Anybody who played baseball on an organized team in their younger years fantasized about becoming a Major Leaguer. However, as we all know, ascending to the big leagues is an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish in reality.
Becoming a Major League player is a dream realized by all players on MLB rosters, yet not many of them get to put an extra special spin on the achievement by playing for their favorite team, too.
Zach Eflin’s personal MLB journey reached a unique high point when the Tampa Bay Rays signed the free agent to a three-year, $40 million contract in December. After seven years in Philadelphia, the Orlando native was thrilled to join the team that he cheered for as a youngster.
Signing Eflin was the Rays’ biggest player move of the offseason and the richest free-agent contract the team had ever agreed to.
“It meant the world to me. They were the first team to reach out,” Eflin told The Game Day Baseball. “It was a blessing because I grew up a diehard Rays fan. I was praying that they were going to be interested.
“It’s where I wanted to go the entire time. I’m so grateful the organization valued the way I carried myself on and off the field to be able to offer me a contract like that.”
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The genuine joy Eflin first felt when landing back near home has extended into his first regular season with the Rays. The ex-Phillie still lives in central Florida, and he and his wife Lauren welcomed identical twin girls, Hallie Laine and Austin Renae, in March.
Eflin is close to his family and now plays a significant role on a first-place team in Tampa Bay.
“It’s really been amazing,” he said. “We have on-demand help [for the girls] two hours away, down the street. We’re thrilled to be here, and it’s even cooler the position we’re at, winning all these games.”
Tampa Bay has the best record in MLB, and Eflin had wanted to hook on with the Rays for baseball reasons, too. In each of the past four seasons, Tampa Bay ranked in the top four in the Majors in team ERA.
Eflin cited pitching coach Kyle Snyder as a major factor in his desire to sign with the Rays as a free agent. Snyder took on the role in 2018 and has been instrumental in many Tampa Bay pitchers exceeding expectations.
“You can kind of look at what they’ve done the past five, six years,” Eflin said. “The kind of program that Kyle Snyder runs, it’s just second to none. I’ve watched him for the longest time from Philly, just develop these pitchers that, frankly, people really hadn’t heard of.”
The 29-year-old is on his way to a career-high in wins, notching eight already with a current standard of 11 victories to surpass. Eflin’s 3.28 ERA and 1.00 WHIP are also career-bests to this point of the season, further confirming that he found the right situation following his tenure in Philadelphia.
“I believed at the time in my career when I went into free agency, I hadn’t hit my ceiling,” Eflin said. “I’m still hungry to learn and I wanted to go to the best possible place where I can get better. I felt like there was no better place than Tampa.”
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Eflin has fine-tuned his pitch mix with Tampa Bay. According to Baseball Savant, he has increased his cutter usage from 15.0 to 29.0% and curveball usage from 20.1 to 27.3%.
“It’s more so pitch design and pitch sequencing,” Eflin said. “We’ve been in the bullpen, and every single time I’m trying to learn more, trying to get more depth on my pitches.
“I’m really trying to dive more into the analytic aspects of what they do great here. It’s been a two-way street the entire time. It’s been a lot of fun and I really feel like I’m learning the most I have in my career.”
While Eflin is part of a pitching staff that continues to perform at a high level (third in MLB in team ERA at 3.56), the Tampa Bay offense has been a big reason for the team’s rise to the top of the American League and the toughest division in the game. The AL East leaders top MLB in OPS (.806) and slugging percentage (.469).
“It’s what you dream of as a pitcher,” Eflin said of the outstanding offensive support. “It really makes our job a lot easier when they put a four- or five-spot in an inning and then you can coast and attack guys and get ahead of them instead of nibbling around the plate. They’ve surprised a lot of people. There’s no sign of letting up, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
The eventual climb to the Majors began for Eflin in 2012 when the San Diego Padres tabbed him in the first round of the MLB Draft. He knows what winning looks and feels like, having been a member of the 2022 National League Champion Phillies, and knew these Rays were capable of greatness when he joined them.
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“We all knew how talented we were in spring training,” he said. “We’re taking care of business where we need to, we’re taking care of all the little things right. We’re stealing the extra bag, we’re getting the outfield assist, we’re getting out of jams when we need to. We have so many leaders on this team. There’s not one. We have so many people that carry the weight of this entire team.”
For Eflin, being on top of the standings and in the uniform of his childhood team is more than he could have imagined.
“I think it’s such a special place to be,” he said. “It really is a blessing to our family and to play for a hometown team. It’s the coolest thing in the world.”