Lovullo Pulls the Right Levers as Arizona Earns a Hard-Pfaadt Game 3 Win

Ketel Marte
Arizona Republic

With his team down two games to none in the NLCS and practically having been blown off the field by the Phillies on Tuesday night, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo had his work cut out for him, particularly given that he had little alternative but to send rookie Brandon Pfaadt, he of the 5.72 ERA and 5.18 FIP, to the Chase Field mound for a must-win game. But from the reconfigured lineup to the decision to pull Pfaadt after he’d put up a string of zeroes, just about everything Lovullo set in motion paid off. In a nailbiter, the Diamondbacks won, 2–1, on Ketel Marte’s walk-off single off Craig Kimbrel.

One couldn’t have blamed the Diamondbacks for entering this game in shell shock. Philadelphia put up five runs on ace Zac Gallen in Game 1 before Arizona closed the gap for a respectable 5–3 loss, then wore down Merrill Kelly and teed off on the soft underbelly of the Diamondbacks’ bullpen for a 10–0 rout in Game 2. Beyond the combined 15–3 score, the Phillies out-homered the Diamondbacks, 6–1 — all solo shots but mostly emphatic ones, with four of the six projected at 420 feet or more. They out-hit them convincingly, combining for a .313/.400/.688 line against Arizona’s .129/.167/.194 mark. Phillies pitchers collected 23 strikeouts against only three walks; the Diamondbacks struck out just 10 and walked nine.

With Phillies manager Rob Thomson tabbing lefty Ranger Suárez for the start, Lovullo switched things up, flip-flopping Marte and Corbin Carroll atop the lineup — a sensible move, given that the former posted for a 146 wRC+ against lefties, the latter just a 96. Marte responded by going 3-for-5 with the game-winning hit. Lovullo also moved slugging catcher Gabriel Moreno, another lefty-masher (139 wRC+ against) from fifth to third and started Emmanuel Rivera (92 wRC+ against lefties) at third base, put Evan Longoria at DH, and gave right field to Tommy Pham, who hadn’t played with a glove on since September 22 due to a bout of turf toe. With Pham in right, Carroll moved to center, with Alek Thomas (who hit for just a 12 wRC+ against lefties) on the bench; when Pham singled to start the seventh inning, Thomas pinch-ran and scored the game-tying run.

The Lovullo move that drew the biggest focus — and opportunity for second-guessing — was his decision to pull Pfaadt with two outs in the sixth inning and the lineup turning over. The 25-year-old righty entered the season as no. 16 on our Top 100 prospect list but shuttled back and forth between Triple-A Reno and Arizona. Even while pitching to a 4.22 ERA and 4.36 FIP after returning to the majors for good on July 22, he was a significant step down from Gallen and Kelly. As I noted in my series preview, while Pfaadt held hitters to a .180 AVG and .323 SLG with a 33.7% whiff rate on his sweeper, batters slugged .529 or better against his four-seamer, changeup, sinker, and curve.

In his two previous postseason starts, Lovullo kept Pfaadt on a short leash: just 2.2 innings and 67 pitches in the Wild Card Series opener against the Brewers with three runs allowed (which the Diamondbacks came back to win). He rebounded to throw 4.1 shutout innings (but just 42 pitches) against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the Division Series. On Wednesday, a reporter asked Lovullo whether he’d keep Pfaadt “on the 40 to 50 pitch limit that you’ve been using considering the circumstances.”

“I’ll follow the same guidelines,” he said. “I know I’ve been saying 18 [batters], plus or minus 4. That’s where I’ll start with Brandon.”

Pfaadt was impressive from the outset, striking out six of the first 10 Phillies he faced. He needed just eight pitches to complete the first inning, which he did by getting Bryce Harper to ground into a double play after a Trea Turner single. He struck out Bryson Stott and J.T. Realmuto — the former chasing a low inside fastball, the latter a low-and-away sweeper — to end the second, then whiffed Nick Castellanos with some high cheese to start the third. After yielding a double to Brandon Marsh on a 2–0 fastball. Pfaadt escaped by striking out both Johan Rojas (more high cheese) and Kyle Schwarber (frozen by a low sweeper for the second time in a row). Those two strikeouts began a run of 10 straight batters retired.

The problem for the Diamondbacks was that Suárez was just as good. Through five innings, each pitcher held the opposition scoreless and had allowed just two hits, with a two-out single by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the second and a two-out double by Marte in the third representing Arizona’s pair. The only other baserunner either allowed through five innings was Suárez’s one-out fourth inning walk of Christian Walker, which went for naught. Through five, Pfaadt struck out eight, Suárez seven.

