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Even in down year, Zac Gallen could stumble upon NL Cy Young Award

Jesse Friedman Avatar
August 24, 2023
Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen is the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award.

For much of the 2023 season, days on which Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen takes the mound have followed the same formula.

Gallen buries himself in his game-day preparation, pitches roughly how he did on Tuesday night against the Texas Rangers — six innings, one run, 11 strikeouts — and explains to the media afterward that his stuff was subpar.

Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo knows it all too well.

“I’m not falling for that, Zac,” Lovullo tells his staff ace.

After Gallen’s previous start in San Diego on Aug. 17 — a game in which he went 6 1/3 innings and gave up just one run — Gallen talked about how he “just didn’t feel like I had my best stuff.”

On May 8, after throwing seven innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Miami Marlins, Gallen talked about how he “didn’t have much semblance of an offspeed pitch.”

Even after his excellent start against the Rangers on Tuesday, Gallen made mention of “silly spots” and “wasting pitches.”

These are not isolated incidences. They are fixtures of Gallen’s postgame pressers.

To be fair, Gallen is far from the only professional athlete who holds himself to an exceptionally high standard and is rarely satisfied with his work.

“This game is result-oriented,” he said after his May 8 start, “but I know that in the long game of this whole thing, for me to be ultra-successful, it’s very feel-oriented … At the end of the day, you’ll take the results, but yeah, to tell you guys the truth, just didn’t feel great.”

Pitching coach Brent Strom echoes the sentiment.

“He’s really a feel pitcher,” Strom said. “It’s not so much results that have mattered to him. It’s how the ball feels coming out of his hand, the spin, things like that.”

While Gallen’s “feel” has often been lacking in 2023 — and there are legitimate statistical reasons to believe that this season is far from his best — all indications are that the Diamondbacks ace is well-positioned to win his first NL Cy Young Award anyway.

Former Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly and Zac Gallen talk before a pitch against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park. (John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports)

A down year for Zac Gallen?

After his stellar outing on Tuesday, Gallen is 14-5 with a 3.11 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 179 strikeouts in 168 innings. Among NL qualified starters, he is tied for first in wins and ranks third in ERA, first in WHIP, third in strikeouts and third in innings pitched.

A down year … really?

For as great as those numbers are, Gallen is well short of the 2.54 ERA and 0.91 WHIP he had in 2022, a season in which he finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting.

Some underlying metrics suggest even larger differences between Gallen’s 2022 and 2023 seasons, particularly in the realm of contact quality. This year, opposing hitters have a 46.2 percent hard-hit rate against Gallen, up significantly from 36.1 percent last year. The league average is 36.2 percent.

Similarly, the average exit velocity on balls in play against Gallen has risen from 87.8 mph in 2022 to 91.6 mph this year. Only 3 percent of major league pitchers have higher opponent average exit velocities than Gallen.

Gallen’s uncharacteristic proneness to hard contact in 2023 was especially apparent in his start against the San Diego Padres on Aug. 17. In that game, Padres hitters torched 12 batted balls with exit velocities of 95 mph or higher. The average exit velocity against Gallen in the game was 97.3 mph, the second-highest mark of his career.

After the game, Gallen gave his usual spiel about not feeling sharp. At the same time, he was glad to accept the results: 6 1/3 innings with only one run on three hits allowed.

“You check the box score the next day,” he said, “they never say you gave up an out that was 900 mph [off the bat]. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good really. My job is to get outs how ever they come. It’s fine by me.”

In spite of the uptick in hard contact against him in 2023, Gallen is still doing a ton of things right this year. He is walking fewer batters than ever. His whiff rates on his curveball, changeup, cutter and slider have improved from last year. His four-seam fastball grades out as the most valuable pitch in baseball, based on Statcast’s run value metric.

Even so, there is considerable evidence that Gallen’s impressive stat line — which is already a touch worse from last year — is being propped up to some degree by favorable batted ball luck.

According to Statcast, Gallen’s expected ERA in 2023 is 3.98, the highest expected ERA of his career and significantly higher than his actual ERA of 3.11.

“It’s definitely not up to his standards and what he expects of himself,” Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom said of Gallen’s season earlier in August.

