It was a good start to the spring for Zach Eflin.
He needed just 26 pitches Wednesday to coast through two scoreless innings against the Tigers. Those 26 pitches provided a glimpse of Eflin’s 2021 game plan, a sinker-first approach backed by an improved curveball and a newly-emphasized changeup.
Here was his pitch mix, according to MLB Statcast data:
- 11 sinkers
- 5 changeups
- 5 four-seam fastballs
- 3 curveballs
- 2 sliders
Eflin utilized his changeup on just 5.1% of his pitches a season ago. Last week, he discussed an offseason emphasis on further developing his changeup, and he reiterated the importance of its growth yesterday.
“It just gives the hitter something else to think about, and that’s the whole goal with all of my pitches,” he said. “So if I can better any individual pitch and make myself a better pitcher and a better winning teammate, then I’m absolutely going to be all for that. It’s been a huge focus this spring and I’m going to continue to throw it.”
If last season’s growth of his curveball serves as any indication, there’s reason to believe Eflin can implement the changeup with at least some level of effectiveness beyond a ‘show-me’ pitch.
I previously wrote about the uptick in production he saw from the curveball last season, but I’ll spare the deep dive this time around.
The short of it is this –
In 2019, opponents battered his curveball to the tune of a .320 average and .680 slugging percentage. Last season, hitters posted just a .120 BA and .125 SLG%.
Sure, 2020 provided a small sample size and it’s probably optimistic to think he’ll replicate such dramatic improvement stretched out over 30 starts, but Eflin’s work with his curveball from 2019 to 2020 provides tangible proof this is a pitcher capable of identifying a weakness and successfully implementing a plan to improve it.
Following yesterday’s game, I had the opportunity to ask him about both what went into the process of improving his curveball and developing belief in it.
“Comfort, being able to comfortably throw a pitch and find the right grip is huge, but I think ultimately the most important thing is throw it,” he said. “Throw it, feel it out of your hand, consistently do it. Work on it more than you have in the past.”
More specifically, a tweak to his bullpen approach was big in furthering the development of the pitch.
“A lot of times in the past, I would make sure my heater was good to go, throw a couple of off speed pitches and call it a day in a bullpen,” he said. “My bullpen schedules were three heaters away, then two inside, and then-off speed pitches right in a row. I’ve kind of gotten a little different in the past couple of years in terms of bullpens, throwing a heater away, then follow that with a slider, or throw a fastball up and then drop a curveball after that. So mixing the feel of a heater with a curveball and a change up off of each other has been the biggest thing for me working in the offseason and spring training.”
Still, it’s one thing to throw the pitch with some success and feel improvement in bullpens or sides, but having belief in at as a weapon against major league hitters is an entirely different story. Here’s what he had to say on developing that belief:
“It felt great in the offseason and in the quarantine when we got sent home from the first spring. I was feeling good, I felt like I was spinning the crap out of it. I was throwing it aggressively. I was really hammering down how I was trying to throw it. But it was nice to see when I got to the second spring training, see it in games, see the swings I was getting, getting ahead of guys, burying it in the dirt. That was probably the time where I found out it was a good pitch. And I always needed something to bury in the dirt, so it was nice to get that pitch going.”
It remains to be seen if Eflin can make a similar leap with the changeup this year, but the intent appears to be there.
Sometimes when I listen to an athlete talk, I know they’re grasping at straws. They’re hopeful without a tangible reason to be hopeful. When I listen Eflin talk, I hear a guy who has a plan and an idea of how to actually execute it.
When we talk about “breakout guys,” we tend to look at velocity, arm talent, spin rate – and don’t get me wrong, those are important – but Eflin solidifying himself and taking a step forward feels like a safer bet because there’s a track record.
He’s proven that he can identify a weakness, refine grip and technique, and implement a growth process to get results.