Roughly six years ago, Phillies icon Jimmy Rollins was traded to the Dodgers. In return, the Phillies acquired two minor leaguers, one of them being Zach Eflin. Prospects are as close to gambling as one can get in Major League Baseball, but the starter is now poised to become a legitimate #3 starter in the Phillies rotation.
Many fans are understandably worried about the back end of the rotation, but all too often “Eflin” is jumbled into a group of question marks that includes Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard. He simply does not belong in that conversation.
Eflin has improved nearly every year since his debut in 2016. In each of his first two seasons, he pitched in 11 games (63.1 and 64.1 innings respectively) and had an era above 5.50. But he turned a corner in 2018 and never looked back. His era improved significantly, starting at 6.16 in 2017 and improving every year down to a 3.97 era in 2020. His ERA+ also breached 100 in 2019 (exactly league average production), and in 2020 he achieved a career high 115 ERA+.
Most of that success can likely be attributed to Eflin improving his strikeout numbers in 2020. Playing in a bandbox like Citizens Bank Park, it is imperative to limit contact. He made massive strides in that department last year, striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings compared to a lackluster 7.1 SO/9 in 2019. If Eflin can maintain those numbers, or even improve them under new pitching coach Caleb Cotham, it would be a massive step towards unlocking his peak potential.
With that being said, the most encouraging aspect about Eflin is his peripherals. They suggest that his upward-trending performance appears to be more than sustainable. He ranked in the 76th percentile in hard hit %, 77th in xwOBA, 77th in xERA, 74th in K%, and 80th in BB%. In other words, Eflin was better than ~75% of pitchers in the league last year. It also reveals that his success was not a fluke.
In addition, the 26-year-old relied heavily on his 4-seam fastball through the first four years of his career. In 2020, he transitioned to throwing his sinker 51.6% of the time while throwing 4-seam fastballs at a shockingly low 9.6% clip. He also revamped his curveball and began throwing it with conviction. He suddenly felt an air of confidence in that pitch. Then, over the Winter, he worked on his slider and changeup.
Recently, manager Joe Girardi sung Eflin’s praises, noting that he believes he could be a “1.C” in the starting rotation right behind aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Eflin is also convinced that he can become a legitimate starter in this league, and maybe more:
“I view myself as a No. 1. 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.”
On Wednesday afternoon, it was time for Eflin to unveil his refined arsenal and begin what might be another career year for him. The hype train has officially left the station. Eflin went 2.0 innings, gave up zero earned runs, collected 3 backward Ks (!!!) and induced a lot of weak contact. The Detroit announcers spoke glowingly about the way his pitches looked.
Eflin has always possessed the intangibles necessary to be a top of the rotation starter. He oozes composure, maturity, and intelligence on the mound under all circumstances. Plus, being 6’6” and lanky does not hurt, either. It is time for him to put everything together.
Phillies fans have patiently waited 5 years while Eflin learned and grew as a major leaguer. Now, they might just witness the dominance that they have been waiting for as he looks primed to be one of the better pitchers in the National League in the coming years.