- Rating: 7.03
2023 stats (regular season): 19 G, 96.0 IP, 5.72 ERA, 5.18 FIP, 1.406 WHIP, -0.4 bWAR
(post-season): 5 G, 22.0 IP, 3.27 ERA, 1.091 WHIP, +20% WPA
- Date of birth: October 15, 1998
- 2023 earnings: League-minimum
- 2024 status: 40-man roster, two options left.
It’s less the case in baseball than other major sports that a single player can make or break a team. But a single bad starting pitcher can probably do more than anyone else to sink their franchise. Over the entire history of the American and National Leagues, only nine teams have won a pennant with a starter (min. 18 starts) posting an ERA of 5.60 or above. The 2023 Diamondbacks had not one, but TWO such players, in Zach Davies (ERA 7.00) and Brandon Pfaadt (5.72). The only other league champions to match that are the 1987 Twins, with Joe Niekro (6.26) and Mike Smithson (5.94). But only one of those struggling pitchers started a game for their team in the World Series, and it’s Pfaadt.
This unique status reflects the weirdness of a year for Brandon, which was supposed to see him originally only get a cameo at the end of it. He was universally regarded as a top 100 prospect across all baseball, and had posted a stellar 2.63 across ten starts in the heavily hitter-friendly PCL last year. He followed that up with a solid spring, his Cactus League ERA greatly superior to those competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, such as Drey Jameson, Ryne Nelson and Tommy Henry. But on March 19, he was optioned to Reno, GM Mike Hazen saying, “I think incumbency matters here. The roster situation matters. All those things went into it.”
It wasn’t fooling anyone. In an expected transition year for Arizona, there was no point burning a year of service for their top pitching prospect. Let him come up late, retain his rookie status for 2025, for a possible Rookie of the Year campaign, and the bonus draft pick which would result, as well as help the D-backs for a possible post-season push. That was the plan. However, the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, to quote Scotland’s national poet. If you’re wondering what “gang aft agley” means, you just need to look at the D-backs rotation in April. The fifth starter, Nelson, had a 6.39 ERA, MadBum was so bad he got DFA’d, and Zach Davies hit the IL. That’s “ganging aft agley.”
The calls to bring Pfaadt up became increasingly loud as the month went on. As Jack Sommers noted, the team missed a chance to replace Davies, Brandon starting in Reno the same day Zach hurt his oblique. Nor did the Diamondbacks pull the trigger when a replacement was needed for Madison Bumgarner. Pfaadt kept pitching in AAA, and told Michael McDermott near the end of April, “When the time comes, it’ll come. I just try to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully it all works out in the end.” It turned out Brandon had only to wait a few more days, being called up to make his major league debut on May 3 - ironically, against the same team he would face six months later in the World Series.
Compared to some other highly-touted pitching debuts, e.g. Max Scherzer. this was underwhelming. Pfaadt was lit up for seven runs on nine hits and a walk over 4.2 innings, including four home runs. As Jesse Friedman explained, “Command, not stuff, was the problem,” with the Rangers capitalizing on mistakes in location. “Pfaadt threw too many four-seamers in the middle of the zone, too many sliders in the middle of the zone and too many changeups that either caught too much of the plate or were too far off it to warrant a swing-and-miss.” Though to be fair, Torey Lovullo admitted Brandon was left out too long, surrendering a five-run fifth.
Pfaadt’s second outing wasn’t much better - six earned runs over five innings against the Marlins - and two games in, our top pitching prospect had an ERA of 12.10. His third start was much better, five innings against the Giants with just a solo home-run. But following an outing against the Red Sox, where he didn’t get through four innings, giving up five runs, the team decided to send Pfaadt back to Reno. His first five starts had been a rude awakening: 22 earned runs over 23.2 innings on 31 hits, including eight home-runs. Lovullo said the pitcher’s fastball location needed to improve, and he also needed to use his other pitches more frequently.
“If you’re gonna have the four quadrants of the strike zone, I think he was living primarily on one side and in one area. We want to make sure that you can walk that fastball around consistently and not waste pitches. If he’s trying to throw a ball here, that it’s not sprayed over the middle of the plate or throw a ball on the other half that it’s not sprayed up and out of the zone... I don’t know of anybody who lives at 65% fastball rate as a starting pitcher and gets away with it for six or seven innings. He broke out some really good curveballs late yesterday, so I know he’s got a curveball, he’s got a slider, he’s got a changeup, he’s got all four pitches, he’s got to use them.”
