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2023 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews: #7, Zac Gallen

On his day, he was our best pitcher. There’s a “but...” attached.

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Texas Rangers v. Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Overview

  • Rating: 8.54
  • 2023 stats (regular season): 34 GS, 210.0 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 1.119 WHIP, 4.3 bWAR
    (post-season): 6 G, 33.2 IP, 4.54 ERA, 1.337 WHIP, -8% WPA
  • Date of birth: August 3, 1995
  • 2023 earnings: $5.6 million
  • 2024 status: 40-man roster, second-year arbitration

Voting overview

2023 review

Under normal circumstances, starting the All-Star Game for your league would indicate a genuinely top-tier performance. But you would be forgiven for thinking that Zac Gallen actually took a step back for Arizona in 2023. The previous season, he had topped the rankings, coming in with a stellar average of 9.4 - just one of the 54 votes gave him lower then a nine. This year’s figure of 8.54 is hardly chopped liver, but there is certainly a sense among fans that, where Brandon Pfaadt and Merrill Kelly stepped up when the team needed them most, in the playoffs, Gallen ran out of steam. Though it is understandable, given he ended up throwing more total innings - 243.2 - than any Arizona pitcher since 2007.

That all seemed a long away in spring, when Zac arrived, coming off a fifth-pace Cy Young finish, and a year which included the longest scoreless streak in team history. He was keen to build on this: “I think the biggest thing is I know I can go on a stretch like that. Trying to bottle it up more and have that stretch of dominance turn into two months or three months and hopefully get us to our end goal which is winning the World Series.” Though there were concerns how rule changes - in particular the pick-off limit - might impact Gallen, though he seemed unconcerned. “I think the more you worry about it the more it the more it’s going to consume you. So instead, just trying to adjust to it as best you can and see what happens.”

He did have a rough spring. Over 16.1 innings, he allowed fifteen earned runs, with as many walks as strikeouts (10). But he wasn’t concerned: “Some guys I’ve never seen before. You have no idea what’s going on out there... In terms of giving up hits, there are probably sequences that I wouldn’t throw that maybe result in hits or walks, but I still need to practice those pitches and have a feel for them.” It was still absolutely no surprise when he was named Opening Day starter for the first time on March 24. But the game in Dodger Stadium was an ugly one, Gallen allowing five runs in 4.2 innings on six hits plus three walks, and struggling to adapt to the new pace of the game.

“I just think those long innings with the walk and the hit and what not, you can’t really slow the game down. I think just understanding where those little spots (are) to slow it down a little bit and (try to) take advantage of that... I know with the pitch clock and the faster pace of it, getting deeper into games is definitely going to be a tad bit harder. With the faster pace, those long innings can definitely speed up on you. All of it is an adjustment. I’m not really in the business of making excuses. It’s just kind of one of those things I’ve got to get better at.”

Adjust he did. The second outing wasn’t great, but a little better - four runs over six innings - but the real Gallen showed up on April 10 in his first home start. Zac blanked the Brewers over seven innings of three-hit ball, with 11 strikeouts and just one walk. That began a streak of four scoreless outings which, while shorter than his 2022 run, was arguably even more dominant. Over 27 innings, he held opposing batters to just a .122 average, with a K:BB ratio of 41:1. All told, Gallen faced 126 hitters without a base on balls between the walks issued on April 10 and almost a month later, on May 8. All told, in seven starts through his May 13 outing, Gallen went 6-0 with a 1.16 ERA and 1.01 FIP.

“What’s most impressive to me is that he truly is unemotional. I’ve always felt like when I watch some of the best of the best pitch, whether they are affected at all internally, they never express it eternally. Those guys are really internalizing their feelings. They are able to take that adversity on the mound, channel it into focus, effort level or intensity. When he’s on the mound he rarely shows emotion. When he’s in the dugout, he’s intense, but he’s not out of control. I think all of that allows him to really maximize his talent. It reminds me a lot of Verlander or the way Sabathia was.”
Evan Longoria

It couldn’t last forever, and Gallen’s run hit the wall in Pittburgh, with his worst outing of the season, failing to get through four innings of a 13-3 mauling. It was around this time that we began to notice an odd trend: Gallen’s home starts were typically awesome, but away from Chase Field, they were much more of a mixed batch. It was a pattern which continued throughout the season. By the end, he’s where Gallen stood:
Home: 12-3, 2.47 ERA, 1.029 WHIP, 120:18 K:BB
Away: 5-6, 4.42 ERA, 1.204 WHIP, 100:29 K:BB
The gap was even larger at one point, but over his last three road starts, Gallen had a 2.70 ERA, including our performance of the year, a complete-game shutout in Chicago.

