Diamondbacks righthander Zac Gallen is one of those guys who’s always trying to improve. That’s true of almost all pro athletes, these hypercompetitive oddballs constantly in search of new ways to get one over on an opponent. But Gallen, famous for his methodical catch play and insatiable appetite for information, embodies the stereotype more than most.
One skill the 27-year-old Gallen has honed for 2023: managing ticket requests from family. On Wednesday afternoon, Gallen makes his third career start at Citizens Bank Park, less than six miles from his high school baseball field in Pennsauken, New Jersey. So whenever he comes to Philadelphia, there are obligations to meet.
“I think it’s on the tamer side for the most part, but my mom’s side of the family is huge so it’s still a good chunk of tickets for sure,” he says. “Every year when we come back and I’m pitching, I’m trying to get better at managing all the extra stuff that comes with playing in your hometown.”
Usually, I try to be flexible when attending clubhouse hours when a team visits Philadelphia, preparing questions for several players and interviewing whoever has time to chat. But I made a point to request an interview with Gallen specifically, because I knew he’d be in high demand — not only because of his local ties, but also because he’s one of the favorites for the NL Cy Young. Next in line to interview the man of the hour was CBS Philadelphia sports anchor and my former blogmate Pat Gallen (no relation).
I last interviewed Gallen in early 2021 for a story at The Ringer about how college pitchers with good command can be developed into no. 1 starters with elite stuff in the pros. Jacob deGrom and Shane Bieber had recently won Cy Young awards having embodied that archetype, and I posited that Gallen and Corbin Burnes would be among the next to follow in their footsteps.
Gallen said then that he drew no small measure of motivation from a desire to prove the haters (or perceived haters) wrong. He didn’t like being referred to as a pitchability guy or a potential back-end starter, either during his time at the University of North Carolina or during his time in the minors; he always thought he had the potential for more. He’s been traded twice, once along with Sandy Alcantara and two other prospects in the deal that brought Marcell Ozuna from Miami to St. Louis. The second deal was 1-for-1, for Jazz Chisholm Jr., and landed him in Arizona.
I love a challenge trade, because it involves two teams pitting their own scouting and development staffs against another team’s, and it puts two players at a similar point in their careers into direct competition. Star-for-prospect trades have all the romance of trading bonds and stocks. The Gallen-for-Chisholm trade set one athlete out to beat another.
Gallen, the self-described chip-on-his-shoulder guy, was unusually primed to thrive in those circumstances. But he’s gotten Cy Young votes in two seasons now. Smart fans and analysts — and quite a few of the not-so-smart ones, too — know he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. So the first thing I asked him was whether he still plays in such close conversation with the haters, whether he still finds disrespect so abundant. He chuckled.
“I’ve kind of come into uncharted territory in that sense,” he says. “I still like to pitch with that chip on my shoulder, so I try not to lean into it that much. At the same time, it made me take a step back and appreciate the work I’ve put in, that’s gone into having some success, and people are taking notice of that.”
As a byproduct of all that hard work, we’re seeing the mature version of Gallen. After more than 500 innings pitched in the majors, he feels like he has a handle on who he is as a player. Nowadays, all that fine attention to detail in film study and bullpen sessions is going toward refining what he is, rather than revolutionizing what he can be. The low-hanging fruit, he says, has already been harvested. Instead, he’s concerned with performing as consistently as possible.
Such an incorrigible tinkerer would probably never admit to being the finished product at any stage of his career, but his repertoire and approach have changed less from 2022 to ’23 than any other offseason of his career:
Zac Gallen’s Repertoire, 2022-23
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
“I think this was the first offseason where I thought, ‘Okay, maybe let’s not go into the offseason trying to add a pitch or do anything crazy,’” Gallen says. “I was in a really good space last year in the second half, so just continue doing that.”
At different points since reaching the majors, Gallen has toyed with a sinker, introduced and then junked a slider, varied the frequency with which he throws his cutter, and tried to copy effective pitches from around the league. No longer.
“There’s pitches I like to watch, just aesthetically,” Gallen says. “If I could add one pitch, Spencer Strider’s fastball is like a rocket ship. But at the same time, he’s got a totally different way that his body moves, so to chase that would probably be ignorant of me.”
Now in his fifth major league season and entering his late 20s, Gallen seems to know himself better than ever and looks comfortable with what he sees. That makes sense: he’s at the age where people stop pining for their ex from college and wondering if they should’ve gone to law school. He is enjoying the baseball version of that perspective.
“I think the thing that’s come with the success of the last year and a half has been understanding myself, and I guess the maturity level,” he says. “Maybe two years ago, I would have tried to add that Corbin Burnes cutter, that Dylan Cease slider. But I understand that it’s something that, anatomically, is not going to work for me. Those guys spin the ball differently, their arm goes through a stroke differently.”
So Gallen’s four-pitch mix remains largely unchanged: mid-90s fastball, upper-80s cutter, mid-80s changeup, low-80s curveball. For the most part, his pitches grade out lower than average in horizontal movement but above average in vertical movement. Spin rate, velocity, movement profile — none of that has changed very much since 2022.
But opponents are swinging and missing more this year at all of Gallen’s pitches. Every single pitch in his repertoire has had a bump in Whiff% and PutAway% since last season. He is one of eight pitchers in the majors this year who’s thrown four different classified pitches with a whiff rate of 20% or better. (The others, in case you’re curious: Burnes, Chris Bassitt, Logan Gilbert, Pablo López, Shane McClanahan, Julio Urías, and Zack Wheeler.) Clearly Gallen worked on something this offseason.
“I think a lot of it is sequencing, just understanding the tunneling part of it. Getting a little more familiar with the hitters and knowing what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “I think I have a more comfortable feel of the game at this level. Talk to anybody that’s come up in his first year or two, the game’s definitely fast for him. I think the game has slowed down more. I have a better perspective of what’s going on, to be able to make better pitches and get that swing and miss in spots where I need it.”
These are the finite, frequently imperceptible adjustments to which Gallen has devoted this phase of his career. But the pursuit of excellence in any field is a journey through Zeno’s dichotomy paradox: Traveling from Point A to Point B involves a series of jumps halfway to the destination. As the subject gets closer to the destination, those leaps get progressively smaller. For Gallen, each progressive step toward excellence will be smaller than the one that came before, which is a testament to how far he’s come.