Pfaadt began the sixth by striking out Marsh chasing a sinker outside the zone, then getting Rojas to fly out on a 98.6-mph screamer to center field. With Schwarber — who has homered three times in this series, after doing so 47 times during the regular season — looming for a third crack at the rookie, Lovullo had a choice. He could stick with the kid who was absolutely dealing and had thrown just 70 pitches, or he could trust the data; Pfaadt has allowed a .483 wOBA (.397/.413/.779 with six homers in 75 PA) when facing batters for the third time as a starter. That was the majors’ third-highest mark among pitchers with at least 70 such batters faced; even the improved version of Pfaadt that came back from Reno in late July surrendered a .476 wOBA to the 58 hitters he faced for the third time.

“Am I an idiot for taking a guy out with nine strikeouts in five and two-thirds [innings]?” Lovullo asked pitching coach Brent Strom and bench coach Jeff Banister, as he told reporters amid an endless postgame grilling. With a rested bullpen, the manager decided to stick to his plan. “I know it’s a very unpopular decision,” said Lovullo. “But we have great information about how we can — and a plan and a roadmap that when there’s limited emotion and limited stimulus, what’s the best decision to move this thing forward and control a very, very potent offense.”

The move came to the dismay of the proponents of the “trust your gut” school of pitcher management, which included the crowd of 47,075 at Chase Field, who showered the manager with boos. In came 26-year-old rookie lefty Andrew Saalfrank, a groundball machine who since arriving in September had totaled 12 innings without allowing an earned run. The move didn’t look great initially, as he walked Schwarber on five pitches, but he recovered to induce Turner to ground into an inning-ending forceout.

Saalfrank began the seventh by walking Harper on seven pitches, all below the zone, all sinkers and curves. Lovullo brought in sidearmer Ryan Thompson, who got Alec Bohm to hit a slow roller to third base that Rivera wisely pocketed to put two on with no one out. Thompson quickly got Stott to ground into a 6–3 double play, but that twin killing sent Harper to third base. In an 0-1 count against Realmuto, the righty fired a slider well wide of Moreno’s glove and to the backstop, a wild pitch that brought Harper home with the game’s first run.

But the Diamondbacks refused to roll over. Suárez yielded to Jeff Hoffman with one out in the sixth, and Hoffman gave way to rookie Orion Kerkering to start the seventh. Pham greeted Kerkering by dunking a single into center field, then yielded to Thomas and his 85th-percentile sprint speed at first base. When Gurriel laced a hanging slider down the left field line for a double, Thomas motored home, the Diamondbacks’ first run scored in 17 innings. Lefty Pavin Smith, pinch-hitting for Longoria, slapped a single to right field — another nice little lever-pull by Lovullo — with Gurriel holding up at third.

Thomson called upon José Alvarado, his heat-throwing, groundball-generating lefty, and brought the infield in as well. Rivera hit a hot smash to Turner, who so often in the last two postseasons has looked like a deer caught in the headlights. This time, he was on top of things, starting a 6-4-3 double play. And instead of running on contact and forcing the often-shaky Phillies defense to make a play, Gurriel watched the double play unfold — with Turner’s back to the runner!

It was not only just about the best possible outcome for the Phillies in that scenario, but also one unprecedented in the postseason annals. Per MLB.com’s Paul Casella:

On his next offering, Alvarado got Geraldo Perdomo out on a first-pitch 95-mph comebacker, keeping the score knotted at 1–1. Three pitches, three outs. Still on the mound to start the eighth, he struck out Marte, then left a cutter in the middle of the zone that Carroll ripped to center field, 109 mph off the bat. Fortunately for the Phillies, Rojas ran it down, but he and Alvarado were’t so lucky when Moreno blasted a high sinker to deep center field. Nearing the wall, Rojas jumped but missed, and the ball caromed away for a double.

Alvarado escaped by getting Thomas to ground out, having intentionally walked Walker so as to take advantage of Thomas’ unfavorable platoon splits.

Closer Paul Sewald kept the top of the Phillies’ lineup at bay in the ninth, overcoming Harper drawing a four-pitch walk and then swiping second base with two outs. To escape, Sewald had to battle Bohm for nine pitches, with a couple of calls going against him — a 94-mph 0–2 fastball at the other edge of the plate that was called a ball, and a fastball in the upper outer corner of the zone, a clear strike, called a ball as well. He came back to get a called strike three on a sweeper on the inner edge of the plate.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, Kimbrel, who hadn’t allowed a run in four previous outings, brought The Full Craig Kimbrel Experience on Thursday. He walked Gurriel on eight pitches, followed by Gurriel stealing second, making baserunners 13-for-13 in steals this year with him on the mound. Smith hit a 74-mph grounder that Stott had to run at least 30 feet just to backhand but could only stop, preventing the run but sending Gurriel to third, still with nobody out. Smith took second on defensive indifference as the Phillies finally got an out when Rivera tapped a grounder to Turner, who nabbed Gurriel trying to score at home. Not content to make it easy for himself, Kimbrel walked Perdomo on six pitches to load the bases, and two pitches later, Marte ended things by slapping a 96-mph fastball at the top of the zone into center field, bringing home Smith with the winning run.

