Zac Gallen Talks Pitching

When Michael Augustine wrote about Zac Gallen’s repertoire back in February, he called the 24-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander “a potential future ace.” Raw stuff wasn’t the reason. None of Gallen’s offerings grade out as plus-plus (although his changeup comes close). In terms of velocity, the former University of North Carolina Tar Heels hurler averaged a pedestrian 93.1 mph with his heater last season.

What makes Gallen good is his command, as well as his ability to mix, match, and tunnel his five-pitch mix. The numbers back up the promise. After debuting with the Miami Marlins last June — he was dealt to the D-Backs at the trade deadline — Gallen put up a 2.81 ERA and a 3.61 FIP over 15 starts. Despite the lack of a power profile, he punched out 96 batters in 80 innings.

Three months after Augustine addressed Gallen’s pitches from an analytical angle, we’re going to learn about them from the pitcher himself. Gallen chronicled the origin and development of each in a phone conversation earlier this week.

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David Laurila: What is your full repertoire?

Zac Gallen: “Four-seam, changeup, curveball, and… I call it a cutter, but it’s like a hybrid cutter/slider. You could characterize it as a hard slider, I guess.”

Laurila: No two-seamers?

Gallen: “Maybe one here or there. On rare occasion I’ll kind of squeeze one inside on a righty, maybe behind in the count, or to a lefty to see if I can get him to roll over. But my four-seam is a much better pitch, so I tend to stick with that. I probably throw a [two-seamer] once a game, or every couple of games.”

Laurila: When did you start mixing in an occasional two-seam? I’m assuming the four came first?

Gallen: “No. I actually grew up throwing a two-seamer. My dad coached our Little League team and when I was younger, maybe six, we had a guy who had played pro ball come out and teach us some things. He had me toy around with a two-seamer, so I started out throwing that. I didn’t make the full switch to a four-seamer until probably my junior year of college.”

Laurila: Why the switch to almost exclusively four-sam fastballs?

Gallen: “It just felt better. I could stick a four-seamer in; not really having much run, I knew where it was going to be. It was easier to control. It’s also a little bit easier to get a four-seamer glove side down and away to a righty, as opposed to trying to bring that two-seamer back. For me, it’s an easier visual as to where to start that pitch.”

Laurila: How would you describe the movement on your four-seamer?

Gallen: “It has good vertical movement; it kind of keeps its plane. It has good ride, or however you want to characterize it. I don’t know exactly what the spin rate is — I think it’s somewhere between 2,350 and 2,400 [rpm] — but it plays well up in the zone.”

Laurila: When did you become fully aware of that?

Gallen: “Probably not until the last couple of years, although it’s something I was always curious about. While I’ve never thrown overly hard, I could get away with four-seamers up at the letters; guys would swing and miss. I never understood why. I thought it was more about velo. But once I dove into the information, I kind of got an idea that it’s got good spin, good spin efficiency, and the ball tends to hop. It has that late life.”

Laurila: Knowing that would impact how you go about attacking hitters.

Gallen: “It does. It opens up a whole new avenue. There was kind of an adjustment period, though. In 2018 is when I really started to … the Marlins were kind of like, ‘Hey, you have a fastball where you can pitch up in the zone.’ That was tough at first, because for me it had always been about working down in the zone. To change that visual, and pitch up in the zone, was a little bit of an adjustment. But it’s helped me tremendously.

“That said, there are certain times where I’ll get some arm-side run with the four-seamer. I’ll also sometimes get some cut, at least the optical illusion of cut. With my actual cutter, the notation is more to not try to bend it like a slider. It’s to throw it with that fastball arm action kind of deal, with the finish at the end. I don’t get into shaping it too much.”

Laurila: Do you actually want to get cut on your four-seamer?

Gallen: “As time has gone on, and I’ve talked to more of the analytics guys, a lot of them tend to like the natural cut. The funny thing is, I wish I knew when I did it; I wish I could replicate it. So I’ve noticed that either one works — both hop and cut are good. Any sort of movement, I’m happy with.”

Laurila: Does the occasional cut differ much from that of your actual cutter?

Gallen: “Yeah, probably. It’s looks a little like rising cut, even though it’s not. My cutter tends to have a little more depth to it. Like I said, I kind of treat it like a hard slider. I’ve got that diagonal with a little bit of depth. If I can keep it under five inches of vertical movement on the plot chart, I’m good with that.”

Laurila: I’ve read that you throw two variations of a cutter.

Gallen: “Not on purpose. Some days it’s just a little more depth-y and some days it’s a little more lateral. It’s tough for me to pinpoint what it’s going to do. That said, when I’m going up and in to a lefty, I will try to manipulate it more to be lateral, to get in on the hands. Down and away to a righty, I’ll try to have a little more depth. But other than that, there’s not very much that I try to change. I mostly just throw the same pitch, and it does what it does.”

Laurila: Did you originally throw more of a true slider?

Gallen: “I went into college with a knuckle curve — a double knuckle curve — and a knuckle slider. But I really had no breaking ball whatsoever. My freshman year they were trying to teach me a slider, but I couldn’t get the concept of it. I just couldn’t conceptualize the feel of one. It was bad.

“That summer, when I went and played on the Cape, one of my teammates — Paul Covelle, who was at Franklin Piece [University] — was throwing a cutter to me. I said, ‘How do you throw that?’I could have sworn he showed me a certain grip, but I came to find out later, ‘No, that isn’t the grip.’ But I toyed around with it for a week or two, then brought it into a game. I basically taught myself a hybrid cutter/slider.”

