- Rating: 6.67
- 2023 stats: 10 G, 10.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 1.065 WHIP, 0.5 bWAR
- Date of birth: August 18, 1997
- 2023 earnings: League-minimum
- 2024 status: 40-man roster, three options left.
Of all the players who appeared in the World Series this year, I doubt any would have got longer odds of that at the start of the season than Andrew Saalfrank. He was so far off the radar, he barely even got to take part in spring training. Despite the Diamondbacks using fifty different pitchers in the Cactus League, Saalfrank’s contribution was limited to just 2.1 innings of work. To be fair, that’s about what you’d expect out of a sixth-round draft pick in 2019 who, to that point in his professional career, had thrown just 14 innings above High-A ball. If you’d told Andrew then, that he’d appear in more games than any pitcher save José Leclerc in the 2023 post-season, I imagine he’d have edged away from you nervously.
He certainly wasn’t to be found on many prospects lists, though in March, Nick Piecoro did include Saalfrank in an article entitled “10 D-Backs Prospects To Watch Beyond The Top 30”. Piecoro said Andrew “has a sinker/curveball package that is unique for a lefty and he throws enough strikes for it to play. He draws comparisons to Zack Britton.” Otherwise, about the only mention of his upside before his arrival in the major-leagues came in a post on Reddit after Saalfrank was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A when user 53BR said, “Keep an eye for him he has potential.” Even places which went as deep as fifty prospects couldn’t find room for Andrew before the season.
“You crack the Red Bull in the 3rd, Rice Krispy in the 5th, usually you mix in some throws here and there. I’m a minimalistic guy. When your name is called, get up, get the adrenaline going, get a couple throws in, and get going.”
— Andrew Saalfrank on his routine
He started the year down in Double-A Amarillo. That level is about what you would expect considering that after he signed in 2019, Saalfrank missed the year after that in organized ball due to the pandemic, and then 2021 due to Tommy John surgery. Looking back, he said “I’ve had a few hiccups here and there so far in my career, but I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way. The year I spent rehabbing Tommy John surgery was a year that I was able to mature a lot both as a baseball player and a person. It’s all part of the plan, and a lot of things are out of my control. Day by day, just do what you can, and let the rest of the situation play out however it is supposed to.”
He impressed out of the Sod Poodles bullpen, holding opposing batters to a .195 average over 33.1 innings, with a 2.70 ERA and 45 strikeouts. That got Andrew a promotion to the pitching hell of the Pacific Coast League. He noticed the difference immediately: “When I was at Amarillo, I was the oldest guy on the team. Now, I am the youngest guy and these guys are just that more serious about the game and their preparation.” But he was in no rush to reach the majors: “At the end of the day, I’m fortunate to be in the situation I’m in, and there’s been a lot of people that have aided me along the way, and I owe it to myself and all those people to just do things the right way. If the day comes, the day comes.”
And come it certainly did. The left-hander was called up on September 4, replacing Slade Cecconi. He was making a sandwich when he got the call from Reno manager Blake Lalli. “I knew I was either getting cut, or going up. I’d like to think that I wasn’t getting cut at the time. So yeah, definitely the best call I’ve had in a while.” His debut went about as well as could possibly be hoped, retiring all five batters faced in front of his mom at Chase Field. It began an ongoing run of 10 scoreless regular season appearances, allowing seven hits and four walks across 10.1 innings, with six Ks. Only 17 players have thrown more innings in their first year with a 0.00 ERA, including Jimmy Sherfy’s 10.2 IP in 2017 for Arizona.
“As far as roles go, I’ll just do whatever I’m told to do. If it’s to get one guy out, I’m going to give my best effort to do just that. If it’s to get six guys out, I’ll do the same... At the end of the day, it’s simple. You either did your job, or you didn’t. Right now I am just really focused on doing whatever I can to help the team win games... If the team feels that I am a piece of the postseason, so be it, and if not, so be it all the same. I can only control what I can control, but I know I am looking forward to these next few weeks!”
— Andrew Saalfrank, September 12
Oh, he was a piece of the postseason, alright. How many players can say their first season in the big leagues included more playoff games than regular season ones? Saalfrank did, picking up three holds in the Wild Card and Divisional Series. None were likely bigger than his post-season debut, and the two outs he recorded in Game 2 of the former against Milwaukee. Coming in to the bottom of the eighth, the Brewers had the bases loaded with one out, but Andrew got a comebacker and calmly threw home for the force, then got a ground-out to escape the jam. Three outs later, the D-backs were on their way to the next round. All told, Saalfrank pitched 11 times, with a 3.18 ERA across 5.2 innings, on three hits.
Well, it's safe to say that Saalfrank has now officially seen it all. I don't think anything will now faze him. The experience should stand Andrew in good stead, though he does need to cut back on the walks. He issued 12 bases on balls across 16 innings all told, and that's not a recipe for sustained success. He seems to know that, saying when called up, "I think for me, it's just about getting ahead of guys, good breaking ball so I can get to use that to try and put guys away. Usually, that's what's working. My worst outings are whenever I'm falling behind trying to fight back in counts. For me, just the importance of getting ahead and kind of controlling the game a little more."
His rookie status remains intact for 2024, and if he can exercise better control, Saalfrank looks set to be one of the main left-handed options for Torey Lovullo out of the Arizona bullpen.