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Diamondbacks Most Valuable Player: Zac Gallen

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The SnakePit has spoken. A pitcher can also be the most valuable player...

Philadelphia Phillies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was a two-horse race for this title, between Zac Gallen and Kole Calhoun. Well, at least it was, once I’d eliminated the person who had voted seven times for Tim Locastro. I’d like to thanks Mrs. Locastro for visiting the SnakePit. :) Otherwise though, I let the ballots fall where they may, and Gallen edged Calhoun, though the final margin was relatively tight - just two votes. And the SnakePit Supreme Court i.e. me, has declared that there will not be any independent audit of the results.

It’s kinda hard to know what more we can say about Gallen, after Wesley covered the young pitcher at the top of our 2020 player reviews, and I wrote about him when he won the Pitcher of the Year award. I’ll refer you to both of those pieces, linked above, for details of Gallen’s campaign last year. There’s videos and analysis, so have fun with that. Rather than looking at the past, I want to take a look and see what the future might hold for Zac. It’s obviously very difficult to predict accurately, given he still has less than a full season of major-league performance to go by. He has only made 27 starts, throwing a total of barely 150 innings. So, obviously, this should all be seen as wildly speculative.

However, let’s start by seeing where Gallen ranks among young Arizona pitchers. The list below is the top ten of D-backs pitchers through age 24. This is in the sense they were with the organization n their age 24 season. The figures include all seasons to that point, not just the ones in Arizona - so, for Gallen it includes his time with Miami, etc. It’s in descending order of total bWAR, and you might be surprised by the names at the top of the list.

D-backs pitchers through age 24

Rk Player WAR IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP K% BB% ERA+
Rk Player WAR IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP K% BB% ERA+
1 Trevor Cahill 10.6 783.0 738 367 337 291 511 3.87 4.34 15.5% 8.8% 107
2 Byung-Hyun Kim 8.9 323.0 228 123 117 151 380 3.26 3.68 28.0% 11.1% 143
3 Brandon Webb 6.1 180.2 140 65 57 68 172 2.84 3.34 22.9% 9.1% 165
4 Daniel Hudson 5.5 336.0 301 133 119 86 267 3.19 3.42 19.4% 6.3% 128
5 Zac Gallen 5.3 152.0 117 50 47 61 178 2.78 3.64 28.5% 9.8% 162
6 Taijuan Walker 5.2 514.1 482 262 227 160 468 3.97 4.22 21.4% 7.3% 104
7 Archie Bradley 4.4 250.1 245 121 116 110 245 4.17 3.79 22.5% 10.1% 108
8 Patrick Corbin 3.5 315.1 306 137 133 79 264 3.8 3.63 20.1% 6.0% 104
9 Max Scherzer 2.6 226.1 214 118 97 84 240 3.86 3.73 24.5% 8.6% 117
10 Robbie Ray 1.8 330.2 349 187 171 131 356 4.65 3.8 24.4% 9.0% 92

Yes, the best young pitchers in franchise history, at least by bWAR, are Trevor Cahill and Byung-Hyun Kim. Of course, bWAR doesn’t tell the whole story, because this is largely a function of innings pitched, and both men got an early jump. Kim was 20 when he made his major-league debut - a full three years younger than Gallen - so he and Cahill simply had more time to pitch, and accumulate productive value. Clearly, Cahill and Hudson represent cautionary tales in terms of projecting forward from this point in any player’s career. Over eight years after his age 24 season here, Cahill has been worth a total of just 1.5 bWAR, with an ERA of 4.57 (ERA+ 90), while Hudson made only 12 more starts.

At the other end, you probably have Brandon Webb. Over the next five years, in his age 25-29 seasons, he had a Cy Young win and came runner-up twice, averaged 34 starts per year and gave Arizona 27.1 bWAR. Of course, it all fell off the rails thereafter, but you could hardly have asked for any more. And it’s interesting to see that in terms of ERA, IP and bWAR, Webby’s numbers are pretty close to what Gallen has produced. Though, equally obviously, they are not particularly comparable in other areas, and have very different styles of pitching. But, still... We can all dream, right?

The most likely result is going to be somewhere between the extremes represented by Cahill and Webb. To get some clue of what the average might be, I looked at the ages 25-29 seasons of all nine of the other pitchers listed above - that being the period for which Zac is currently under team control (though more on that later). The chart below shows the figures they produced over that time. Note that Walker, Bradley and Ray are still works in progress, having just completed their age 27, 27 and 28 seasons respectively.

D-backs pitchers, age 25-29

Rk Player WAR IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP K% BB% ERA+
Rk Player WAR IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP K% BB% ERA+
1 Trevor Cahill 0.2 450.1 450 245 226 216 396 4.52 4.34 19,9% 10.9% 88
2 Byung-Hyun Kim 0.8 438.2 483 290 268 207 357 5.50 4.85 17.9% 10.4% 86
3 Brandon Webb 27.1 1135.0 1054 486 416 365 891 3.30 3.60 18.8% 7.7% 140
4 Daniel Hudson -1.8 176.0 195 115 105 59 168 5.37 3.92 21.8% 7.3% 79
5 Zac Gallen
6 Taijuan Walker 1.6 67.1 59 28 21 24 60 2.81 4.39 21.1% 8.4% 156
7 Archie Bradley 1.5 161.2 146 66 63 59 180 3.51 3.45 26.2% 8.6% 126
8 Patrick Corbin 12.8 832.1 807 391 351 262 871 3.80 3.61 24.8% 7.5% 117
9 Max Scherzer 21.4 1013.0 908 420 396 305 1081 3.52 3.32 26.0% 7.3% 117
10 Robbie Ray 7.0 511.2 416 243 228 270 686 4.01 4.34 31.3% 12.3% 112

Four ended up as relievers: Kim, Hudson, Bradley and Cahill. If that ends up Gallen’s fate, I think we’ll be disappointed. But taking the average of the other five paints a rosier picture. If Gallen simply comes in at that level, he’ll be worth 14 bWAR over the next five seasons, averaging 142 IP with an ERA of 3.57. Because of the “works in progress” mentioned, as well as the shortened 2019 season, the figures for innings and bWAR probably err on the conservative side, with Walker and Ray likely to add to their tallies this year. As a rough estimate, I’d say perhaps expect 150 innings and three wins per year from Gallen, the rest of his time under contract. That’s not too far off what the projection systems have for 2021.

  • Marcel: 165 IP, 3.44 ERA
  • Steamer: 178 IP, 4.14 ERA, 2.8 WAR
  • ZIPS: 163.2 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.6 WAR

The question should probably be asked, at what point do the Diamondbacks look at locking Gallen up for the long term? While he’s under team contract through the end of the 2025 season, his price over the final three of those seasons will be contingent on the arbitration performance. Buying out those years can sometimes be a very worthwhile investment, as the team saw with Paul Goldschmidt. But you are gambling that the player concerned will remain both healthy and productive: as the statistics above show, neither of those is by any means guaranteed. While the Goldy deal was a huge win, the jury is still out on the Ketel Marte contract, after a 2020 campaign which was nowhere near as good as his 2019.

Zac Buchanan looked at the situation last month, and concluded that the odds seemed to be against any kind of extension, due to a combination of Gallen’s position (young starting pitchers tend to sign them less common), age and agent (Scott Boras). Especially in the current financial climate, after a troubled 2020 and facing an uncertain 2021, I can imagine the team may well have a self-imposed moratorium on any long-term financial commitments, unless they are extremely team friendly. There’s plenty of time to worry about such things, and in the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy one of the best young pitchers to have pulled on the Sedona Red.

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