It is really easy to get caught up in shiny new prospects, and why not. There is nothing but pure excitement around the Phillies this spring. There are plenty of prospects in camp, especially on the pitching side. Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff will return to the big league rotation, Vincent Velasquez will try and claim the #5 starting spot, and Phillies fans will get their first real looks at Jake Thompson and Mark Appel in Phillies’ uniforms. However, the Phillies invited another pitching prospect to camp, right hander Zach Eflin.
It is not that Eflin is an unknown, he was the best prospect the Phillies acquired in the first wave of rebuilding trades last winter, coming back for Jimmy Rollins. He was the #2 or #3 best pitching prospect in the system coming into the 2015 season. He even went out and posted a very solid AA campaign with Reading with a 3.69 ERA and two dominant postseason starts. Now he finds himself the 4th best pitching prospect on a team with 3 young starters that don’t qualify for prospect lists. Eflin will be the second youngest player in camp behind shortstop J.P. Crawford, and yet his star is starting to retreat into the shadows. The problem is that Eflin is a bit of an enigma as a pitcher, and his stats don’t and raw stuff don’t line up. What summed this up best was a Q&A between the Williamsport Sun Gazette’s Mitch Rupert and Phillies Director of player development.
Q: Last guy I want to ask you about is Zach Eflin because the guy I saw was two distinctly different guys. He was the two-seam guy and the four-seam guy. Is the four-seam guy maybe who he is right now and what fits him better?
A: Zach is going to need both. I’m kind of with you. I saw the guy as good as you can see him early, and similar to that a time or two after that, but mixed results along the way. Zach is a guy who is still figuring himself out. When the two-seam is right and when the four-seam is right. He’s added a curveball which is going to be a good weapon for him. He’s also got a slider. He’s got plenty of good weapons. For me, it’s all about learning sequences and what follows what, because I like this kid a lot, I really do. He’s really smart but he’s still figuring out his craft. When it all comes together, we’re going to have a good one.
As I wrote about in the Top 50, this past season was a transition year for Zach Eflin. In previous seasons, and in early 2015 he was a guy who threw a two seamer in the low 90s that had good arm side run and sink. He added to that a low 80s changeup that also had arm side run and sink, properties that would indicate, in isolation, a plus pitch. His third pitch was a slider in the high 80s (85-88) that had short cut action, but was not particularly sharp and did not miss bats in a meaningful way. The consequence of this arsenal was that AA hitters made a lot of contact off of Eflin. It was not great contact, and when combined with the lack of walks, it allowed him to survive the absence of strikeouts.
The thing about players growing up and developing is that they are not always static. In Eflin’s case, this year didn’t hinge on learning new things, but on returning to old things. At 6’4″ 200lbs, Eflin looks like a guy who should be throwing harder than 89-92, and he would occasionally bump up to 94 with his four seam fastball. However, in the second half, the four seam fastball came back into use as a regular pitch in his arsenal. The pitch sits 91-94, but Eflin can bump it up to 95-97 if needed. In contrast to the two seam fastball, the 4 seam fastball is straight, which would normally be a problem for a hitter (see Appel, Mark). But for Eflin the pitch can be a bat misser because he can elevate it in the zone to blow it past a hitter that is looking for the softer two seam fastball. It also does not have the same problem as his two seam fastball in that it’s movement is similar to his changeup. When compared to the 4 seam fastball, the changeup will fade away from a left handed batter or down and in to a right handed batter. The readdition of the 4 seam fastball is a relatively minor change, in that Eflin is still left without a true bat missing pitch that doesn’t look like a fastball.
That leads us to the big reason to give Eflin a second look, his curveball. In high school, Eflin threw a slurvy curveball, but in his first year of full season ball, the Padres had him scrap it in favor of throwing a slider. Eflin did not throw the curve much in 2015, but what he did show was a pitch that changes the conversation about his arsenal. The pitch was long and loopy, and in the mid to hi 70s, but he showed some feel for the pitch. It is hard to expect more than an above average pitch long term, given the short track record with the pitch and lack of previous success with it, but it is possible that he takes to it. Even if the curveball is only average, it fits into a need in his arsenal, giving him a pitch with a large velocity separation from his fastball and changeup to give batters more to respect. In combination with his other pitches it should allow him to miss more bats as well.
With all the new pitches available, the hard part begins for Eflin, as he must learn to sequence and use them in concert. He still lacks a true impact pitch to plow through a lineup, but with a combination of above average to plus pitches, there is no reason he can’t keep hitters off balance. His walk rate was miniscule in the second half of the season and it is likely to going to rise as he goes through this transition, because he will need to expand the strikezone more to get hitters to swing and miss. If he can put it all together he has at least mid-rotation upside and the frame to log 200 inning seasons. If he cannot put it all together, he should be able to use what he has to be a back of the rotation innings eater. The Phillies clearly like him, and while he has dropped off the minds of many, he is a pitcher who could assert himself alongside Nola, Eickhoff, Velasquez, Thompson, and Appel.
Photo by Baseball Betsy