Zach Eflin

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.”

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.

Subscribe and rate Phillies Talk:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube

More on the Phillies

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

Subscribe and rate Phillies Talk:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube

More on the Phillies

Phillies are down with the fastball again and Jake Arrieta couldn’t be happier

Phillies are down with the fastball again and Jake Arrieta couldn’t be happier

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta is encouraged.

The down-and-away fastball is back in Phillies camp.

"There's an emphasis on that," he said. "It's refreshing to hear it promoted. It's been good in this game forever and it will continue to be good as long as the game of baseball is played."

Arrieta won a Cy Young Award and pitched two no-hitters by pitching down in the zone with two-way action on his pitches.

But too often in recent seasons, he has seen guys try to blow high four-seam fastballs by hitters. It works for some, the elite pitchers with exceptional power and location, but not for others.

"There was a weird transition there for like three or four years," Arrieta said. "As smart as a lot of these analytical teams are, they miss some of the most obvious signs of not needing to do that as often. Guys that don't have mid- to upper-90s fastballs, guys that don't have a 12-6 or an above-average curveball. Taking guys that throw sinkers and transitioning them to a guy that throws four-seamers up. It's happened all around baseball and it's foolish.

"Look, we're the guys out there on the mound with the ball. We know what our stuff is, we know how it works. We should know what works best. And if you don't, you need to figure it out. You shouldn't have to have somebody tell you that."

Baseball's information age has some players walking a tightrope. They want to absorb and employ all the data and technology they can, but sometimes it comes at the cost of Charlie Manuel's favorite line — know thyself.

"Young guys want to be coachable," Arrieta said. "I've been in similar situations. You believe that everybody has your best interests in mind but sometimes those things aren't meant for you. So, you have to be able to filter the information you are given, be realistic with yourself and self-evaluate."

The Phillies have a great example of a pitcher who walked the aforementioned tightrope last season. Zach Eflin, who got to the majors throwing a sinking fastball and pitching to early contact, was encouraged to power guys up in the zone with a four-seam fastball. In fairness to the Phillies' analytics team, former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young, he did have some success with the approach. But Eflin's effectiveness nose-dived by mid-season and he lost his spot in the rotation amid questions about durability that arose when Kapler revealed that the pitcher felt as if his legs were heavy.

Turns out, Eflin's legs might have just been tired from backing up third base because he returned to the rotation for the final five weeks of the season and pitched well. He made eight starts in that span and allowed two or fewer earned runs in five of them. The key to Eflin's success down the stretch was his decision to go back to the style of pitching that got him to the majors — sinkers, early contact, show the big fastball up occasionally.

Arrieta was thrilled to see Eflin have success late in the season, thrilled to see him pitching in a way that looked more natural to him.

"Absolutely," Arrieta said when asked if he advised Eflin to take control of his own style of pitching. "Absolutely."

He went on to say it's important that all players take control of their careers because "when they send you to Triple A, no one is going with you."

Arrieta added that he believed Eflin looked uncomfortable riding fastballs up in the zone "from Day 1."

"It was a period of time that was frustrating not only for him last year but for all of us watching it happen," Arrieta said. "Watching him go from a sinker-slider-cutter guy, occasional curveball-changeup, to up with a curveball underneath. Look, say you're a center in the NBA and they want you to be a point guard. It's probably not going to work out. It's not who you are. 'I can't (bleeping) dribble, I can't shoot three-pointers.' It's not going to work."

Arrieta stressed that Young, the former pitching coach who is now the Chicago Cubs bullpen coach, "did a lot of good here and there was a lot of great information that he gave the guys and it definitely wasn't just him." But Arrieta made it no secret that he doesn't like some of the trends he's seen in pitching the last few years, especially when it comes to pitching up in the zone for those who aren't comfortable with the practice or precise with their control.

"Look, you don't want a guy in the box to focus his eyes on a certain area, so you have to elevate at times to raise the eye level," Arrieta said. "I'm so sick of seeing guys go fastball up 0-0, fastball up 1-0, 0-1, 2-1. I'm (bleeping) sick of seeing it. And it doesn't work as well as people think it does. It just flat-out doesn't. 

"There's a ton of damage up if you can't locate it."

That's why Arrieta is glad that new pitching coach Bryan Price is talking about the importance of the down-and-away fastball.

"The message has been sent that we're all going to be good at down and away," Arrieta said. "It's the hardest pitch to hit in the game and it always will be. I don't care what new guru comes along and tries to say that the evidence shows the cutter is the only pitch you throw. I'm not going to listen or believe any of it. Down and away is and will always be good."

Arrieta and Aaron Nola are pitchers who naturally work down in the zone. Now, Eflin is back in the fold and Arrieta thinks the soon-to-be-26-year-old right-hander is on the verge of big things.

"It's not an easy situation to deal with when you're being pulled in a couple of different directions and you're unsure what to do, but he's in a better place now," Arrieta said. "He's got beautiful mechanics. He's got really good command and action on everything. It's real stuff.

"This is nothing against (Zack) Wheeler or Nola because they're both great, but Eflin is just as good. There should be excitement about this guy."

Subscribe and rate Phillies Talk:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19

More on the Phillies