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Is there another gear for Zach Eflin?

The Phillies’ right-handed starter’s peripherals have always been better than the actual results. Will that ever change?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When Zach Eflin left Sunday’s 9-3 loss to the Washington Nationals after just two innings, he had allowed four earned runs on five hits, one of them a two-out, three-run home run to Nats superstar Juan Soto, and departed after throwing just 38 pitches. His early departure caught those of us watching by surprise but, as we found out after the game, was part of manager Rob Thomson’s plan all along in the wake of recent knee soreness, as noted by NBC Sports’ Jim Salisbury.

Though he did not reveal it pregame, Thomson said he planned to limit Eflin to three innings Sunday.

“During the first two innings, he was doing a lot of running around, covering first, backing up bases, and it looked to me like he was a little ginger walking around so I was just being careful with him.”

Phillies officials say Eflin is dealing with a knee bruise and not a structural issue relating to the two surgeries he’s had on his knees. Still, unable to properly push off on the mound, the Phils ran the risk of an arm injury as Eflin tried to work around his knee discomfort. It was a risk, for sure, but one the team felt secure enough in making and, hey, they’re the ones with the information, so, there you go. But it was apparent Eflin didn’t have his best stuff, leaving balls up and over the plate in his second inning of work.

It’s all part of the confounding puzzle that is Zach Eflin, a pitcher with outstanding control and a good sinker who always seems to have excellent peripherals but not the results to match them.

It has been said of Eflin that there is another gear in there, a better pitcher, a low-end No. 2 or high-end No. 3 starter just trying to break free. But those assertions are becoming as reliable as Bigfoot sightings.

In 12 starts this year, Eflin has logged 63 innings (just under 5.1 per start) with a 4.43 ERA. His K/9 (7.57) are down from last year’s 8.43 and 2020’s 10.68, but right at his career average of 7.52. He once again is avoiding free passes (1.86 BB/9) and his FIP (3.86) and xERA (2.86) are all better than his actual results.

But that has been the story of his career.

Zach Eflin as a Phillies Starter

Year Starts ERA xERA FIP bWAR fWAR
Year Starts ERA xERA FIP bWAR fWAR
2018 24 4.36 3.6 3.8 1.7 2.3
2019 28 4.13 4.14 4.85 1.3 1.5
2020 10 3.97 3.35 3.39 1.7 1.5
2021 18 4.17 3.87 3.68 2 2.2
2022 12 4.43 2.86 3.86 0.5 1

In every one of Eflin’s seasons as a starting pitcher, his ERA is worse than his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and expected ERA (xERA). Only once in his career, the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, has Eflin posted an ERA under 4.00, and even though his xERA this year is a career-low 2.86, his actual ERA would be the highest of any year as a Phils’ starter.

Much has been made of Eflin’s decision to alter his pitching style and eschew former pitching coach Chris Young’s desire for him to be a fastball-up, curveball-down pitcher strikeout guy to a sinker balling, ground ball pitcher. His fastball velocity has dropped from the 94.0-to-94.8 range from 2018-20 to 93.2 last year and 93.3 this season, and as his K-rate has fallen, the ground ball rate remains middling.

Among 85 MLB pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched this season, Eflin’s GB% of 43.5% ranks 46th, and his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio (GB/FB) of 1.18 is the lowest among the five Phils’ starters, 48th in MLB. Those aren’t the kinds of numbers you want to see from your sinker-baller.

The good news is Eflin has allowed a hard-hit rate (Fangraphs’ Hard%) of just 21.6%, 2nd-lowest in the Majors, and yet, his .290 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is right around league average, his .251 batting average allowed is 23 points lower than last year’s .274, and his 4.9% walk-rate is tied for 14th lowest in the league. And we’ve all seen Eflin string together some outstanding starts this year.

  • 4/26 vs. Rockies: 6.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 Ks
  • 5/17 vs. Padres: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 Ks
  • 5/22 vs. Dodgers: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 12 Ks
  • 6/3 vs. Angels: 8.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 Ks

But Eflin has also had some absolute stinkers, too.

  • 4/15 @ Marlins: 4.0 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 Ks
  • 5/1 @ Mets: 4.1 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 Ks
  • 5/28 @ Mets: 6.0 IP, 8 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 4 Ks
  • 6/19 @ Nationals: 2.0 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 2 Ks

Inconsistent, to say the least.

While Eflin’s fastball velo is unchanged from last year, his pitch usage has shifted a bit. According to Fangraphs, Eflin has all but stopped throwing his slider, using it just 4.8% of the time this season. His career usage is 19.7%, although that number was down a bit in 2020 and ‘21, at 14.3% and 13.3%, respectively. Instead, he’s turned to his curveball this season, throwing it 19.7% of the time, up from 10.8% last season.

These are all interesting notes, but the bottom line is nothing has changed over the years from a results perspective. Since 2018, Eflin has made 92 starts and logged 519 innings. Among 141 qualified starting pitchers during that stretch, his 4.21 ERA is tied with Mike Foltynewicz and Dallas Keuchel for 83rd.

That essentially makes Eflin a No. 4 starter, which is a fine thing to be, especially fronting an offense that is one of the best in the National League. He will score a nice multi-year contract from some team, provided he can stay healthy for the remainder of this season. But any conversation about a long-term extension by the Phillies should be on the back burner until the 28-year-old can prove he’s healthy and consistent.

But time is running out for him to prove there’s another gear for him as a big league pitcher in a Phils uniform.