It was a helluva ballgame, with a win that gives the Diamondbacks life in the series. The changes that Lovullo made weren’t outlandish or high risk, but they almost all paid off. Can he and the Diamondbacks do it again on Thursday with a bullpen game started by [squints at Twitter] Joe Mantiply opposite lefty Cristopher Sánchez? We’ll find out on Friday.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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7 months ago

It goes past whether the decision to pull the starter is strategically good or not, honestly. I think we all know that more often than not, pulling a non-ace starter after 18 batters is the technically correct decision. Over a large enough sample, there will be savings there.

Problem is, as a fan, especially a neutral fan with no rooting interest… it’s such a brutal thing to see. The second Pfaadt was pulled, so much of the game’s intrigue disappeared. Then Ranger was pulled, and that was that. A ballgame that had been a wonderful pitcher’s duel for 5 innings, one of the best if not the best game of this postseason, turned into yet another parade of short-burst relievers whose time on the mound is too brief to register with the viewer. The game then devolves into a contest where the only real question is whether a team’s relievers can throw strikes or not.

Sure it may be the often correct strategic move, but it actively makes the viewing experience worse. The game was good, but would’ve been ten times better had Pfaadt and Suárez decided its outcome instead of being prevent pulled before their story could come close to its climax.

The true pitcher’s duel is dead once the calendar reaches October. And I’m not even sure if MLB realizes that it’s a huge problem for them to have the starting pitcher reduced to such a minor cog in the machine. You can try as hard as you want to sell games on position player vs position player, but those guys dont face off against each other. The two starters do; they’re the real protagonists of the game. And when the lights are brightest, when the most eyes are on the game… the ballgame’s two protagonists are reduced to a shell of what the position is meant to be in the name of hyper efficiency. It’s not a good sell. And it’s not easy to market a sport where half the players are incapable (re: not allowed) of being real stars.

I don’t blame the teams. Their job is to win games, and they’re gonna stretch the game and its rules to the limit. If they destroy the entertainment factor in the process, so be it as far as they’re concerned. This is MLB’s fault for not seeing this coming well over a decade ago (maybe even two) when velo and reliever usage started to really climb. As always, they were slow to react, allowed teams to radically change how pitching is taught and deployed, allowed the starter to perish, and their product suffers as a result. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. There will never be another Smoltz-Morris. Or a Clemens-Pedro. Or a Halladay-Carpenter. Or a Verlander-Sabathia. Etc etc etc.

Last edited 7 months ago by mariodegenzgz
7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

& then we get Joe Mantiply starting for AZ in a bullpen game tonight.

At least it’s not a potential series decider & understood why they’re doing it, but, still not good for entertainment purposes.

7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

But … the starting pitchers don’t face off against one another. That’s nothing but narrative invention. I like a good pitcher’s duel as much as the next guy, but it’s just a story. It’s not how the game actually plays. It’s just an artifact of the guy who’s out there (on the mound, on your screen) more being more of a focus of the chatter. It also totally negates the contributions of the batters and the defenders to the outcome of any particular at-bat. It isn’t ALL up to the pitcher, no matter how romantic that notion may be.

7 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

But isn’t narrative invention, storylines and the romantic notion of sports a big part of why we watch them? We want to be entertained and/or amazed, and there is nothing in baseball like a pitcher’s duel to accomplish that. The tension of seeing who will break first, who will crumble and who will prevail as these two hurlers take turns on the mound with a monopoly over the baseball itself. A game is dominated, narratively speaking, by its pitchers. The more pitchers there are, the more difficult it is to get invested in any individual’s performance.

7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

only if you choose to view the game in that narrow of a spectrum though. I also find bullpen games fascinating, because all of a sudden the game is in the hands of 4-5 players instead of just one. The same tension exists about which pitcher will crumble, plus the added strategic bonus of how early to use your higher leverage relievers.

It’s all a matter of taste, but I like how results are more team and depth based now, instead of outcomes being determined by one individual player

7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Of course. It’s also true that the Mighty Starting Pitcher isn’t the only narrative going on. I understand that different people enjoy different things in watching the sport, but this whole “withoUT 9 INNiNg staRtErS BasEBALL IS USeleSs!” bit is about as effective as people moaning about how life was better when we were all farmers

7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Wonderful post. Thank you.

7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

We just got a true pitchers’ duel in game one of the ALCS between Verlander and Montgomery. No doubt they’re becoming rarer but this feels a little overwrought to me

7 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Ok Pfaadt isn’t Smoltz not Halladay, but there’s an argument that he isn’t worse than Saalfrank and Thompson. It would be different if they had Alvarado and Domínguez but they don’t. The 3rd time through thing works if the reliever is better than the starter of that day.