How Far Can Great Command Take These SPs?

They can't throw 98, but these guys are making pitching an art form.

While it’s a ton of fun to watch a power pitcher blow hitters away with 100mph four seamers or freezing them with power curves, it’s a thing of beauty to watch a pitcher paint the corner, or get the hitter to flail at a two-strike pitch outside the zone because it’s just too close to take; these are the hallmarks of a pitcher in complete command of his repertoire.  In this edition of Is It Legit, I look more deeply into starters who’ve all shown up high on the Command+ leaderboard and look into their chances of sustaining their success.


Zach Eflin


I don’t want to get too excited about two starts, but of course that’s kind of the name of the game in this article, so here we go!  Zach Eflin has shown some promising changes and results so far and he’s widely available.  Eflin was a poster-child for the failures of the Gabe Kapler-era Phillies to change their pitching strategy.  After spending much of 2018 and 2019 trying to be the north-south pitcher the Phillies wanted him to be, Eflin went rogue and began to scrap the effort late in the season.  Going back to relying on his sinker-heavy, east-west approach, he ended 2019 on a high note, recording a 3.08 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in the last two months of the season.  That approach has been amplified this year, as Eflin is throwing his sinker 58.3% of the time (up from 41% in September of 2019) to kick off the season.  Eflin has shown the ability to execute his game plan well thus far.  A glance at his pitch locations thus far supports his 126 Command+ in that he’s been able to consistently locate his sinker down and in and his slider down and away to righties.  His changeup has been his main secondary pitch against lefties and it’s been his best whiff pitch thus far.  The results in his two starts (against the Yankees and upstart Orioles) have been intriguing: a 15:2 strikeout to walk ratio bolstered by a 44% chase rate and 11.9% swinging strike rate.  Granted, this is a tiny sample size and his approach is based more on contact management than swing-and-miss, so expect the strikeout rate to come down.  The good news is that the 26-year-old Eflin is going back to pitching to his strengths, and his start should encourage fantasy GMs that he has the potential of sticking with the Phillies’ rotation and turning in his best year yet.

Verdict: Legit (in a streamer kind of way).  He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but Eflin’s command and ground ball-heavy approach should help him limit damage and log quality innings for the Phillies, giving him a shot to go deep into games and contend for wins, a scarce resource these days on fantasy teams.  Don’t leave him off your watch list, and consider him as a streamer this week at downtrodden Boston and at ailing Atlanta, who are without Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies.


Zach Davies


The similarities between Zach Davies and Eflin don’t end at their first name; they are both command artists who work well low in the zone with less-than-dominant stuff.  However, Davies’ best comp thus far has been Kyle Hendricks, as both feature stifling changeups and both have been highly effective despite poor fastball velocity.  Davies features the third-highest changeup usage in baseball (40.7%), which is up significantly from 2019’s 31.3%, and has actually bested Hendricks thus far in ratios so far, with a 2.78 ERA and 0.84 WHIP.  With the best Command+ among starts in baseball through four starts at 128, Davies has used his perfectly-located changeup to put batters away an impressive 32.8% of the time, en route to the highest strikeout rate of his career thus far (21.2%).  While that K rate doesn’t jump off the page, it’s more impressive when you compare it to Davies’ miniscule walk rate of 3.5%.  All of this success is coming while calling the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park home—and he’s only made one start there so far!  Before we get too head-over-heels with Davies’ hot start, we need to keep a few of the more sobering stats in mind: Davies’ 7.4% HR/FB rate is significantly better than his career mark of about 12%, and his fly ball rate is up, so we should expect to see a bump in home runs allowed.  While it’s partially aided by the additional fly balls, Davies’ BABIP-allowed is also a paltry .226, so that number should rise as well.

Verdict: (Half) Legit.  Davies’ hot start is one part increased skill sand one part luck, so it’s somewhat unsustainable.  That said, Davies has been so good this year that he can afford to regress and still be a 3.7ish ERA pitcher going forward with a good WHIP.  If you picked him up earlier, he’s a nice sell-high candidate if someone thinks he’s Greg Maddux re-incarnate.  But he’s a worthy add if still available and he’s already shown he can hold his own against tough opponents such as the Dodgers (at Dodger Stadium) and in Coors against the Rockies.


Alec Mills


Another pitcher who has had a charmed start to the season, Alec Mills‘ Command+ checks in at 117 so far.  With almost identical ratios to Davies (2.84 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Mills’ superpower has been inducing ground balls, as he has done so at a 60% clip to start the season.  Not only has Mills induced contact at the right angles, he’s also getting contact at the right speeds: Mills’ 81.2mph average exit velocity and 17.6% hard hit rate are in the 99th percentile and 96th percentile, respectively.  Mills has five pitches that he throws at least 10% of the time, and his changeup is his best pitch, nearing Money Pitch status and earning him a 41.2% chase rate, a 35.9% zone rate, and a 18.9% swinging strike rate.  Like Eflin, Mills has boosted the usage of his sinker over his four seamer this season, and the pitch been a phenomenal ground ball offering, inducing a -15 degree average launch angle.  While Mills’ approach has worked wonders this season, there are a few areas for concern thus far.  Batters have a BABIP of .163 against him so far and, with a 19.4% strikeout rate and only a 8.2% swinging strike rate.  While Mills’ approach should generally yield a low BABIP, .163 is insane a change in batted ball luck could create some volatile innings for Mills.  Mills’ xwOBA reflects this good fortune, as he has outperformed his xwOBA by 40 points so far.  Mills also doesn’t have the track record of success in the minor leagues one would expect of an upstart major league pitcher, recording a 5.11 ERA in 104 AAA innings last season, and a 4.84 ERA in 124.2 innings at the same level in 2018.

Verdict: Not Legit.  Mills has maximized his skills and is off to a great start, but some regression is coming for him and this is likely the top of his value.


(Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)

Brian Holcomb

Charlotte-based outdoor educator and Philly sports fan whose Pitcher List involvement stems from a decades-long fascination with baseball statistics, trading cards, and debates about player valuation. When not thinking about fantasy baseball, can regularly be found exploring the trails, rivers and rocks of North Carolina.

One response to “How Far Can Great Command Take These SPs?”

  1. Regi King says:

    Awesome! Just noticed you are in the Charlotte area. Me too. Hoping for Knights’ baseball in 2021.

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