Zach Eflin and Tiny Changes for Progress

The pitcher may be finding a sweet spot in his arsenal.

The Phillies were a mess last year. The buzz words were all right — they spoke publicly in a loving manner of communication, collaboration, and data driven decision making — but the results were middling and often maddening. Gabe Kapler was in his second year managing the club and they weren’t making any improvements from an intriguing 2018 season, despite legitimate additions to the roster like Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson. Something seemed off, especially when it came to the club’s starting pitching. After finishing 2018 as the seventh-best staff by fWAR, they had slipped all the way to 23rd with essentially the same group.

Then in late September, Matt Gelb and Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic broke a story that confirmed much more was happening. We learned of how the team’s public facing messaging contradicted its mission statement by jettisoning pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who the staff trusted but who was often at odds with Kapler, in favor of Chris Young, who was close with Kapler and more analytically focused. The change happened before the season, in mid-November, because other clubs had requested to interview Young and the Phillies were deathly afraid of losing a competitive advantage. Almost overnight, Phillies pitchers lost a coach they trusted and got new info delivered in an entirely different way without so much as even a head’s up.

No one may have been more chapped about it all than Zach Eflin, who “grew tired” of the team’s insistence on the vogue strategy of high four-seamers paired with low breakers (the BSB, one could say). You may consider that an odd quote and maybe even an immature response, but when the approach stopped working for Eflin, coaches appeared to have no other plans that could really impact his stuff as he’d always known it. He primarily featured a sinker before 2018. In mid-August of last year, against any suggestion from the coaching staff, he went back to what he knew best and featured the out-of-fashion sinker. He began to have more success. He’s continued it through this year with a 3.77 FIP that’s helped him tally almost a full win of value. Before a dud this past Tuesday, it was a 2.90 FIP and 1.0 fWAR. Regardless, it’s still progress after last year’s circus.

The new plan and fresh start with a different coaching staff seems to be helping Eflin lean into the best parts of himself on the mound, and his sinker is leading the way to a career-best 30% K rate.

This note and GIF from Nick are from two starts ago, on Sept. 3 against the Nationals. In his start on Tuesday of this week, Eflin added another three strikeouts with the sinker. He only had 30 through all of 2019. Eflin is creating more movement on the pitch than he ever has in his major league career, by both drop and side-to-side wiggle. He’s spotting it exactly where he has historically but it’s been coming to the plate with a new conviction.

His 30.2% CSW on it is in the top third of pitchers who have thrown at least a hundred sinkers this year. In context of the league, it’s about three better than average. Last year, Eflin only managed a 25.4% CSW on the pitch, plopping his results a couple tics below average. Because he’s throwing it so much more — it’s up from about 22% last season to above 55% now — the results are scaling in a big way. Sinkers have fallen out of favor because their horizontal movement leaves them in the happy zone for hitters longer. There’s always room for a good pitch, though, and Eflin’s has inched up into being a good pitch.

The 26-year-old has also shown additional growth beyond the sinker by showcasing his curveball more. When Kapler and company came to town, he shelved the offering and used it only as a show-me pitch. This year, it’s back enough to be considered a legitimate part of his arsenal. He’s throwing it twice as much. It still only accounts for about 10% of Eflin’s pitches but it’s been lethal. Like the sinker above, it’s best to start processing it by seeing it. This one, in particular, caught Marcell Ozuna looking to end the inning.

Ozuna’s reaction is priceless. The pitch might look like a mistake because it came in over the heart of the plate, but consider the context. Eflin can dot the edge of the plate on the glove side edge with his sinker at 95 mph. After that, his most frequent offering is a tightly shaped slider low and away at around 88 mph. And then he drops this completely inconsiderate hook in the high 70s, which drops seven inches more than the slider. It doesn’t matter if it moves less than average compared to other curveballs; it works well in the scope of his stuff.

The location of the curve is interesting, and indicative of what he’s been doing this whole season. He’s challenging hitters by putting it in the zone more frequently this year (45%) than he did last year (39.8%). It’s another tiny tweak, but it appears as though he’s forcing hitters to go after what he’s willing to give them. And it’s working. Eflin is generating a ton of strikes with the curveball. He’s gotten a swing or call in his favor 40% of the time he’s thrown it this year. The league average is 32%.

That’s the kind of result that might lead us to wonder why he doesn’t throw it even more. It’s a fair thought. I don’t always know that a pitcher should throw a good pitch more simply because it’s good — it might be performing well because it isn’t featured as much — but Eflin has only thrown the curve enough for hitters to truly need to prepare for it in four of his seven outings. In that start featured in Nick’s tweet above, which was easily his best so far this year, he threw it 23% of the time. It’s a great ingredient in the sauce but we’re not always tasting it.

These two small advances in Eflin’s stuff represent improvements to his primary offering while bolstering his third, buttressing the bookends of his repertoire. The slider is fine, and he also still flirts with the changeup enough that hitters can’t completely forget about it. But more than anything his rebound-in-progress could represent the team recalibrating its approach to pitcher development after what might be generously described as a debacle under Kapler. Even if Eflin isn’t an ace he could still be a solid piece for a competing team.

Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him Going Deep for PitcherList.

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