Zach Eflin handed the baseball to Gabe Kapler, dipped his head, and tried to ignore the boos that poured from the home crowd as he returned to the dugout.
The third inning was not yet complete, but Eflin’s start last month was already finished. It was another ugly night in a stretch of rough starts. The Phillies were down six runs in a crucial game against the first-place Braves. Three days later, Eflin was removed from the starting rotation.
“I hadn’t really been pitching my best,” Eflin said this past week.
He also had not been pitching the way he knew how.
Eflin had relied heavily early in his career on his two-seam fastball, preferring ground balls over strikeouts. He was a sinker-baller. But the Phillies, as they did with a lot of their young arms, asked Eflin last season to try throwing his four-seam fastball at the top of the zone. Instead of finesse, they wanted power.
At times, it worked. His strikeout rate doubled last season and he started this season with a 2.83 ERA in his first 14 starts. Eflin felt liberated. He was no longer just a sinker-baller. But then, just like last season, he began to fade.
The Braves hammered his four-seamer that night, the same way other teams had for a month, and sent him to the bullpen. Eflin knew the Phillies’ way was no longer working. He didn’t feel comfortable trying to blow hitters away.
Being a sinkerballer is how Eflin feels most comfortable. So when Jake Arrieta opted this month for season-ending surgery and gave Eflin another chance to stick in the rotation, the right-hander decided to revert to what he knew best.
“The beautiful thing about this game is that everyone is their own individual person and their own individual player,” Eflin said. “I think to get the most out of the team, you have to get the most out of the players. I think I can benefit the team the most by getting early outs, staying deep into the game, saving our bullpen, and really be aggressive and attack the zone.”
That’s what Eflin did last week in Miami, returning for the first time as the sinker-ball pitcher he was when he first reached the big leagues. He had almost shelved his two-seam fastball the last two seasons, but he threw it for 48% of his pitches against the Marlins.
Eflin pitched six innings, allowed two runs, and struck out just two. But the most important stat to him was the 13 ground balls he recorded. Eflin induced plenty of weak contact, and it was a promising return to sinker-balling.
Eflin, who will start Sunday night against the Mets, threw his four-seam fastball for 41% of his pitches and his two-seam for 15% in his first 20 starts. He went to the bullpen with a 4.63 ERA. A week ago Saturday in Miami, those numbers were reversed.
He thought about returning to sinker-balling after his rough start against the Braves, but when he moved to the bullpen, he decided against it. Back in the rotation, Eflin told pitching coach Chris Young of his plan. If he was going to succeed or fail, Eflin was going to do it his way.
“We simply sat down and talked about it, and I told him what I thought I was best at doing,” Eflin said. “At the end of the day, it’s a two-way street. They want what’s best as well. If I’m at my best going out there throwing sinker balls and getting early contact and going late into the game, then ultimately that’s what’s going to be best for the team. There was no point where they were against me doing it.”
His first night as a sinker-baller came against the Marlins, so it is not a guarantee that Eflin is automatically fixed. But it was a good first start. The Mets on Sunday will provide a better test. But the Phillies need him just to keep them in games for the season’s final weeks. If they reach the playoffs, it will be their offense that carries them there. They just need their pitching to give them a chance.
Eflin believes his sinker ball — not the four-seamer the Phillies asked him to throw — puts him in the best position to do that. If Eflin is right, he’ll be walking to the dugout in the seventh inning instead of the third. And he won’t have to keep his head dipped to block the boos.
“To go out and execute a game plan the way you want to is pretty fun,” Eflin said. “Now it’s all about putting it all together. I have to do what I have to do to be the best version of me on the field. If that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do.”