I benched Zach Eflin in my weekly leagues last week. There, I said it. Even us “analysts” can get it wrong from time to time. You think you have a beat on something and then a small round ball with randomly changed rules on stitching misses bats just the right way and then you are right back to knowing nothing. Just like Jon Snow. I admit I was scared of him facing the Dodgers, in his own house, knowing he wasn’t going to be able to blow them away. I thought it would spoil his 2 start week. There’s that forsaken word again, “knowing.” Quite the opposite happened.
That night in Citizens Bank Park was phil-nomenal. The Dodgers weren’t ready for it and probably no one, not even Zach himself knew what kind of fire he was bringing to the park. Eflin pitched 7 beautiful frames allowing only 4 Hits, 2 Runs, 2 BB, and a shiny 12 Ks. A new career-high. His previous best was 10 against Baltimore in 2020. This though was against a real team with World Series aspirations. So what got into him that night and what does that tell us about his season?
The first thing that’s different with Zach this year (and seemingly every year) is once again he’s tinkering with his pitch mix. For a couple of years now the 4-seamer has become little more than a memory in favor of the sinker and Eflin has featured more offspeed pitches. The largest spot of interest though is him nearly scrapping the slider in favor of his curveball and the invention of a cutter (at least that’s what statcast calls it).
His “cutter” though, doesn’t exactly behave like a cutter now does it? It has almost no horizontal movement and far more vertical movement than the average one. It’s fair to say it’s more of a hard slider with drop. Eflin seems to have reinvented his slider and dials it up and down during his starts.
Looking at the spin-based movement clock we see that cutter has the gyro-spin of some sliders. That suggests that it’s still a slider but that he’s throwing it a bit harder with more late life.
Though I’ve talked about the cutter, it’s a bit of misdirection, just like Zach Eflin. The “cutter” isn’t the real story here. Yes, he changed it, and yes he’s throwing it more. But that’s just his third most used pitch. The real weapon though has been his curveball which mirrors the spin pretty close to his sinker. He gets more sweep on curveball than others and a bit less drop so it moves away from the path of the cutter. Since he’s dialed up the curveball to his second most used pitch, and been locating it well, it’s become nearly unhittable. And at least in the short term, looks like he’s been a bit unlucky with his sinker/cutter balls-in-play too.
Eflin is getting everyone to whiff nearly 50% on his curveball! That’s absurd. Not only that but if they do make contact it is nearly always weak contact since they are likely hitting into the dirt with an average launch angle of -2, and that’s turning into an out almost 9 times out of 10 as opponents are currently only hitting .148 against it, which lines up well with expectations. Because Elfin is able to hide the fastball, and the sinker is also creating a lot of weaker contact, he seems to be following a similar path as Joe Musgrove in 2021 by relying on non-fastballs more than 60% of the time.
That worked out great for Joe last year until he came back down to earth some in the second half. When you rely this much on non-fastballs you have to locate your pitches well to avoid getting into fastball counts where you are forced to remove the mask. Musgrove wore down some in the second half and he began to have let-down games following his really dominant ones. Possibly stamina-related? Zach Eflin could be a mini Musgrove albeit with less-elite breaking pitches. Eflin has yet to pitch more than 165 innings in a season too, so I think you can capitalize on his good starts now while he can locate his pitches well, and then around the All-Star Break maybe look to trade him and avoid the late-season letdown unless he figures out how to get batters off his cutter more.
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