When you have limited information, change can seem sudden and random. This is commonly the case in the minor leagues, where information is rarely shared with the public, and so it is often up to evaluators to do some detective work; to retrace the steps of the journey that took a player from where he was to where he is now. Take, for example, Zach Eflin, who late last year suddenly remade his entire arsenal, adding a curveball and reintroducing his four-seam fastball.
Before talking about what Eflin has changed, we first have to talk about where he started. Drafted by the San Diego Padres in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft (#33 overall), Eflin was then traded to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp, and the Dodgers then quickly flipped him to the Phillies for franchise icon Jimmy Rollins.
Here is what Baseball America wrote about Eflin at the time of the draft:
Eflin was shaping up as a first-round wild card. The Central Florida recruit had added velocity over the course of the 2011 showcase circuit and was maintaining that velocity this spring, sitting in the 90-94 mph range and touching 96-97 at times. Eflin complements his fastball with one of the best changeups in the prep ranks and an inconsistent, slurvy curveball that nonetheless has decent shape and flashed average. Eflin missed the month of April due to triceps tendinitis, and an MRI on his elbow came back negative. Eflin returned to pitch three innings in his team's playoff finale and touched 94 while flashing a solid breaking ball. Eflin was pitching his way into the first round until his injury; his signability and performance at the Florida prep all-star game in Sebring likely will determine how high he goes in the draft, though he still had a shot to go out in the first round.
And here is what they wrote about him two and a half years later at the time of the trade:
Eflin pitches to his strengths like few pitchers his age. While many of his contemporaries have better raw stuff, the 2012 prep supplemental firstrounder has ranked among his league's leaders in ERA and walk rate in each of his two full seasons. After winning the low Class A Midwest League ERA title in 2013 (2.73), he ranked third in the California League in ERA (3.80) and fifth in walk rate (2.2 per nine innings) at high Class A Lake Elsinore in 2014. Eflin generates good downhill plane from a mature, 6-foot-4 frame, and he typically sits 90-92 mph with riding, sinking life to his arm side, while bumping 95 when he elevates his four-seamer. He keeps the ball on the ground by locating his pitches down in the zone, changing speeds and throwing a plus, low-80s changeup to any batter in any count. If Eflin had a reliable third pitch, he probably would have a higher strikeout rate, but his fringe-average cutter/slider hybrid doesn't typically fool batters with its minimal vertical break. Scouts see Eflin filling a big league role, with a ceiling of a durable No. 4 starter, because he commands the strike zone and works efficiently. Those same attributes make him less risky than other starters in his peer group, and he's ready for Double-A in 2015.
There is nothing wrong with back-end starters, and that is what the first half of the 2015 season presented Eflin as. He barely walked anyone and he did not strike out many, but he did post a 2.88 ERA while limiting quality contact and keeping the ball in the park. He then missed four weeks of pro starts to go pitch for Team USA alongside future Phillie and IronPig rotationmate Jake Thompson. Eflin then struggled for a few starts before doing something unusual: In his August 14 start, he threw a curveball. It was not a great pitch, but there and then was born new potential. As it turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Eflin had actually thrown the curveball for the first time in his previous start on August 8 and, according a Jay Floyd interview with pitching coach Dave Lundquist, it was a pitch that they had been working on in bullpen sessions for a bit. It turns out that Eflin himself had requested that he bring back the pitch and the Phillies obliged, so long as he put in the work to improve his slider first; a sort of quid pro quo.
It was not the only improvement for Eflin, who also had started emphasizing his four-seam fastball again. Up to this point, Eflin had been working primarily off of his two-seam fastball at 89-92 and reaching up for 94, and had been trying to generate ground ball contact. The four-seam fastball sacrifices some movement, but Eflin has shown that he can run it up to 95-97 when needed, and has been not afraid to elevate it for swings and misses.
The results were not immediately apparent. Eflin was modestly effective in August and September, and while he put up two very good playoff starts, he still was not missing bats. This past spring, he was solid in his appearances in Major League camp before getting obliterated by the Phillies' top-level hitters in the Futures Series game in Reading.
That hardly ended Eflin's spring on a high note, but his start to the season with Lehigh Valley has been nothing short of eye-opening. After his start Wednesday, Eflin has a 2.05 ERA over 26.1 IP, having allowed 17 hits and 3 walks while striking out 22. This becomes even more amazing when you take into account that, in the first inning of his third start, he gave up 6 hits and 5 runs in a BABIP-fueled run by the PawSox. For those doing the math, his line outside of that inning is as follows: 25.1 IP, 0.36 ERA, 11 H, 3 BB, 20 K.
The reason for this is because everything -- stuff to delivery -- is working in concert now. Eflin's curveball has become a legitimate weapon and looks like this:
The curveball is not the sole benefactor of Eflin's success, either. His slider is also showing more drop and is no longer a short, cutter-like pitch. Instead, it is more like this:
Neither of these pitches are of the level of the breaking balls of the Phillies' Major League pitchers, but there is definitely potential impact there. Eflin still has a solid changeup, which has become more effective at keeping hitters off-balance now that they have to respect his increased velocity. As for that velocity, Eflin is not up there just overthrowing the fastball to light up the radar gun. He has shown the ability to manipulate his velocity on his two- and four-seam fastballs to utilize a full velo range of 89-96 with the two pitches.
It can all come together quickly for pitchers, but that does not mean it is full speed ahead to the Majors for Zach Eflin. At least, not yet. He is still very young, having turned 22 three weeks ago, and was the fourth-youngest player in the International League at the start of the season. What's more, he would be the third-youngest player in the NL if the Phillies called him up today.
Eflin still has work to do on his command, and the Phillies are just starting to test his ability to hold results up as he pushes 100 pitches in an outing. Could Eflin hold up in the Majors right now? Probably! But the Phillies don't need to rush him, just like they don't need to rush Jake Thompson or Mark Appel. If Eflin can continue to improve his secondary offerings, he could start to look more and more like a No. 3 starter with a chance at a bit more. At the very least, his case for top rank among Phillies pitching farmhands is growing stronger by the day.