Zach Eflin has a better grip on one important thing this spring

Zach Eflin has a better grip on one important thing this spring

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Zach Eflin has a bounce in his step as he heads into his first start of the spring Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers.

The gentlemanly right-hander is full of optimism and for good reason. He seemed to find himself as a pitcher late last season, a discovery that started with his decision to pitch to his strength and feature the sinking fastball that got him to the majors. Physically, he added strength to his 6-foot-6 frame over the winter and arrived at camp healthy and ready to go at 230 pounds.

There’s one other reason that Eflin is upbeat. At 5 ounces, it’s a small reason, but for a man who makes his living gripping and throwing those 5 ounces it’s a big reason.

Eflin noticed it the first day he arrived in camp.

The baseball just felt better in his hand.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “To me, they feel a little softer and you can definitely notice the seams a little more. Last year, it was like throwing a cue ball.”

Baseballs flew out of ballparks a record 6,779 times last season, shattering the previous record of 6,105 set in 2017. Phillies pitchers were victimized a club record 258 times. Eflin gave up a team-high 28, one more than Aaron Nola.

All around the game last season, pitchers voiced concerns about a juiced ball. Major League Baseball denied ordering any changes to the ball and commissioned a scientific study, the results of which were announced at the winter meetings in December. The study found that the seams on the baseball were slightly lower in 2019. That created less drag and more carry on the ball. But the study also factored in the hitters’ role in the jump in homers. Specifically, the emphasis on launch angle and hitting balls in the air played a large part in the jump in homers.

Last season, pitchers jokingly referred to the ball used in the majors as a “Titleist.” In addition to claiming that the seams were smaller, pitchers claimed the ball was harder than it had been in previous years because the leather had been stretched so tightly over the ball. Major League Baseball, again, denied any intentional changes but did acknowledge that balls can vary from year to year because they are made from natural materials and are hand-stitched by human beings.

“The thing that was tough with last year’s balls was the mud they use to rub them wouldn’t stay on the baseball because it was so slick and hard,” Eflin said.

A Major League Baseball official said no changes have been made to the balls that teams are using this spring. Again, the lot can vary from year to year.

But Eflin is not the only happy pitcher in Phillies camp.

Zack Wheeler said he’s noticed that the seams feel slightly bigger.

The texture of the ball is what Eflin is most enthused about.

“It’s just a completely different feel,” he said. “With a softer ball, your finger meshes into the ball and fits in with it as opposed to if a ball was made out of concrete or like I said, a cue ball. Where you’re putting so much pressure trying to spin the ball, you’re pushing as hard as you can on the flat, hard surface, and that’s where you can get a blister. 

“This ball, it’s like it has a little give to it so it doesn’t feel as 'pinchy.” I think it’s going to help prevent injuries.”

Jake Arrieta wasn’t sure if he had noticed a change in the balls, but if he comes across one with a softer feel, he surely won’t throw it out. 

“Before last year, the ball was a little softer,” he said. “You could manipulate the leather on the ball just a little bit and create a nice grip. Last year, the leather was so tight it almost felt like plastic and they were hard to hold on to sometimes.

“We just need a little wiggle room on the leather. They were wound entirely too tight last year.”

It wasn’t just big-league pitchers who did not like the feel of the ball last year. The same ball was used in Triple A while a slightly different ball was used from the Double A level on down. The Double A ball had slightly larger seams and the leather was not stretched as tightly across the ball. Several pitchers in the Phillies system put up big numbers in Double A then struggled when they went to Triple A because the ball felt harder and slicker. Adjusting to the feel of the big-league ball is one of the reasons Phillies officials want top pitching prospect Spencer Howard to get some work in Triple A this season.

But if more pitchers feel what Eflin has been feeling this spring, maybe the adjustment won’t be that difficult.

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Phillies Talk podcast: Shane Victorino joins to talk some ball


Phillies Talk podcast: Shane Victorino joins to talk some ball

A special guest joined the Phillies Talk podcast Friday: former Phillies All-Star and World Series champion Shane Victorino.

• Victorino on the sports shutdown

• His love of Philly, the fans and how they embraced him

• Why Philly made such a difference in his life

• The confidence that Charlie Manuel and Gene Lamont gave him

• Shane on his famous walk-off outfield assist

• Victorino's 40-yard dash vs. Troy Polamalu

• Victorino on Bryce Harper

• His message to Phillies fans

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Andrew McCutchen taking his hacks, taking virus seriously and getting a glimpse of retired life

Andrew McCutchen taking his hacks, taking virus seriously and getting a glimpse of retired life

Around 11 a.m. Thursday, Andrew McCutchen wanted to go take some hacks. He's not getting work in seven days a week like he was during spring training — no sense in overdoing it right now — but is still working out five times a week and those are the only five times he leaves his house in Florida.