There are some indicators that Gallen’s arsenal is not quite as sharp this year as it has been in the past. Specifically, spin rates on all of his pitches are down from last year, including a notable decrease on his average four-seam fastball from 2,420 rpm in 2022 to 2,308 rpm this year.

Accordingly, Gallen’s four-seamer movement and curveball movement are slightly diminished this year. The margin is far from alarming — we’re talking a few tenths of an inch here — but could be large enough to make a difference.

Gallen said that both command and movement improve when he has proper feel for his pitches, so it stands to reason that the lack of feel he has dealt with in 2023 could explain those differences.

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen pitches against the San Diego Padres during the fifth inning at Chase Field. (Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports)

Where Zac Gallen stands in NL Cy Young race

In spite of what has clearly been a down year by Gallen’s standards, there should be little doubt: He is the current frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award.

Gallen’s primary competition consists of San Diego Padres LHP Blake Snell, Atlanta Braves RHP Spencer Strider and San Francisco Giants RHP Logan Webb. The Chicago Cubs’ Justin Steele and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Zack Wheeler are in the mix as well.

Here is how the candidates stack up, in order of their betting odds on the BetMGM Sportsbook app:

Zac Gallen, Diamondbacks14-51683.111.061794.5
Blake Snell, Padres10-91422.731.271843.2
Spencer Strider, Braves14-4146.13.571.082273.7
Logan Webb, Giants9-91693.361.091623.9
Justin Steele, Cubs14-31322.801.171273.4
Zack Wheeler, Phillies9-61513.701.111654.0
Pitching stats for 2023 NL Cy Young candidates, as discussed in a recent episode of the PHNX Diamondbacks Podcast (Note: aWAR is the average of Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR)

Gallen is not the clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite that the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara was in the final weeks of the 2022 season, but it is difficult to make a case against him.

Snell has the lowest ERA of the pack, but he also has one of the highest walk rates in the majors at 5.1 per nine innings. The highest walk rate of any Cy Young winner in MLB history is 4.7 per nine innings, set by Bob Turley in 1958. Snell also trails Gallen in WHIP and innings pitched by considerable margins.

Strider’s 227 strikeouts jump off the page, but his 3.57 ERA is higher than Gallen’s, and his innings total is 21.2 shy of Gallen’s total. With a strong finish, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that Strider could catch Gallen.

Webb has strong numbers across the board, but he trails Gallen by a slight margin in every category except innings. In innings, they are effectively tied. Webb is a legitimate contender, but the case for him over Gallen is weak at this point.

Wheeler and Steele have each had good seasons, but Wheeler’s ERA (3.70) is the highest of the pack, and Steele’s innings total (132) is the lowest. Both appear to be long shots.

While Gallen’s 2023 stat line is good enough to make him the favorite this year, that does not mean it would do so every year. The competition in the NL Cy Young race is relatively weak compared to past seasons.

Nonetheless, the fact Gallen is the clear-cut favorite in one of his worst seasons says a lot about the caliber of pitcher that he is.

“This season is just baseball,” Gallen said after his start on Aug. 12. “The game ebbs and flows. The first 10 starts, I’m not giving up many homers and then you get another 10-start stretch where it feels like it’s a homer an outing. And there’s nothing to really prevent that. I mean, there’s sequencing and [getting] into better counts and what-not, but some things just happen because those guys are good too. They get paid a lot of money as well.

“I tried to stay true to who I am in the sense of process and all that stuff and just trying to find out the answer, but at the same time, still understand that this game is a weird game. But that’s why we love it.”

While Gallen has struggled to find feel on his pitches for the majority of the season, he seems to have taken significant strides forward in that regard in recent weeks.

“Starting to feel a lot more like myself,” he said after tossing six scoreless innings on Tuesday. “This is probably the closest I’ve felt.”

With one of the best pitch arsenals in the game — and an assist from the batted ball gods — Gallen has already been the best pitcher in the National League in 2023, even in the midst of a challenging season.

It begs the question: If Gallen were at the top of his game the rest of the way, how good could he be? The rest of the league would prefer not to find out.

Follow Jesse Friedman on X

Top photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

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