In his introductory press conference, new Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham stated that the Phillies have “three guys that can go out and be Cy Youngs.” Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are clearly the first two, but fans have speculated as to who the third could be that Cotham eluded to.
While there is an outside chance that Cotham could be referencing the potential of Spencer Howard, he almost certainly was referring to Zach Eflin. Eflin made significant strides over the course of the 2020 season, pitching career-best numbers while solidifying his place as the third best starter on the Phillies. But does he actually have Cy Young potential? Today, we take a look and find out.
Zach Eflin in 2020
Zach Eflin pitched 59 innings over the course of 10 starts in 2020. He allowed 26 earned runs for an overall ERA of 3.97 while striking out 70. On paper, this was the best season of his career. His ERA has been going down consistently since his atrocious 2017 season, but he finished a season in the sub-4.00 range for the first time in his career this season.
The main change to Eflin’s pitching arsenal in 2020 was his switch-over to using a sinker as his main fastball. In 2019, Eflin utilized a four-seam fastball 33.6% of the time and a sinker 21.9%. 2020 Zach Eflin essentially abandoned the four-seamer, switching to throwing his sinker 51.9% of the time. Eflin’s off-speed pitches consisted of his slider (used 20.3% of the time) and his curveball (13.1%). While Eflin may not have the speed to keep batters at bay, he managed to keep them off-balance by keeping his pitches low and in the corners of the plate.
Having pitched 59.0 innings in 2020, Eflin missed qualifying for any stat leaderboards by 1 inning (to qualify, a player must have at least 1 inning pitched per team game). That being said, let’s take a look and see where Eflin would rank among MLB pitchers if he qualified.
While Eflin was certainly not a Cy Young candidate in 2020, he did prove that he has ace potential. At age 26, Eflin certainly has time to improve as well. With Caleb Cotham stepping in as the Phillies’ new pitching coach as well, perhaps Eflin can learn from Cotham who worked directly with the 2020 Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.
The Bauer Connection
Trevor Bauer is quite possibly one of the hardest working players in Major League Baseball. While Cotham only worked with him for 1.5 years, Cotham certainly had an impact on Bauer’s incredible breakout year in 2020. Cotham can not only instruct Eflin the same way he did Bauer, but he can also share some of Bauer’s best practices with Eflin, giving him the tools to replicate that success using his own repertoire.
Not to mention, Bauer did not make it to this point in one night.
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Barring injury or any setback, Eflin has the time to continue improving his trade. For Bauer, it wasn’t until his age-27 season (2018) that he made the jump to bona fide ace. Even then, inconsistency shined through in the 2019 season, as his ERA doubled from 2.21 in 2018 to 4.48.
The 2021 season will be the next test for Eflin. Can he replicate his 2020 success over the course of a full season? Will he hold up to the pressure as a number-three pitcher?
Having 33-year old Cotham as his pitching coach means that Eflin will have access to the best of both worlds. As a former pitcher, Cotham not only knows what its like to be in Eflin’s place, but is also adept in using data and technology to the advantage of his pitchers.
As a mummer-adourned football player once said “Hungry dogs run faster.” That rang true for Bauer in his pursuit of a Cy Young, it certainly can ring true of Eflin as well.
Mandatory Credit – Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire
Shaun is a Phillies Contributor for PSN and a Sports Information Graduate Assistant at West Chester University. An alum of The University of Tampa, Shaun is an accomplished sportswriter, having covered three NCAA Division II National Champions and now the Philadelphia Phillies. Connect with Shaun on Twitter @shaun_nestor