Perhaps no one on the Phillies roster benefitted more from the addition of Zack Wheeler in 2020 than Zach Eflin, and Eflin is in a prime position to get even better in 2021. More importantly, he’s going to have a very big impact on how the team fares this season. A strong front end of the rotation will be important for a Phillies team that finished just one game out of a playoff spot in 2020, and Eflin is going to be a major factor in that.
What could go right in 2021?
The best possible thing that could happen for Eflin, and the Phillies, is that he continues to progress the way he did last year. In the middle of the 2020 season, he changed his mindset mid-season to focus less on throwing fastballs and more on throwing his sinker, which has been his best pitch. The success he had with that pitch led to the highest strikeout percentage of his career. He also posted a career-best 115 ERA+. If Eflin can at least maintain his 2020 production, 2021 will be a very good year for him. But he has the potential to show that he can be even better, and that’s very exciting.
Manager Joe Girardi is very high on Eflin as well. He recently said he views the rotation as a “1A, 1B, and 1C” situation. That confidence is mirrored by Eflin himself, who has said “I really believe that truly inside of me, the sky is the limit for me.”
What could go wrong in 2021?
Expectations are pretty high for Eflin going in to 2021. The worst thing that could happen for him is if it turns out that his breakout 2020 was just a fluke. The underlying numbers say that’s unlikely, but there always is a chance that Eflin, who is still figuring things out, could regress. Eflin needs to focus on throwing the pitches that work best for him. When he doesn’t do that is when he struggles the most, as evidenced by his early-season struggle in 2020 before he switched to a sinker-focused approach.
What could have a major impact on Eflin in 2021?
A major key to Eflin’s success or failure in 2021 will be new pitching coach Caleb Cotham. Cotham played his professional career for the Yankees and the Reds, under managers Joe Girardi and Bryan Price, the man he’s replacing. Cotham is the youngest pitching coach in Phillies franchise history and the second youngest currently in the league. He spent the last two years as an assistant pitching coach for the Reds. This relationship could be very positive for Eflin if he meshes well with the stat-heavy Cotham, or it could lead to a regression if he doesn’t.
Cotham, at least for now, seems to think very highly of Eflin. In his introductory press conference, he alluded to the Phillies having three potential Cy Young candidates, which presumably includes Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Eflin. While that claim is definitely a bit of a stretch, it’s not unreasonable to say that because of Eflin, the Phillies have a very strong 1-2-3 punch in their rotation.
I’ll leave you with this fun tidbit from last week...
A little PFP levity: Dusty Wathan mishit a fungo. Zach Eflin dove off the mound and caught it on the fly. Everyone went wild. “Athlete!” Rhys Hoskins yelled.— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) February 23, 2021