Laurila: You said that you came into a college with a double knuckle curve?

Gallen: “It was like Mike Mussina would have his two knuckles on his curveball. It was something I learned from my brother. He threw a really good one, but for me it wasn’t very good. It was just a little wrinkle to throw out there. Then I started toying with a traditional spiked curve in probably my sophomore year [of college], so that I’d have something to change eye levels, up and down. It was probably a three-year work-in-progress, getting that pitch to where I want it.

“Even now, it’s still kind of a work in progress. I wouldn’t say I’m behind the eight-ball, but I didn’t grow up with a curveball. I wasn’t really allowed to throw one, so I kind of learned the pitch at an older age than most guys do. I didn’t start concentrating on it until maybe the end of college and my first couple years of pro ball. Even now, some days I don’t really have it.”

Laurila: Would you say it’s your fourth-best pitch?

Gallen: “It is in terms of repeatability. But I’d also say it’s my most important pitch. I’ve noticed that having my curveball going makes turning lineups over much easier.”

Laurila: Why is that?

Gallen: “I feel that it makes the strike zone bigger than it is. We were talking about my fastball having carry, and being able to pitch at the top of the zone. That allows to me pitch at the bottom of the zone. I’m able to tunnel my curveball pretty well. According to the analytics, my pitches all come out of the same slot, or very close to it. I wish I could face myself, to see what that actually looks like.”

Laurila: How would you rank your pitches?

Gallen: “I’d say my fastball and changeup are 1 and 1A. From there… personally, I’d rank my curveball ahead of my cutter. The cutter gives me such a headache with its [lack of] consistency. My curveball, I kind of have an idea of what it’s going to do — assuming I have that feel. Like I said, my cutter can be either lateral or depth-y.”

Laurila: What’s the story behind your changeup?

Gallen: “It’s kind of wild how that came to be. I grew up throwing a changeup and it was always my best pitch. The grip is kind of unconventional, like a half-circle change. I’ve heard some people call it a ‘trophy change.’ I don’t know.

“I think the grip maybe stemmed from my hands not being big enough when I was younger. I was throwing a two-seam with three fingers. That felt natural to me. Then I kind of got away from it, the harder I threw. I didn’t throw it as much in high school, and I didn’t use it much in college either — mostly just to lefties in the middle of the lineup.

“I remember sitting down in Miami, after I got traded over. The pitching coordinator was going over my pitches and I was saying how my changeup was my best off-speed pitch. He was kind of dumbfounded. That’s because the scouting reports showed that I only threw it a handful of times. This was in the middle of 2018. He was like, ‘Hey.’

“They pretty much forced me throw two an inning. They said they didn’t care what the statistics looked like, what the box score looked like, they just wanted me to throw two changeups an inning. That gave me the confidence to start throwing that pitch again. It helped me get the feel back.”

Laurila: How would you describe your changeup?

Gallen: “It’s got good diving action, down and in to a righty. There’s nothing I do that’s really different than a lot of guys who throw changeups. It’s pretty standard in that sense. Nothing crazy. I do pronate quite a bit, but that’s not something I think about too much. For me, the feeling is sort of like I’m pinching a key at the end; I’m turning a key over. I kind of let the index finger pull the middle finger over the ring finger.”

Laurila: Have you played around with the velocity, or do you pretty much just let it do what it does?

Gallen: “I just let it do what it does. With the changeup, you’re either a guy who can really take speed off, or you’re a guy who has action with it. Zack Greinke is 88-89 and it just dives down. Then you’ve got guys like Kyle Hendricks, who are throwing it more like 75. I try to not toy with the speed too much. For me, the action is more important.

“When I was getting back into throwing it, in 2018, there was a guy at my agency who said, ‘You can never throw your changeup too hard.’ I was like, ‘OK, let me try this.’ It was really a conviction thing, a trust kind of thing where I would throw it and let it do what it does.”

Laurila: Would you say your evolution as a pitcher has been impacted more by coaches and/or organizations, or has it been more self-driven?

Gallen: “A lot of it has been on my own. One thing I tell younger guys I see in the offseason is that you kind of have to be your own pitching coach. The organizations I’ve been in — this includes the Cardinals — have all helped me with little stuff here and there. But you’re the one who is playing catch every day; you’re the one who needs to have an idea of what’s going on. That said, the Marlins and D-Backs have helped me analytically, giving me a better idea of how to use my pitches. The more information you have at hand, the better you’re going to be.”

Laurila: You’re known more for your command and pitchability than you are for your raw stuff.

Gallen: “I’ve never had the overpowering stuff where I’m able to go out and just roll the balls out there — ‘here it is.’ I have all of this information at my disposal, so I’m going to use it. At the same time, when you cross the white lines, it’s game time. It’s war. You have to go and make pitches. No one is going to strike out just because you have a fastball that is so many mph, or so many rpm. I’ve always been a command guy.”

Laurila: Would you say your ability to command the ball comes naturally?

Gallen: “I’ve always been… I’d say my command has probably gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. The strike zone has gotten a little bit smaller. But it’s something I’ve kind of always had. I never threw hard as a kid. Something my dad would always preach is that you can’t strike everybody out, but you can get everybody out. That’s how I approach it.”

We hoped you liked reading Zac Gallen Talks Pitching by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Good article. I really like these “talk pitching/hitting” articles. Gives you a much deeper understanding of a player. Interesting to hear them talk through their approach. Please keep them coming!