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2021 report card: Zach Eflin

Eflin was on his way to another strong year before knee injuries derailed his season.

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MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Eflin is one of my favorite players on the Phillies, but I understand if you don’t feel the same way. His career numbers look like those of a solid yet forgettable back-end starter, and his recurring knee problems are no small concern. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to love about Zach Eflin.

Eflin overcame his fair share of adversity — both personally and professionally — to become the baseball player he is today. His older sister passed away when she was just seven years old, and his parents’ marriage ended soon after. His father struggled to make ends meet while raising three children on his own. On the baseball diamond, Eflin has struggled with knee pain for most of his career. His first two big league seasons (22 starts, 5.85 ERA) were disastrous enough to make anyone give up. But Zach Eflin pushed on.

Eflin came over to the Phillies in 2014 in exchange for Jimmy Rollins. It was one of the first major rebuild trades, and Eflin is the only player acquired in any of those deals who still has a chance to be a part of the next great Phillies team.

What’s more, now that Héctor Neris is off to Houston, the Phillies have no one left on the roster who actually played with J-Roll. That means Zach Eflin is, perhaps, the closest thing we have left to the 2007-2011 Phillies dynasty.

Eflin is also one of the few developmental success stories to come out of the Phillies’ farm system in recent years.

From 2014 to 2017, we watched highly regarded pitching prospects like Jesse Biddle, Jake Thompson, and Mark Appel fall off the map while Eflin trudged forward. We also watched as Zach Eflin competed with the likes of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Ben Lively for playing time. All three of those guys were chosen over Eflin as one point, but Eflin outlasted them all.

Heading into the 2016 season, FanGraphs had Eflin ranked as the no. 23 prospect in the Phillies system, writing that: “he may have upside as an innings-eater fifth starter.” Baseball Prospectus was a little higher on him that year, but he was still left out of their top ten Phillies prospects, and they called him a “back-end starting pitching prospect.”

He was left off of the Baseball America top ten list and Keith Law’s top twenty list entirely.

Matt Winkelman of Phillies Minor Thoughts was higher on Eflin than most. In 2015, he wrote that Eflin could be a “a low end mid-rotation starter” and in 2016 he wrote that Eflin had “at least mid-rotation upside and the frame to log 200 inning seasons.” But even Winkelman had six pitchers ranked ahead of Eflin on his “2016 Top 15 Phillies Under 25” list.

More than five years later, Eflin has had the second most successful career of anyone on those 2016 top prospect lists, behind only Rhys Hoskins.

It’s been a pleasure to watch Zach Eflin grow and improve throughout his Phillies tenure. He has proven himself to be more than the back-end starter most prospect gurus said he would be, and at just 27 years old, he still has a long career ahead of him.

This last season, he proved that the step forward he took in 2020 was no fluke. When he isn’t injured, Zach Eflin is a legitimate number 3 starter. If he can return with healthy knees in 2022, the Phillies should do what they can to sign him to a multi-year extension before he hits free agency at the end of the season.

2021 stats

18 starts, 105.2 IP, 4.17 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 8.43 K/9, 1.36 BB/9, 1.28 HR/9, 2.2 fWAR

The good

When he was on the mound, Zach Eflin was really good in 2021. He started the year off with a streak of ten straight starts of at least 6 IP, a feat that no Phillies pitcher has accomplished since... 37-year-old Aaron Harang in 2015. Huh. All in all, Zach Eflin made 18 starts in 2021 and went at least 6 innings in 14 of them.

The most impressive number that Zach Eflin put up was his excellent walk rate. His 1.36 BB/9 led all pitchers with at least 100 IP, and it wasn’t even close. Clayton Kershaw had the next lowest walk rate, finishing with a 1.55 BB/9.

In his last start of the season on July 16 versus the Marlins, Eflin went just 3.2 innings and allowed 6 runs (5 earned). It was the worst start of his season, and he landed on the IL just days later. He admitted that his knee pain had become too difficult to play through anymore. If we ignore that final start — when he was clearly playing through injury — his final numbers look much more impressive: 102 IP in 17 starts with a 3.88 ERA. That’s an average of six innings per start, a feat that very few starting pitchers achieved in 2021. A pitcher who can average 6 innings with an ERA under 4 is very valuable to say the least.

The bad

Zach Eflin’s knees are clearly a cause for concern. 2021 very well could have been the best season of his career until it was derailed by injury, and the injury may have cost him a long-term extension this offseason.

Another worrying trend this year was Eflin’s reduced fastball velocity. From 2018-2020, he averaged 93.9 MPH on his fastball according to Baseball Info Solutions. In 2021, he was at just 92.6 MPH.

Losing velocity early in one’s career is never a great sign, but on the bright side, it didn’t seem to get in the way of Eflin’s success this year. While his velocity was down, his fastball was actually his most valuable pitch and the most valuable it has ever been in his career according to the pitch value stats at FanGraphs.

The future

In September, Eflin had surgery on his right knee, the second such surgery he’s had in the last five years. The timetable for his return is still very unclear. He could be back as early as April, in which case the Phillies 2022 rotation is set, or he could need several more months to rehab, in which case the Phillies will need to find another reliable starting pitcher.

While the recurring knee problems are a very worrying sign, it is, perhaps, somewhat reassuring to remember that Eflin has dealt with these problems throughout most of his career and he is capable of pitching through the pain when he needs to. After his last knee surgery in 2016, he was able to be a productive major league pitcher for several years before needing surgery again.

I’m no doctor. I can’t really say with any certainty what Eflin will look like when he returns in 2022. But if past performance is any indication, I’m not getting too worried quite yet.

Final grade: B+

This is a hard one. Eflin was very good when he was on the field, but I can’t ignore his chronic knee problems the way that I could overlook a freak injury. Ultimately, Eflin was about a 2-win player in 2021, which is right around average. Therefore, he gets an average grade (with a plus tagged on because I like him). Hopefully, I can give him an A next year.