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Is Zach Eflin Breaking Out?

After battling myriad injuries, a healthy Eflin may be the next legitimate option for a suddenly strong rotation

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Zach Eflin’s body didn’t come with a warranty. When late summer 2016 rolled around and both of his knees’ patellar tendons needed restorative surgery - finally too much to pitch through after years of discomfort - he couldn’t simply swap them out for new ones. Nor could he upgrade his pitching elbow and shoulder to new models after both hampered him throughout 2017. Bodies are tricky that way.

Burdened by injury and discomfort, Eflin found little success in the Majors in 2016 and 2017. Across the two seasons and 22 starts, he posted a 5.85 ERA in 127.2 innings, striking out just 66 of 552 batters faced (12 percent) and surrendering 28 home runs. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher being his most effective self when both his knees and both major parts of his throwing arm are banged up.

Now, in 2018, we’re all being treated to a glimpse of what Zach Eflin looks like when he’s healthy. Guess what: He looks pretty good, and he’s only just turned 24.

The stuff alone has ticked up noticeably.

Even before getting into performance numbers - which, as you’d guess, are way better - it’s clear that Eflin has extra life on all of his pitches so far this year.

Eflin’s four-seamer now regularly sits 95, an increase of over one full MPH click. In an era where velocity is king (or queen) and throwing mid-90s is approaching requirement territory, Eflin’s ability to add velocity over the past three seasons is incredibly heartening, as a start.

It’s even apparently evident, in tracking his release point, that the arm troubles significantly affected his delivery last season.

Nearly every statistic is trending up, too.

It’s hard to find one particular thing that Eflin isn’t setting a career-best in. Walks have bumped up slightly, from 4.3 to 5.8 percent, but here’s an assortment of figures that have drastically improved from 2017 to 2018-to-date (per Fangraphs):

  • K%: 12.5 to 24.6
  • Whiff%: 7.3 to 10.1
  • Hard-hit%: 33.3 to 28.2
  • HR%: 5.7 to 1.9

And on and on. Feel free to look for yourself and find even more categorical improvements.

And it isn’t like he’s done this against cheap competition.

In four starts this June, Eflin has faced the Cubs at Wrigley, the Brewers at Miller Park and CBP, and the Nats in Washington. Those three teams are a combined 127-95 (.572) after games on June 22, and the Brewers own the National League’s best record.

Eflin, in those four starts, has been undaunted.

  • June 5 @ CHC: 7.2 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 2 K
  • June 10 vs. MIL: 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 K
  • June 16 @ MIL: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K
  • June 22 @ WAS: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 5 K
  • Total: 23.2 IP, 20 H, 6 R (2.28 ERA), 4 BB, 22 K

Four starts, four wins. Opponents hit just .233/.280/.314 with zero homers as a collective, and that meager .314 SLG comes even after including the Nationals’ four doubles in Friday’s game.

In fact, Eflin’s current streak of going five-plus innings while allowing zero home runs and no more than one walk ties Miles Mikolas and Rick Porcello for the longest such streaks in the league this year, and is only the fourth such streak of at least that length by a Phils pitcher since 1995. The others are by folks you may have heard of: Cliff Lee, Aaron Nola, and Cole Hamels.

Eflin doesn’t need to pitch like an ace.

If what we’ve seen from Eflin this year, especially recently, is indicative of his true talent level, he both falls short of most “ace” definitions and is still absolutely more than acceptably good for a Major League starter. Every pitcher doesn’t need to be Max Scherzer in order to be a viable piece of a team’s rotation.

The key for Eflin, besides making this month’s performance prototypical moving forward, is health. This version of Eflin, surgical repairs and all, looks to be for real. We’ve yet to see him pitch more than 131.2 innings as a pro, and that came in Double-A in 2015. It’s entirely possible that Eflin’s workload will need to be managed as the season progresses, but reaching that point healthy and intact is the most important thing, both for Zach and the Phillies.

While Vince Velasquez looks to add stability to his outings, and internal candidates like Ben Lively and Tom Eshelman struggle to find their own grooves, Eflin reaching a point of reliability would be a huge boost to the Phillies. After years of searching for rotation depth, Eflin is starting to make his case as a potential long-term solution.