McCutchen's family is taking the stay-at-home guidelines seriously. He's the only one leaving the house and he keeps hand sanitizer, gloves and a mask on him. 

"I've taken it as seriously as possible," McCutchen said during a phone conversation Thursday.

"Realizing I have a family back home so I don't want to jeopardize their lives at all because this thing is serious. It's taking all the measures and steps and caution that I can when I'm away for a couple hours. That's kind of where I am. It's around, it's real and you've got to treat it that way."

It, of course, is coronavirus, which has practically shut down the entire country and has left each pro sports league's 2020 schedule in jeopardy. 

This has been a humbling experience for millions upon millions of people. We are all largely in the same boat — you, me, Bryce Harper, LeBron. We all have to stay in the house, we're all bored at times, stir crazy at times, depressed at times, wondering when this will pass.

MLB last week worked out key issues pertaining to 2020 pay and service time in the event of a canceled season. With those details finalized, there isn't a ton of baseball talk going on between players at the moment.

"Baseball is kind of on the backburner. We're all dealing with real-life problems," McCutchen said. "There's just some things in life going on that we're putting ahead of that, putting in front of that. I'm just doing my best, as far as getting myself ready physically. But at the same time, realizing that I've got a family at home and they depend on me to be there to provide and I know there's just so many other people going through things that are much worse. 

"Baseball-wise, there's not that much to talk about, there's more to talk about with the everyday things going on and the drastic changes in the world."

As we search for any silver lining to this heartbreaking situation, one could be that it resets some of us, reminds us of what is truly important and how much the loved ones we can't see right now mean to us. 

This is a much different situation than any a professional athlete has gotten used to. In a radio interview with Mike Missanelli Thursday, Phillies manager Joe Girardi remarked that "it was like going from winter to winter." 

McCutchen feels things slowing down in his mind and in his world. He's getting a lot of family time in with his wife Maria, their two-year-old son Steel and three-month-old son Armani. They're thinking of ways to keep Steel active and everyone sane during a period when outdoor activity has been drastically limited.

"I realized I'm really able to slow down and use my brain a little more than I guess I have," McCutchen said. "Just thinking about things to do with my son around the house, there's so many things to do. Like yesterday, we had chalk and were like drawing on the driveway. Just doing little things like that every day has been super helpful. But at the same time, it's kinda fun because we're able to relive our childhood and just think about that simplified life we used to have."

It's also giving McCutchen, 33, a glimpse of life after baseball.

"It kinda speeds up a little bit on you when you think about this moment," he said. "You think about how when you're retired one day how life's gonna be, it's essentially kind of what it's like. It kinda isn't, but you're not playing at all, I can kinda look at it like that. I'm not playing, I haven't played in a full year. I'm just trying to think of how it would be when I'm not playing, when I'm actually done playing. 

"It makes me realize to not take anything for granted, not take the game for granted, enjoy the game as much as you possibly can. Don't take it too seriously. The game is important but realize that you're playing a game. Only way you can play is by having fun. Just keep doing that. This thing doesn't last forever. I just miss being out there on the field with my teammates, playing in front of the fans, the roar of the crowd, thinking of all those things that you've experienced and knowing that when we're back, whenever that is, who knows when that will feel normal again because of all of this. Or when will it be? Not trying to take anything for granted. Just being grateful and thankful for the opportunities and your past in this game."

If/when the 2020 MLB season does begin, McCutchen will be ready. The Phillies won't have to play a month without him like they would have if the season began on March 26. McCutchen, who tore his ACL last June, says this is the longest he's ever gone without playing a game since he picked up a bat at five years old.

"Now I know, whenever the time comes and we're playing again, I'll be ready to go," he said. "I'm really gonna be itching to get out on the field and play but right now I just need to take care of business and take advantage of this time."

He didn't have a preference for who was set to lead off in his absence.

"I guess I didn't pay much attention to who I wanted to lead off because I'm the leadoff guy," McCutchen said. "I think we have a few guys who can do it. There's Adam Haseley of course, I think Roman Quinn was showing some spark. I think a lot of people were looking at J.T. (Realmuto) as well because he can get on base a lot and can do a lot there in the leadoff spot, but I think it'd be a little harder for him being a catcher. 

"We had a handful of guys who could do it but I guess I don't have to worry about that anymore because I'll be leading off."

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