Graduating to Better Things: Zach Eflin

The Phillies entered the year with a lot of excitement around their young pitching. Zach Eflin was one of three starting pitchers in the Phillies Top 10 prospects that would open the year in AAA. Eflin would power his way through Lehigh Valley and reach the majors first among that group of young starters, making his major league debut at age 22. It was an up and down time in the majors for Eflin, one that would ultimately end prematurely due to a recurring knee injury and ultimately surgery. Eflin’s injury and poor performance change the narrative around a young pitcher who should be a factor for the Phillies going forward.

What Was Written Before the Season:

Role: #3/#4 Starter
Risk: Medium – Eflin has all the pieces you want in a mid rotation starter, but he has yet to put all of his pitches together with command.
Summary: Zach Eflin looks the part of a good starter due to his large frame and easy delivery.  Coming into the year, Eflin mostly pitched at 88-92 touching 94 plus, with the bottom range being dominated by his two-seam fastball.  The fastball was paired with a changeup showing plus potential and a below average short slider.  He didn’t strike out many, but he also did not walk many and kept the ball in the park.  Eflin showed a lot of the same early in the year, allowing no runs in his first three starts.  He was still pitching at 88-92, with the Phillies emphasizing throwing strikes and developing his slider.  As the season went on, Eflin posted solid lines and kept the walks down, but he didn’t miss bats.  In mid July, Eflin went away to the Pan Am games and then struggled upon his return.  However, a few starts after his return, Eflin’s arsenal went through some changes.  The first was the reintroduction of his curveball, a pitch he had not used since high school.  The other was a move away from his 2 seam heavy approach to one featuring more 4 seam fastballs.  The result was fewer ground balls, but Eflin missed more bats and walked less  Here is the actual split (first documented use of CB was Aug 8, also includes two playoff starts, IBBs removed from BB%).

Pre CB4.512.3
Post CB2.114.4

That is still not domination, but it does start to look like a positive trend.  The curveball was the new pitch in Eflin’s arsenal, but the reintroduction of his 4-seam fastball allowed Eflin to get up to 95-97 at the high range to blow a pitch past a hitter.  Combined they gave Eflin a larger velocity range and more tools for fooling hitters.  These new developments do not suddenly make Eflin an elite prospect, because they are still just additional pieces of a large puzzle that is far from solved.  Eflin pitched all of 2015 at age 21, while posting a career high in innings, missing nearly a month for the Pan Am games.  His current arsenal is a two seam fastball at 88-92, a four seam fastball at 91-94 touching 95-97, an above average changeup with solid deception and fade, an average short slider in the upper 80s, and a below average loopy curveball in the mid 70s.  Eflin still has more control than command, and he has yet to mix his arsenal in a way that leads to better results on the field.  Altogether there is room for Eflin to be a mid rotation workhorse, because he can handle a heavy innings workload.  It is going to take at least another year of development and polish for Eflin to become a useable major league pitcher.  Eflin may end up being a pitcher who has a longer developmental timeline upon reaching the majors, so he could be more of a #4 or #5 early in his career.
2016 Outlook: Eflin will almost certainly start in the AAA rotation, and he will be behind Thompson and Asher for a call up if needed.  He will almost certainly spend almost the full year in AAA, but could see the majors late in the year if they need innings, because he will need a 40 man spot after the season.  Not reaching the majors in 2016 won’t represent a failure for Eflin, because he does need more minor league time.

What Happened in the Minors:

Stat Line: 11 G 68.1 IP 2.90 ERA 2 HR 11 BB (4.2%) 55 K (20.9%)

Eflin carried the gains of 2015 into 2016 in the minors. He just did not walk anyone in AAA and limited the quality of contact off of his pitches. Rather than his new curveball taking a step forward, it was his slider that became his wipeout pitch in the minors. That combined with his higher velocity and improved command saw him post a career high in strikeout percentage. It was not all smooth sailing in the minors for Eflin who gave up 4, 5, 5, and 6 runs in starts. However across the other 7 starts, Eflin gave up 2 ER in a period spanning 46.2 innings. The struggles with keeping runs off the board when his command was off would continue into the majors.

What Happened in the Majors:

Stat Line: 11 G 63.1 IP 5.54 ERA 12 HR 17 BB (6.3%) 31 K (11.4%)

Zach Eflin’s major league career got off to a poor start when he gave up 9 runs (8 earned) in Toronto over 2.2 innings of work. It was one of the worst major league debuts in history. It left many fans worried about the psyche of Eflin.

They didn’t need to be worried for long. Over his next 7 starts Zach Eflin pitched 47.2 innings, he gave up 11 earned runs (2.08 ERA), while walking 5 batters to 24 strikeouts. He even only gave up a grand total of 3 home runs during that stretch. Also included in that stretch were a 1 run complete game vs the Braves (on 92 pitches) and a 3 hit shutout of the Braves (100 pitches). During the stretch Eflin was not overpowering, but he threw strikes and he kept hitters off balance, the whole time being efficient and pitching deep into games.

Then the wheels came off. It turns out that Eflin may have been suffering from an injury for his last three starts, but regardless his command abandoned him and he pitched 13 innings, giving up 22 hits, 6 home runs, 9 walks, and 20 earned runs, while only striking out 5. He allowed a ton of hard contact, ending when the Dodgers hit 3 home runs off of him in 3 innings on August 8. Eflin would then go on the DL, eventually having surgery on both of his knees.

In the majors Eflin showed the same velocity he did in the minors, sitting low to mid 90s and ramping it up to 96-97 when needed. He mixed both his 4 seam and 2 seam fastballs all year, and went very fastball heavy at times (particularly in the Braves complete game). The problem came with the secondary pitches. Eflin completely abandoned both his curveball and changeup and times, and he looked uncomfortable with both pitches. This left him as primarily fastball-slider. His slider was his best pitch at getting whiffs, but unfortunately opposing hitters also hit it hard all season, it’s futility at generating weak contact only surpassed by Eflin’s fastball. As you would expect with that pitch mix, Eflin struggles greatly with left handed batters who hit .289/.336/.603 over 132 plate appearances vs him. Eflin gave up 9 of his 12 home runs to left handed batters.

The Future:

There is still a lot to like about Zach Eflin. He is still very young (he won’t turn 23 until after opening day), he throws hard, he has a big workhorse frame, and he has shown that he can have good command while keeping hitters off balance. The problem is right now is that he does not really have the major league toolset to survive the majors. He is a two pitch pitcher where neither offering is overwhelming. In order to have success he needs to have perfect command every time out, and that just isn’t something he can deliver right now. Even if he could, left handed batters are going to give him trouble. This leaves us staring at one pitch. Eflin entered the draft with his changeup as his calling card, it was a plus pitch with good deception and fade. Right now that pitch is gone, and he need to find it again to have major league success. Even if Eflin cannot recapture the plus pitch of his past, having a third look to give batters will help keep them off of his fastball and allow him to offset his lack of strikeouts with poor contact.

Given his youth and their over options, it might be best for the Phillies to send Eflin back down to Lehigh Valley to refine his command and secondary pitches. If Eflin can make those strides he could be a very useful innings eater for the Phillies going forward. There is still the possibility that Eflin could be a bit more than that because despite all the struggles he still has a great base to build on.

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman
Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.