Diamondbacks starter Brandon Pfaadt looking to turn surprise October dominance into sophomore success

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There might not be a better rotation, top to bottom, than that of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Ace Zac Gallen is a perennial NL Cy Young candidate with top-five finishes the past two years. Right-hander Merrill Kelly has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball the past few seasons. And the team added one of the best free-agent arms available this offseason in left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez.

But the arm that might be the key to unlocking the Diamondbacks rotation’s full potential is second-year right-hander Brandon Pfaadt. Pfaadt burst on the scene during the team’s run to the 2023 World Series and was arguably their second-best starter in October, behind Kelly.

However, Pfaadt’s arrival in the big leagues was neither the easiest nor the smoothest. The first start of his career, on May 3, 2023, against the Texas Rangers, didn’t go his way, as the then-24-year-old allowed nine hits and seven earned runs, including four homers, over 4 2/3 innings. Through his first five big-league starts, all in May, Pfaadt carried an 8.37 ERA, leading to the first of his two demotions to Triple-A last year.

“I feel like every young player, even veteran players, have a series of graduations,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo told Yahoo Sports this week. “You get to the big leagues. How are you going to stay? … He got sent down, I think, two or three times last year, and with each one, each one of those sendouts, he got some messaging. He took that in stride and came back improved.”

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Indeed, Pfaadt was given a list of things Arizona wanted him to work on during his stints at Triple-A Reno, including a slight adjustment to his pitch mix and shifting to the extreme first-base side of the rubber, as recommended by D-backs pitching coach Brent Strom. Pitchers often have a side of the mound that they prefer, but from watching Pfaadt’s struggles, Arizona believed shifting would help him locate his elite stuff better.

Sure enough, as each adjustment was made, improvements happened quickly, and results soon followed. Pfaadt made his way back to the big leagues, where the changes were noticeable. In the process, he made an impression on his teammates.

“I just saw the water underneath kind of just start settling,” Kelly said. “When he came up in the regular season for the first time, I think things were just moving super fast for him, like most of us when we first get here. I think that the send-down was a good thing for him. I think it kind of gave him a little bit of time to kind of chill out for a little bit.”

Kelly understood what Pfaadt was going through, as his road to the majors featured some bumps along the way, and success didn’t come as quickly for him as it did for Gallen, who burst on the scene in 2019. But together, Kelly and Gallen were the right people to mentor Pfaadt.

“It was like the perfect duo because they both can give a little bit of everything,” Pfaadt said. “And you can kind of pick and choose which one you want to go to. I think that helped me a bunch last year. And I was able to grow as a pitcher by asking and learning from Zac and Merrill.”

Once the D-backs called Pfaadt back up for the final time in July, it looked like things had finally started to click. He went at least five innings in nine of his final 13 regular-season starts, with a 4.22 ERA and 73 strikeouts in that span.

Fast-forward to the postseason, and the young Pfaadt was offered his moment to sink or swim. Because of how the season concluded, with the D-backs needing every game to make the playoffs, Pfaadt got the ball in Game 1 of the NL wild-card round in Milwaukee. The belief in Arizona, after his long and winding season, was that Pfaadt was just what the doctor ordered.

“He dialed it up and got some big outs when we needed to,” Lovullo said. “Because of that, I feel like it was one more little push in the right direction with his ability, and then it just took off from there.”

Pfaadt went on to pitch out of his mind over the next three weeks, next baffling the Dodgers over 4 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 3 of the NLDS. He then kept the Phillies in check in the NLCS, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 3 and silencing a wild Philly crowd in Game 7 by allowing just two runs over four innings as Arizona clinched its ticket to the World Series. Pfaadt finished the postseason with a 3.27 ERA and Diamondbacks victories in four of his five outings.

“It was a growth of confidence,” Pfaadt said. “Get each one under your belt, move on to the next stage. That’s what it kind of felt like. That’s kind of the way I took it. Just grow each time and get better. That’s certainly what we tried to do.”

This spring, unlike last season, Pfaadt isn’t fighting for a spot on the roster coming off his breakout performance in the postseason. He’s joining the likes of Gallen, Kelly and Rodriguez as the bedrock of the team’s rotation. With the Diamondbacks having ascended back to contention in the National League, it’s little surprise that their pitching is at the forefront.

And while the D-backs are looking to show the baseball world that what they accomplished last season was no fluke, their young starter is out to prove that he can continue to be the guy who showed up on the sport’s biggest stage.

“I’m trying to just be the best version of myself,” he said.

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