Going into the 2020 Major League Baseball season the Philadelphia Phillies weren’t sure what they were going to get out of right-handed pitcher Zach Eflin.
During his first four years with the Phillies his career had been a bit of a roller coaster, marked by up and down moments through most of his time with the club. There would be outings where he would be solid the first two times through a lineup, but on the third time around he would start to have issues. That’s not unusual for a starting pitcher, especially a young one. But it kept him from ever really solidifying himself as a long-term rotation option that could be relied upon.
As the 2019 season rolled to a close, Eflin seemed to find something. He went 3-2 over his final seven starts with a 2.83 ERA and opponents batting average against of .239, allowing just 37 hits over 41.1 innings.
This year we saw that consistency carry over in what was somewhat of a breakout season for Eflin. He was able to keep the Phillies in the game, keep the runs down, and his strikeout rate even increased from last year.
A key for Eflin was that he learned to keep the ball low in the hitting zone, down and away. He would utilize all of his best pitches effectively without staying with his four-seam fastball up in the zone, which had been problematic in the past.
Eflin became a solid go-to third starter for Joe Girardi and the Phillies this season, surpassing Jake Arrieta in that role. When Arietta went down toward the end of the season, Eflin stepped up and wanted the ball.
For example, during the last game of the season at Tampa Bay, Eflin came in to pitch out of the bullpen on short rest as the Phillies were fighting for a chance to get the final spot in the playoffs. He did a great job, going 2.2 shutout innings. Unfortunately, the host Rays had already gotten to starter Aaron Nola and reliever Hector Neris for five early runs and the offense was blanked by four Tampa Bay pitchers as the Phillies were eliminated with a 5-0 defeat.
Eflin stepped up and gave the Phillies a solid chance to win almost every time he was out there on the mound. He won both of his final two starts against Toronto and Washington, registering a Quality Start in each outing. He finished the season with an 8-2 record, better than both Nola and Zack Wheeler, improving this season with career bests in ERA, FIP, and xFIP.
Now, I’m not saying that Eflin is a better pitcher than either Nola or Wheeler. I am, however, saying that Eflin proved himself a viable starter for the Phillies rotation in either the of the 3-4 slots of their rotationas the club makes important decisions in preparation for the 2021 season.
The greater success for Eflin in 2020 came from an increase in strikeouts, his decrease in home runs surrendered, and an improvement in his pure stuff. His pitch selection and movement on his pitches of strength appeared way better than in prior seasons. He was pitching in 2020 with more conviction and confidence.
Chris Clegg at Fantrax recently took a look into whether Eflin’s strikeout gains this season were real. One thing he found was a dramatic drop in Eflin’s hard-hit rate:
“Fangraphs and Baseball Savant both have a different measure of hard-hit rate. Using Savant, Eflin had a hard-hit rate of 32.7 percent, which rated better 76 percent of pitchers. Using Fangraphs Hard contact percentage, Eflin had just a 24.5 percent rate. That was quite a drop from his 2019 number of 37.9 percent.“
Eflin still has that solid, 95 mph, four-seam fastball that he can locate and go up in the zone when he needs it. But this year he went back to using his best pitch, which is the sinker, using it low, moving the pitch in and out of the zone. Opposition batters produced a very low average on his curve ball as well.
“I feel like I’ve clearly had the best stuff of my career this year,” said Eflin per Corey Seidman in mid-September.
The coming off-season will be interesting for the Phillies to say the least. Changes have already begun in the front office and moves need to be made on the roster as well. A lot of questions still need to be answered.
Finances in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic appear to be the biggest concern. But if the Phillies want to contend in 2021 then some money needs to be spent this off-season. The priority should be getting a new contract for catcher J.T. Realmuto – but there are other options. The Phillies could bring in someone such as James McCann as their new starting catcher for less money and keep Andrew Knapp as the backup.
The money which many fans want spent on bringing back Realmuto may be better spent adding an ace to the rotation. I would love if they brought in Trevor Bauer to take on that role. Tell me you wouldn’t feel good about a Phillies rotation of Bauer, Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin with young Spencer Howard easing in as the fifth starter?
Eflin will turn 27 years of age during the first week of the 2021 season, just the start of what should be his prime years. He won’t become a free agent until after 2022, and it might even be smart of the club to explore an extension sooner than later. I believe that what we saw this past summer was a true emergence, something that will carry over to next year and beyond.