Philadelphia Phillies: Let’s pump the breaks on labeling Zach Eflin a “1C”

Sep 3, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zach Eflin (56) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zach Eflin (56) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

With “baseball fever” starting to pick up around the country, the annual tradition of players walking into Spring Training predicting career years for themselves has begun. Last year it was Jean Segura who quite publicly announced that he was in “the best shape of his life” (he wasn’t), this year it’s Philadelphia Phillies RHP Zach Eflin labeling himself as a “number 1” starter.

Coming off the best season of his career (3.97 ERA, 1.271 WHIP, 10.7 K/9), Eflin’s heightened sense of confidence checks out on paper. He’s seemingly improved year after year since 2018, and he flashed some serious signs of potential this past season under the watch of since departed pitching coach Bryan Price.

Specifically towards the end of the regular season, Eflin really stepped up as the Phillies best overall staring pitcher, surpassing the likes of Aaron Nola and an injured Zack Wheeler for a brief period of time. His last three appearances consisted of a seven inning “complete game” shutout against the Blue Jays, an eight inning victory over the Nationals, and then 2.2 innings of scoreless work against the Rays operating out of the bullpen.

Despite still struggling with bouts of inconsistencies during the majority of the regular season, Eflin capped off 2020 in spectacular form, leaving the Phillies feeling pretty good about his ceiling in 2021. Even Joe Girardi referred to the young right-hander as a “1C” – someone who should be viewed as an Ace-caliber pitcher alongside the likes of Nola and Wheeler.

While the oozing confidence is much appreciated, it’d be wise for the fanbase (and the Philadelphia Phillies organization as a whole) to pump the breaks on labeling Eflin as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

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Philadelphia Phillies RHP Zach Eflin isn’t an “Ace” quite yet.

While Eflin’s high strikeout numbers and strong finish to the regular season in 2020 are definitely encouraging, you’re still looking at a starter who put up average base numbers for the majority of the regular season. After his first two starts, Eflin’s ERA didn’t dip back below 4.00 until his final bullpen appearance against Tampa. In fact, between August 18th and September 23rd, Eflin’s ERA spent more time over 5.00 than it did under 4.00.

While Eflin’s xFIP, FIP, and SIERA tell the story of a pitcher who was hurt by his defense more often than not, the simple truth is that his baseline ERA/WHIP numbers were by no means “good” last season.

Go back just one season to 2019, and Eflin’s performance was even less impressive. His 4.13 ERA and 1.347 WHIP would be considered below average by some, and his more advanced statistics were even less impressive (4.85 FIP, 4.76 FIP, 4.86 SIERA).

While plenty of people have chalked up Eflin’s poor 2019 to bad coaching (I don’t disagree), some of the projection models on FanGraphs appear to view Eflin as someone primed to regress back towards that 2019 version. According to their five most popular models, FanGraphs has Eflin’s 2021 ERA landing somewhere between 4.47 and 4.85, with his FIP also being in the mid-to-high 4.00s.

Definitely not “1C’ numbers.

When it comes to Zach Eflin, the fanbase seems to be pretty split on what should be expected of hm in 2021. Some people view him as nothing more than a back-end rotation arm, some people view him as a potential Cy Young candidate. Ultimately speaking, both parties are wrong. Eflin is neither elite nor is he below average, he is somewhere in the middle at this point in time.

Could Eflin have a monster breakout season, exploding onto the scene as a “1C” of sorts? Sure, anything is possible. However, before we all start jumping the gun on the right-hander, he first needs to put together a consistently good 162-game season. He’s shown flashes of elite potential in the past, but always seems to buckle after a few good outings.

Eflin’s summer of 2019 is a pretty good example of this. Despite opening up the regular season in pretty solid form, he collapsed and posted an 11.88 ERA in the month of July. You simply can’t label a pitcher as a potential “number one” when he has stretches like that.

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For the record, I’m still relatively “high” on Zach Eflin as we cruise into the 2021 season. His last couple of outings in 2020 were encouraging, and he appears to have made a positive mental switch of sorts. Him finishing the year with 12+ wins and a 3.75 ERA seems totally doable.

However, labeling Eflin as a “1C” – a pitcher who has yet to even record a sub-4.00 ERA over a full season – is wildly premature. Let’s worry about Eflin establishing him as a strong #3 starter before we start getting ahead of ourselves with the “Ace” conversation.