Zach Eflin will make his first televised start of spring training against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday. In a way, Eflin is being treated similarly to a top prospect this spring, despite being in the majors for parts of five seasons. He’s penciled in as the team’s No. 3, but for the Phillies to make the postseason for the first time in ten years, Eflin has to be more than that.
Like every Phillies pitcher last season, Eflin had his down moments in 2020. He began summer camp with a lingering back injury that kept him out of intrasquad games and surrendered eight earned runs in his first three starts combined.
But when it came time for the Phillies to fight for a playoff spot, Eflin stepped up. In his final three outings, he only managed to surrender a three-run home run off Juan Soto in garbage time. He gave the struggling offense a chance to save the season by throwing 2 2/3 shutout innings against the Rays in the regular-season finale. If the Phillies had won just one more game last season, Eflin would have likely been named the Game 1 starter in the postseason.
Traditional stats suggest that Eflin’s 2020 was quite average. He spent most of the season carrying an ERA around four, but he showed a level of conviction in his pitches that we’ve only seen in flashes up to this point. After being instructed to pitch up in the zone and rely predominantly on his fastball and slider for most of last season, Eflin trusted his sinker and began mixing his changeup and curveball more effectively.
As a result, Eflin struck out a career-high 10.68 hitters per nine innings. He ranked 16th among major-league starters in opponents batting average, 17th in strikeout-to-walk ratio and according to FanGraphs’ pitch value metric, Eflin had the seventh-best curveball among all major leaguers in 2020 (min. 50 innings pitched).
Manager Joe Girardi claimed that Eflin could be a 1C at the beginning of camp and from what it sounds like, the Phillies’ 1A agrees.
“It’s just a matter of time when he just absolutely breaks out. Big time.” Aaron Nola said on Thursday.
Nola and Eflin were teammates dating back to their days in the minor-league system. While the former has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball, Eflin has gone through a myriad of ups-and-downs throughout his professional career. Nola knows what it takes to reach the next level and he’s confident that his closest friend on the team can do just that.
“I’ve been around the guy a little while now. Played with him a little while and I know how good he is,” Nola said. “We all know how good he is. He throws hard too and just from a pitching standpoint, his pitches are plus pitches. The way he handles his business, the way he handles himself on the mound, his emotions, to me, he’s a top-tier guy.”
There are plenty of hurdles standing in between Eflin and his long-awaited breakout season. Health will be key for the 26-year-old, who has struggled with knee injuries earlier in his career and back problems in recent years. He’ll have to learn how to get left-handed hitters out on a consistent basis. Lefties combined for a .906 OPS against Eflin in 2020. He hasn’t eclipsed more than 163 1/3 innings pitched in his big-league career, so his impact could be limited.
But as Charlie Manuel’s favorite Ancient Greek aphorism preaches (know thyself), the biggest positive to come out of Eflin’s 2020 season is that he is no longer in search of his identity as a pitcher. He’s a sinkerballer who can get outs on the ground and miss bats with his curveball. He can attack righties with the slider and fool hitters with the changeup when they least expect it. At this best, he can throw seven or eight innings of one-run ball without breaking a sweat.
“The biggest thing is nobody knows yourself better than you,” Nola said. “Once you’re honest with yourself and once you know what you’re good at and what you need to work on and what you’re not as good at, that’s when you take that next step. I think Zach has done that.”
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