Happy preseason Razz-faithful! This will be my 3rd preseason (and full-season for that matter) writing player breakdowns for you here at Razzball. And let’s just say I’m starting to feel the pressure of success. In 2021, my first sleeper highlight was Joe Musgrove who went on to have an ace-level season. Last year for 2022, my first sleeper highlight was Nestor Cortes who also went on to have a lights-out season. This year, I so badly want to nail it again for the third time. I had a few ideas that I mulled over during the holidays; but, between the flurry of kids ripping apart presents and drinking my fair share of beverages amidst games of dominos at the family Christmas party, it came to me in a vision. I had already received the most important gift of the season: the prime sleeper.
A Ray Of Light
It was December 1st, 2022 (which feels like a lifetime ago), when the Tampa Bay Rays signed free agent pitcher Zach Eflin to a 3-year $40M contract early in the offseason. Now, under normal circumstances with normal teams this wouldn’t pique my interest in and of itself. BUT THE RAYS DID IT. Insert meme of Dicaprio saying “You had my curiosity… now you’ve got my attention.” The Rays don’t make a habit of paying pitchers (or anyone for that matter). They tend to trust their analytics team and developmental coaches to get the most out of their farm arms and find discount pitchers via trade that they can mold into useful starters.
This $40M deal is the largest contract the Rays have ever given to ANY free agent, not just a pitcher, ever. Full stop. The previous contract king was in 1998 to Wilson Alvarez in the early days of the Devil Rays prior to the rise of analytics. The only free-agent pitcher they have signed for more than 1 year in the last 10 years, let alone pay $10M+ AAV, was a 2-year deal to Charlie Morton (with a 3rd option) for $30M in 2018. And now they just guaranteed 3 years to Eflin. They don’t just hand out contracts like that to fill roster spots so they clearly believe he can be something. If there’s one team I trust to make a top pitcher, it’s the Rays.
Bullpen Junk Drawer
Just this last year the Rays transformed reliever Jeffrey Springs into a shutdown starter. And the year before that they began the transformation of reliever Drew Rasmussen into an exceptional starter. Both of which came via trade, not free agency, but they clearly saw something in these players that they wanted to target.
I think I need a bumper sticker that says “The Rays don’t make junk, their pitchers throw it.” As is the case with these two pitchers, the Rays saw a fastball and release they liked and then remolded their breaking pitches, successfully. The Rays’ devil magic on pitchers is second to none. I broke down the arsenal changes of Springs in depth here towards the end of the season. The short of it, they made his changeup more vertical and his slider more horizontal and these complement the natural run of his fastball. To a lesser extent, I also did a breakdown of Rasmussen, here. The short of that is another page from the same book: Rasmussen has a bit of natural rise on his fastball, and in the absence of a changeup he learned a cutter that moves exclusively vertical and substantially increased the horizontal on his slider, again, to complement his fastball. See a pattern?
Back To Zach
As luck, providence, or destiny would have it I also wrote a post on Zach Eflin last year right as he started to hit another level. Ultimately, he was injured and missed a majority of the second half before coming back and pitching out of the bullpen for the playoff run. Another Eflin season fell short. One writer once said a good story is like poetry, it rhymes. So here I find myself back to Eflin, the hopeful protagonist. Many people forget Zach is a former first-round draft pick by the Padres back in 2012. He was then part of the 3-team trade with the Dodgers and Phillies that sent Rollins to Los Angeles and has been the target of many hopes and dreams since.
Now we dive back in; back into Zach with our eyes toward the future. Let’s take a look at his arsenal and see if we can identify what the Rays might be thinking. As I wrote here, last year Zach Eflin utilized a vertical cutter (like Rasmussen) and threw his curveball more which was very effective. When comparing his repertoire to his new teammates, you see some similarities between both Rasmussen and Springs that could fit into the Rays’ template…
The first thing of note is that Eflin has a similar run on his fastball to Springs, 10.4″ and 11.4″ arm-side respectably, but with greater velocity (their Sinkers are also very similar although Springs barely used it whereas Eflin featured it). They love horizontal movement on fastballs, check.