Still, his first-half form was good enough to get him first selected to the National League All-Star squad, and then named as its starting pitcher. He was the first Diamondback to receive this honor since Curt Schilling in 2002, and certainly did not disgrace himself, tossing a scoreless inning which included a strikeout of Shohei Ohtani - here’s to more of that in 2024! But after the game, it was safe to say that Zac could no longer be considered one of baseball’s more underrated starting pitchers. It probably marked the peak of Gallen’s season. The second half began with a five-game winless streak for Zac, over which time he had a 4.60 ERA,

There were still days when he was almost unbeatable - the Cubs’ game mentioned above was the most obvious example. But those outings were interspersed with days where he just didn’t seem to have it. Another outing in Los Angeles went perhaps even worse than Opening Day, while the Orioles and the Mets also roughed Zac up. The line between good Gallen and bad Gallen was a sharp one. Over his 17 wins, Gallen had an ERA of 1.27 (MLB average: 1.90). Over his 17 no-decisions and losses, the ERA was 6.03 (MLB average: 5.26). Down the stretch, he had a 4.93 over his final seven starts, as he pushed too and beyond his career-high workload, finishing the year at 210 innings.

It took him into the post-season for the first time, and the initial results were very solid. He picked up wins in Game 2 of both the Wild-Card and Divisional Series, pitching on the road in Milwaukee and Los Angeles respectively and allowing two runs in each start. Thereafter though, it was a tougher road for Zac. He made two starts in both the Championship and World Series, going 0-3 with a 5.24 ERA in those four appearances. Gallen saved the best for last. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Game 5 (below), but was unable to stop Texas from rolling to the series victory. Zac ended the year having thrown almost sixty frames more than his previous career high.

Gallen acknowledged after the season, it was something he would need to look at. “I’ve become infatuated with the guys who have done it, just had the career longevity and then had the next step. ‘What did you do after you threw 60 extra innings in high-intensity type of environments?’ Just to see how they went about it and see what they changed, what they did the same year (after) year. I’ll try my best to not bother those guys but get as much intel as I can.” But even discounting that, Gallen still improved on his Cy Young position, finishing third in the National League voting, and being mentioned on an MVP ballot for the first time in his career. There’s a lot there to be very proud of for our Opening Day starter.

2024 outlook

It seems likely he will once again start on Opening Day for the Diamondbacks next season. There won’t be the same adjustment needed for rules changes, so I’m hopeful he can hit the ground showing the form he exhibited after the couple of starts. That’d also give him consecutive home starts to open the campaign, against the Rockies and Yankees - after this season’s numbers, that may be for the best! With what’s shaping up to be a better rotation generally, Gallen should hopefully not need to occupy the “stopper” role he did often at the front of the rotation last year. But with him, Kelly, Brandon Pfaadt and Eduardo Rodriguez, I’m optimistic our rotation will be able to stand with anyone else’s.

However, there is also the longer term question to be addressed. Gallen is under contract through the end of 2025, but can, should and will the team sign him to an extension? It was brought up in spring, though at the time it appeared there had been no discussion. Gallen’s agent Scott Boras said, “When you have an elite talent, I’m always available to meet with Ken and Mike — anybody. We’re here to listen. We listen, and then let the player make his decision.” Gallen seemed open to the idea, saying, “I’m open to listening. I love it here. It’s nothing I’ve said no to. At the same time, I run through [my agent] and then we’d make an educated decision on what’s best.”

Jack looked at the topic in November, and concluded that extending Zac “won’t be easy.” He found a comparable in Aaron Nola, who this winter signed a seven-year, $173 million extension with Philadelphia, and suggested something along that $25 million annual value, covering the remaining two years of arbitration, and then either four or five years of free agency. With the team having reached the World Series this year, it certainly appears the Diamondbacks are in a window of opportunity for sustained success. However, it may be something tabled for another year, if the team wants to see how their stable of young pitching prospects develops over the coming season.