When Major League Baseball slammed the brakes on spring training last March, most players saw it as an inconvenient delay of a few weeks, or a month, or however long it would take to rein in this foreign-sounding coronavirus.
Zach Eflin saw an opportunity.
“What he was able to do over that quarantine, that 12 weeks or so,” said Jered Goodwin, Eflin’s former high school coach and close family friend, “was focus on the process instead of the results.”
In turn, Eflin changed his narrative with the Phillies.
After years of lumping him with Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, pitchers whose performance didn’t align with their potential, team officials now group Eflin with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, top-flight starters in the National League. Take, for instance, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s initial assessment of the roster that he inherited in December: “When you talk about Nola, Wheeler and Eflin,” he said, “that’s a good place to start.”
An overstatement? Maybe. Eflin has not yet put together a six-month season free of a stint in the bullpen, triple A, or on the injured list. But he does have a lower ERA (3.63) than Nola (3.92) and more strikeouts (100) than Wheeler (97) since Aug. 15, 2019. And two months shy of his 27th birthday, there are reasons to believe his peak is only just coming into view.
So how did it happen? How did Eflin go from fighting to stay in the Phillies’ rotation 18 months ago to being “an easy guy to bet on,” as first-year pitching coach Caleb Cotham said recently?
Those 12 weeks last spring are a good place to start.
Eflin hadn’t been publicly awarded a spot in the rotation when baseball stopped on March 12. But his strong finish in 2019 — a 3.20 ERA in eight starts after a brief demotion to the bullpen — gave him a leg up with manager Joe Girardi. And once MLB shuttered camps, the 6-foot-6 right-hander returned to his hometown of Oviedo, Fla., 20 miles northeast of Orlando, to continue training for a season that figured to determine the arc of his career.
Waiting for him was Goodwin. They met when Eflin was 12 and grew so close that Goodwin calls him “kind of a little brother.” They train together in the winter and talk multiple times per week during the season. Few people have more history with Eflin.
Eflin salvaged his 2019 season because veteran teammates Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter urged that he “take ownership of what he’s doing,” as Goodwin puts it. Specifically, they encouraged him to revert to pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his sinker rather than elevating four-seam fastballs, a point of emphasis for then-Phillies pitching coach Chris Young.
Having taken that step, Eflin was ready for the next one. In the unscheduled downtime, he went to work with Goodwin to sharpen a curveball that he nearly ditched in 2019.
Goodwin brought together several major leaguers at Hagerty High School in Oviedo. Eflin simulated starts by facing Baltimore Orioles outfielders Ryan Mountcastle and DJ Stewart, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Daniel Vogelbach, and others. And without the pressure of having to achieve results, Eflin uncorked his curveball with more conviction rather than tentatively “casting it,” as he said he had done previously.
“Sometimes it’s hard to buy into what you know you have to do for the [sake] of your career when you know you have to be results oriented,” Goodwin said by phone. “He took it as a huge opportunity to work on spinning the baseball with hand speed and throwing off-speed pitches with a better intent, like he does the sinker. He just said, ‘These are the things that people knock me on, and I’m going to get better at it.’ ”
Eflin began throwing his curveball harder, giving it better depth and a later break. He also threw it enough for three months that he gained the confidence to weaponize it more often in games. Once the season started, he increased his curveball usage from 5.4% in 2019 to 13.1%; the average velocity rose from 77.9 mph to 79; the swing-and-miss rate on the pitch went from 36.4% to 43.9%.
“I’m not just flipping it over for strikes anymore,” Eflin said last season. “I’m being aggressive with it and trying to create as much spin as possible. It’s complementing all my other pitches. It’s a confidence pitch. I trust it, just as I do with all my weapons.”
With a wicked curveball, a slider and change-up, and a commitment to the sinker (51.6% usage compared to 21.9% in 2019) over the four-seamer (9.6% from 33.6%), Eflin’s ERA declined for the fourth year in a row, finishing at 3.97 in 59 innings. Further, his strikeout rate soared from 18.3% to 28.6%.
Getting that swagger
This winter, Eflin and Goodwin focused on turning his change-up from a for-show pitch to a threat against left-handed hitters. But it’s clear that Eflin has figured out his pitching identity, a discovery that spurred more self-confidence. Most elite pitchers possess an alpha-male swagger. Goodwin is seeing it now in Eflin.
“He’s always had a controlled, confident inner demeanor, but it’s a completely different confidence level,” Goodwin said. “Where I see the biggest turn in the outward confidence and the guy’s-guy mentality is him understanding the work he’s put in. That’s where he’s at, knowing he’s put in the hard work and it’s finally time where he’s going to see the fruits of all that labor.”
The Phillies clearly believe it’s Eflin’s time. They sought to bolster the back of the rotation by signing free agents Chase Anderson and Matt Moore to one-year contracts totaling $7 million, but passed on bigger starting pitching investments.
Implicit in that decision is their confidence in Eflin.
“Last year he opened up that whole arsenal, his whole tool kit,” Cotham said. “It’s noticeable that he has a lot of different ways to manipulate hitter timing. It’s not like he’s up there tricking guys. It’s real stuff and it’s exciting.”