The thing that sets Eflin apart from the others is he throws a breaking curveball. This could be the horizontal component the Rays want to utilize. Rasmussen’s slider is very similar as the primary horizontal pitch that they developed. He throws an occasional curveball too, but his is more of a 12-6. Eflin’s cutter, as I mentioned earlier, is similar to Rasmussen’s as a vertical component but lacks the above-average drop that his generates of almost 30 inches. Eflin needs a more effective secondary pitch that moves the batter’s eye up and down reliably like Rasmussen… and Springs.
Springs’ primary vertical pitch is his changeup and compares similarly to Eflin’s; however, he gets the targeted 30 inches of drop that we’re looking for whereas Eflin’s does not. The key to Springs’ effectiveness is nearly 10 mph of separation with his fastball, something that Eflin has not accomplished yet. As I explained in the Springs post his changeup wasn’t always this effective, the Rays altered his grip and retooled it.
|Zach Eflin||2022 Changeup||R||87.0||27.8||-13.8|
|Jeffrey Springs||2021 Changeup||L||84.0||27.8||-12.6|
After the Rays adjusted the pitch last year, Springs added both drop and fade on his changeup making it one of the best in the league. When you compare his 2021 pitch profile with Eflin’s 2022 pitch profile, it’s eerily similar. I think there’s an opportunity here for a reliable pitch.
Time For Tinkering
First, They will want him to go back to his fastball and use the sinker less (more fastballs to lefties). Zach does not have a truly effective vertical pitch as everything has very middling downward movement (low 20s). Philosophically for the Rays, they want their starters to be able to work up and down, and side to side. With Eflin’s current offerings, he will need to establish the up with his 4-seamer again and then craft a better downward pitch.
Secondly, both Springs and Rasmussen rely on their downward pitch as their second-most used pitch. Due to the similar fastball movement and spin-rate with Springs, I predict that they will teach Eflin the same changeup grip and release as Springs in the hopes to generate 30+ inches of drop and effectively slowing the pitch in order to increase its separation. The goal will be to get it below 85 mph with more fade.
Lastly, the Rays will retool his slider into a better version of the cutter, and in a corresponding move scrap the cutter. Currently, his is mostly downward without much two-plane movement. They will want it to bite more and work to pump it in so it diverges away from the changeup and fastball in a complimentary fashion. And for him, the goal will be to keep it above 84 mph (perhaps a hybrid cutter to separate the velocity from his changeup and his curve around 88 mph). That will essentially make him the mirrored version of Jeffrey Springs with the added utility of a curveball.
Back To The Future
One advantage Zach Eflin has over Rasmussen and Springs is the added height and extension. Standing at 6’6″, Zach is 3+ inches taller and has 83rd percentile extension on his pitches (Glasnow at 6’8″ has 99th percentile extension). The Rays will be able to utilize this to increase his effectiveness along with the natural arm-side fade on both his fastballs that they have been emphasizing as of late. He just needs to put it together effectively to have a good season.
Last year with his current skillset, Zach Eflin was on the verge of an effective season and fits the mold they like to work with. Under the Rays’ tutelage, he will have a real chance to take off. With the outlined improvements to his repertoire, especially the vertical movement, I believe he can increase his swinging strike rate by a couple of ticks and if he can master a sweeping slider the sky is the limit. They did not sign him for $40M to be a bullpen arm. For now, I’m going to give him the projection of a 3.62 ERA over 145 innings with 138 Ks. If the Rays’ magic works like I think we could see K/9 close to 10 again like he flashed last year with an ERA around 3.30ish. That screams value for a pitcher taken at an ADP of 380 right now, much like Nestor Cortes was last year.
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