.81)||2.11||2.04|
|6. Zach Eflin – PHI – (2.85)||3.97||3.40|
|7. Trevor Bauer – CIN – (2.89)||1.73||2.92|
|8. Dinelson Lamet – SD – (2.91)||2.09||2.48|
|9. Kenta Maeda – MIN – (3.10)||2.70||3.00|
|10. Kevin Gausman – SF – (3.19)||3.62||3.09|
In his introductory press conference, new pitching coach Caleb Cotham said that there are three pitchers on the staff that could win a Cy Young and it was pretty obvious he was referring to Eflin. Manager Joe Girardi echoed a similar sentiment on Friday.
“I look at us: We’ve got a 1A, 1B and we could have a 1C,” Girardi said in a video conference. “I mean, that’s how I feel about Zach Eflin.”
But nobody else seems to have bigger expectations for Eflin than Eflin himself.
“I view myself as a No. 1,” Eflin said. “I really believe that truly inside of me, the sky is the limit for me. I feel like I have a lot of feel and I can really shape my pitches in any way I want to and have a good feel for the zone with every pitch.
“Finding the right time to throw pitches, setting pitches up, backing hitters off the plate, getting early contact when I need it, are going to be the key factors for me to continue having good years and be a legitimate starting pitcher. Pitching at the top of the starting rotation is my clear goal.”
Eflin is carrying the positive momentum he had from the end of 2020 with him into spring training. Setting the bar high for yourself is the easy part, but meeting and exceeding those expectations is a tall task.
The 2021 season will bring about new challenges and for Eflin, he’ll look to prove that he can at least replicate his 2020 success over a full season. The first obstacle, and perhaps the most daunting, is getting through the 162-game schedule.
Managers around the game will have to be weary of every pitcher’s workload. Girardi believes the guys who have an established track record of handling a heavy workload, the Aaron Nolas of the baseball world, will warrant less concern.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, Eflin doesn’t fall into that category. He has pitched only 100 innings in a season twice in his major-league career and hasn’t exceeded more than 163 1/3 innings in a year. While Cotham believes Eflin can win a Cy Young, he’s surprisingly only qualified for the award once in his career.
Eflin noted that he began his offseason throwing program a month earlier with bullpen sessions starting three weeks earlier than normal. He ramped up the number of bullpen sessions thrown before reporting to camp to nine, up from four from last year.
At the very least, the Phillies will count on Eflin to carry the typical workload of a No. 3 starter. He probably won’t reach over 200 innings, but a number north of 150 innings would be satisfactory.
Along with poor performance, injuries could derail Eflin’s quest to solidify his spot at the top of the rotation. He dealt with a back injury in each of the last two years while knee injuries were a huge issue early on in his career.
“Being able to stay healthy is the main goal,” Eflin said. “I’m going to continue to do that. I’ve done a pretty good job of that in the past.”
Eflin has the mentality of an ace and his 2020 season proves that he has the stuff to do so. His curveball became one of his better secondary pitches, generating a swing-and-miss 20 percent of the time while opponents slugged a miserable .125 against it last year.
“I just stopped throwing it like a baby,” Eflin said about his curveball after his final start of the season against the Nationals last September.
“I think I did a good job of creating an arsenal,” Eflin said Friday in reference to his 2020 season. “This offseason, I really wanted to refine my changeup and get a little more depth on my slider. I feel like I’m in a good position with those two pitches. To be able to combine that with the four-seam, two-seam, a curveball that’s a plus for me now, I think it’s going to be huge for me. Now it’s about finding the right time to set pitches up and set hitters up.”
Eflin’s development into an ace, the best-case scenario this season, could be a difference-maker in the race for a playoff spot in the NL East. All five teams boast a dangerous rotation and some could argue that the Phillies, even with a lethal top two in Nola and Zack Wheeler, have the fifth-best rotation in the division. Eflin performing to his potential will render that argument silly.
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