Improving and confident, Zach Eflin could be poised for big things in 2021


Zach Eflin is neither brash nor cocky.

In fact, he's one of the humblest pro athletes you'll ever meet.

But that doesn't mean he can't be confident.

And after serving as a mainstay in the Phillies' starting rotation each of the last three seasons — and getting better and better each year — Eflin is quite confident as he prepares for the new season in Clearwater, Florida.

"I view myself as a No. 1," said the gentlemanly right-hander, who will turn 27 shortly after opening day. "I really believe the sky is the limit for me.

"Pitching at the top of the starting rotation is my clear goal."

Eflin was the first piece acquired when the Phillies began their rebuild under former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. in December 2014. Over the years, Eflin has gotten stronger, healthier thanks to surgeries that addressed chronic knee pain he battled since he was a teenager and smarter in how he attacks hitters. He's learned over the years that he has the power to go upstairs for a strikeout when needed, but that his bread and butter is pitching down in the zone with a sinker/slider mix that can produce early contact and quick outs. He also has a curveball and changeup that are quality pitches.

Back at the start of the 2020 season, the Phillies had a pair of studs in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler at the top of their rotation.

By the end of the season, the team went three deep in quality starters. 

Nola. Wheeler. Eflin.

Together, they are a big reason to believe the Phillies can be playoff-relevant in 2021.

Eflin made 10 starts and one relief appearance in the shortened 2020 season. In 59 innings, he allowed 60 hits, eight of which were homers, and 15 walks while striking out 70. His ERA was a career-best 3.97. His strikeout rate (the number of plate appearances ending in a K) jumped from 18.3 percent in 2019 to 28.6 percent, far and away a career-best. In his 10 starts, Eflin had a 29.7 strikeout percentage, 10th best among NL starters who faced at least 235 batters.

"I expect Zach to build off of last year," manager Joe Girardi said. "I thought he had a really good year for us and I think he can even be better. I think he used his curveball a lot more effectively last year. Down the stretch, he pitched brilliantly for us. I don't want to put a limitation on him because I think his stuff is that good that he can continue to grow and grow and grow. I look at us that we have a 1A and 1B. We could have a 1C. That's how I feel about Zach Eflin. I'm excited about his year and really look forward to getting it started."

Like Nola, Eflin will work with his fifth different pitching coach in as many seasons in 2021 as Caleb Cotham replaces Bryan Price, who retired after one season with the Phils.

Eflin, Nola and Wheeler all connected with Price, who favored pitching down in the zone. Eflin tried to pitch more at the top of the zone under pitching coach Chris Young in 2019 before realizing it wasn't for him. He can and will still do it at times, but his strength is keeping the ball down. 

Eflin is eager to work with Cotham, who pitched for the Yankees and Reds and was Cincinnati's assistant pitching coach last season, though in some ways he's become his own best resource.

"At this point in my career, I know what's gotten me here and I know what's going to get me to the next level," Eflin said. "So, I would say it's a lot easier this go-around than three, four, five years ago, for sure.

"I think the blessing in disguise is having five different voices that each respectively have their own personal way of going about pitching. Being able to take something from each guy and apply it to your career has been really beneficial to me. I've learned in so many ways how to sequence pitches, how to trust my abilities, to trust my pitches, all over the spectrum of pitching.

"To be able to have five different voices, the biggest thing is just selecting what you want to hear from that and applying it to how it's going to benefit you. The blessing in disguise has been, we've had so many smart voices, when you apply the right words, it's been extremely beneficial."

The Phillies aren't sure who will fill the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation. Newcomers Matt Moore and Chase Anderson, both on big-league contracts, stand a good chance to fill those spots, but Spencer Howard and Vince Velasquez will be in the competition, as well. Girardi on Friday said the club favored using a five-man rotation but could mix in a sixth starter on occasion.

The first three spots, with all the usual caveats about good health, are set with Nola, Wheeler and Eflin — though Eflin, even with the confidence he built last season, is taking nothing for granted.

"I try to keep the mentality that my job's not secure," he said. "I tend to play pretty well and push myself pretty well when my back's against the wall so I like to keep myself in those shoes.

"I feel like I've prepared myself well this offseason and put myself in a good position. I'm ready to rock and roll."

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