Under the radar, Zach Eflin making a name for himself
LAKE ELSINORE – One of the more misleading phrases in baseball when describing a pitcher is that he "pitches to contact" which implies that the concept is about tossing it down the middle of the plate and what happens, happens.
"No, that is not what we are trying to do out there," laughed Zach Eflin, who has been one of the best pitchers in the Padres’ system since he was drafted in the supplemental portion of the first round by San Diego in 2012.
"Basically I’m challenging the hitter. I am going to throw my best stuff out there and let’s see what you can do with it. I am going to throw to the corners of the plate and if you want to hit it then you are going to roll over it or get weak contact."
Eflin’s game, who’s 20-year-old frame seems much closer to six-foot-six, 225 lbs. than his listed six-foot-four, 200 lbs., this past summer was about forcing the opposition to hit what they didn’t want to as he finished with a 10-7 record and 3.80 ERA for the Padres’ High-A affiliate Lake Elsinore, in the hitter friendly Cal League.
Despite his size, he is not a strikeout pitcher, relying instead on getting batters out with his two-seam fastball, a pitch which is slightly slower than the traditional four seam fastball but has downward movement on the pitcher’s arm side. The key benefit of the two-seamer is that its late movement makes it difficult for batters to square up or "barrel" the ball.
"I started throwing it in Little League," Eflin said of the pitch that most hurlers only begin to learn later in their careers. "I threw a little split; I put my fingers on the outside of the two-seam grip. As I got older I started to put it on the seams and it just started diving down. So I kept using it."
"I probably throw about seventy percent two-seam fastballs but when I need to be more precise or want more velocity I will throw the four-seamer. The reason I throw the two-seamer more is that it forces the batter to swing earlier in the count and allows me to stay out on the mound longer."
Last year in Low-A Fort Wayne it was Eflin who outshone more heralded pitching prospects Max Fried and Joe Ross when he posted a league-best 2.73 ERA, delivering a streak of 19 starts of at least five innings and two or fewer runs surrendered.
"Zach is just an extremely competitive kid," said Randy Smith, the Padres’ Director of Minor League Development. "He might not have received as much publicity as some of the other guys last year but he mixes his stuff well and understands what the hitters are trying to do.
"He is one of the best competitors that we have in the organization."
Eflin was taken with the 33rd overall pick out of Hagerty High School in Central Florida where he spurned the University of Central Florida to sign with the Padres.
"I always wanted to go to college and UCF was just down the road from our house. Both sets of my grandparents live close by, my Dad works on campus so it was going to be really cool."
But for many young talented high school pitchers the choice to turn pro or go to college is different than it was years ago. Most contracts now have written into them that the big league club will pay for college for the player in the off-season or if he is no longer playing pro ball. Most importantly the goal of the team that is paying the player is to get them to the major leagues, not win various minor league championships.
"That was the biggest decision I made. You were going to get the ball every five or six days and have a certain amount of pitches/innings limit. In college it’s mainly about winning because jobs depend on it and they are going to keep running you out there.
"I thought about it and talked to my family and just didn’t want to get hurt and ruin anything for the future. So we thought turning my career into a professional one would be the best outcome for all of us."
After surviving a bout with mononucleosis to start his career in the Arizona League after being drafted, Eflin’s career trajectory has gone as planned. Next year he should be a starter in the AA Texas League for San Antonio, in what would have been his junior year at Central Florida.
If he had gone to UCF he would not have been eligible for the draft until next summer, when he could conceivably have an opportunity for a big league call-up.
"Zach is a strike thrower," said pitching coach Bronswell Patrick on Eflin’s success this past year.
"He has good movement on his two-seamer and he keeps the ball down in the zone to go along with a good slider. His change-up has also been good throughout this year too."
"You look up and see his numbers and he is putting together good statistics. He just goes out and pitches and really likes to compete."
Despite being a very soft spoken young man, the attribute that most people in the organization talk about most with Eflin is his mental approach.
"He’s just a kid at 20 but is very advanced for his age and has a really good idea of what he needs to do," said Patrick. "When he needs a groundball he can place the two-seamer where the batter doesn’t want it or when he needs to reach back in the tank and turn it up for his four-seamer, he can do it to get the strikeout."
"That 92 can turn into a 97 really quick."
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