He made a brief return in late June, after Merrill Kelly went on the IL with a blood clot in his leg. But that resulted in the worst game of the season for Brandon. He faced fifteen Tampa batters, and retired only six, the Rays teeing off on him the second time through the order. The pitcher said afterward, “I think they started figuring out the sinker a little bit and stopped swinging at it because they knew it’d run back into them. And then I think they made some adjustments on the curveball to lefties second time through.” The outing caused PHNX Sports to inquire, was this the “End of the road?” With his ERA at 9.82, it seemed a legitimate question, and it was back to Reno once more for Pfaadt.
“It wasn’t easy. But I think I took it the right way, took the information that they gave me, went down to Reno and worked on it instead of just going to opposite way and maybe just be sour. I decided to go the right way, go the right path and take those things, work on them and get better. Hopefully a year from now we’ll be laughing at everything that happened.”
— Brandon Pfaadt on his second demotion
He returned after the All-Star break with a new approach, moving from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side. Explained pitching coach Brett Strom, this would improve the effective velocity, and also helped Pfaadt’s pitches to “start as strikes out of his hand,” then going out of the zone. Whatever the cause, the results were significantly more effective. He cut almost two-thirds off his ERA over the next six starts compared to his first six, dropping from 9.82 to 3.31, holding opposing hitters to a .636 OPS. The spell included two great outings on the road against division rivals: seven innings of one-run ball in San Francisco, then seven shutout, one-hit innings in San Diego (below).
There were still bumps in the road, but it was clear that Pfaadt was a different pitcher. Perhaps nothing showed that more than two games against the playoff rival Cubs in mid-September. On the 10th, coming out of the bullpen after an opener, Pfaadt was tagged for seven hits and four runs over six innings. Five days later, however, he blanked the same opponent, getting a key W for his 5.1 shutout frames. Lovullo was enthusiastic: “He was just pounding the zone, It looked like he had a good sinker, four-seamer with a sweeper combination and just got a lot of big swing-and-miss moments in some very key at bats. And for me it just looked like he was in total control throughout the course of his outing.”
Performances like this down the stretch got Pfaadt the job as Arizona’s third starter in the post-season. He started the team’s first playoff game in six years against Milwaukee. While that outing proved short, Lovullo giving him the hook in the third, Pfaadt delivered a pair of supreme performances in both Game 3’s of the Division Series versus the Dodgers, and the Championship Series against the Phillies. Between them, he worked 10 innings on four hits, with 11 strikeouts. Per ESPN, he became the first pitcher in MLB history to allow no runs or walks in consecutive postseason starts. The second outing (below) was particularly clutch, with the team 2-0 down in the series, and in desperate need of a win.
The team then called upon him again in the winner takes all Game 7, and though he went just four innings there, Brandon kept his team in the game, as the D-backs prevailed to reach the World Series. There, Pfaadt started Game 3 again - going up against former D-back, Max Scherzer. Brandon actually went deeper in the game, but got no support in a 3-1 loss. Still, it completed his long journey from going to Bellarmine, a Division II college at the time he started there which had produced a grand total of two (2) major-leaguers previously, through his fifth-round draft selection, debut in May, and pair of subsequent demotions to the minors. It’s a story even Netflix would probably reject as implausible.
It does not appear likely there will be much need for Pfaadt to compete for a roster spot in spring training next year. His position as the #4 starter, behind Zac Gallen, Kelly and new signing Eduardo Rodriguez seems assured (health permitting, naturally). He’s a very different pitcher from the one who crashed and burned at the start of this year. As Fangraphs noted, “His starts in Game 3 and Game 7 of the NLCS featured the two highest swing-and-miss totals of his young career despite the fact that he threw just 70 and 64 pitches, respectively.” In addition to the change in the location from which he pitches, Pfaadt added a sinker, It’s not great, but it’s another weapon, and plays up his fastball.
The projections for Brandon in 2024 are not great. Marcel has him at a 5.01 ERA over 106 innings, while Steamer expected a 4.42 ERA and 142 IP. I would be inclined to take the under for those ERAs, due to the wholesale difference in approach discussed above. Including the post-season outings, had an ERA of 4.00 over 92.1 innings following his third recall, and I’m hopeful a full 2024 campaign has room to be even better than that. While he may no longer be eligible to be considered as a rookie, Pfaadt should be in a good place where he can live up to his potential as Arizona’s top pitching prospect at the start of this season.