The Road to The Show™: D-backs’ Pfaadt
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at D-backs’ No. 4 prospect Brandon Pfaadt. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here. It took a drastic transformation for Brandon Pfaadt
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at D-backs’ No. 4 prospect Brandon Pfaadt. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here.
It took a drastic transformation for Brandon Pfaadt to make history.
The D-backs' fourth-ranked prospect managed to go from Division II reliever to the most prolific strikeout artist in the Minors. In his second professional season, Pfaadt finished with 221 total strikeouts between Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno.
His punchout total, which includes three whiffs in the Aces’ Pacific Coast League championship victory, were the most by a Minor Leaguer since Yankees prospect Brandon Claussen in 2001. Pfaadt was the first pitcher to strike out 200 batters in a season since 2011, when Matt Moore, Trevor May and Edwar Cabrera hit that mark.
In addition to leading the Minors in strikeouts, Pfaadt also completed the most innings (167) over the most starts (29) in the regular season, compiling an 11-7 record with a 3.83 ERA.
"He had a tremendous year," D-backs director of player development Josh Barfield told MLB.com in September. "Especially if you consider where he pitched in Amarillo and Reno. Just the numbers and consistency he showed. It was really, really impressive."
Pfaadt, a Louisville, Kentucky, native, stayed close to home to attend Bellarmine University, a Great Lakes Valley Conference school that didn’t get elevated to Division I status until after he was drafted in 2020. Over his first two seasons with the Knights, Pfaadt made just six starts in 29 appearances.
He built up some Draft stock in the Cape Cod League before joining the school’s rotation for his final season in 2020. Pfaadt made five starts, compiling an impressive 1.38 ERA, before the season was shut down by the pandemic. But he made enough of an impression for the D-backs to select him in the fifth and final round and eventually sign him to a reported $100,000 bonus.
While he was limited to a reliever’s workload throughout most of his time at Bellarmine, Pfaadt debuted in the professional ranks as a starter in 2021. Coming out of the Draft, there were some concerns about his ability to work more than a couple innings at a time. But he completed more frames (131 ⅔) across three levels in his first Minor League season than he did in three seasons at Bellarmine (92 ⅓).
Pfaadt went 8-7 with a 3.22 ERA and 160 strikeouts over 22 starts, opening the season with Single-A Visalia before making nine starts with High-A Hillsboro and six with Amarillo to finish the season. His punchout total ranked second in the D-backs system behind Ryne Nelson, and he seemed to shed the “future reliever” tag pretty quickly.
MLB Pipeline’s No. 90 overall prospect has a five-pitch mix, and Barfield noted Pfaadt’s ability to throw them all for strikes. He throws two distinct fastballs – a cutting four-seamer and a two-seamer with sinking action. His changeup is probably his best off-speed pitch, and he’s doing better to properly shape a curveball and slider, getting more vertical break on the former and horizontal action on the latter.
“He has an ability to relentlessly pound the strike zone with all his pitches and he's gonna miss your bat with multiple pitches,” Barfield said. “He's got a really good changeup that he's able to use to lefties and righties. And the slider is a really good pitch too. He's just got multiple weapons and just attacks hitters.”
Barfield noted that Pfaadt’s fastball velocity increased in 2022, but it did not come at the cost of sacrificing command.
The 24-year-old returned to Amarillo to open the season and, despite striking out 11.68 batters per nine innings, he was battered around in his first seven starts. He held a 4.93 ERA over that span while opponents were hitting .294 against him. But Pfaadt got better as the season progressed.
Over his next 12 outings before being promoted to Reno, he made seven starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer, including a season-best 12-strikeout performance on June 23 against Corpus Christi. He left the Texas League with a 4.53 ERA, with three rough starts inflating his final numbers. But he showed he was ready for the challenge at Triple-A and was elevated in August.
After racking up double digits in strikeouts for the @Aces, fourth-ranked @Dbacks prospect Brandon Pfaadt passed the 200-K milestone for the season: https://t.co/BXk31FW8IS pic.twitter.com/AcFAvdXiVD— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 11, 2022
While his K/9 saw a slight dip to 10.8 in Reno after posting a 12.30 mark in Amarillo, he did a better job of limiting good contact in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Opposing batters hit .210 with a .268 BABIP against him after the promotion, which represented a drastic improvement over his numbers at Double-A, where hitters held a .274 average and .370 BABIP against him.
Much of his improvement came from a change in approach. Rather than relentlessly pounding the zone, Pfaadt realized he had to pick his spots a little better in the higher levels.
"Part of it was just racing to two strikes and then expanding the zone," Pfaadt told MLB.com. "For a little bit, I was throwing too many strikes. It seems like a good thing, but at higher levels it’s not a good thing, especially with two strikes. We tried to keep honing in [during] bullpens on leaving the zone with two strikes. I think that helped get more strikeouts.”
Pfaadt went 5-1 with a 2.63 ERA over his final 10 starts of the regular season with Reno. He also got the win after batting through the first five innings of the PCL championship against El Paso.
Pfaadt, who was named the club’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year, will likely return to Reno to start the season, but he certainly has a shot to crack the D-backs’ Opening Day rotation in 2023. While the strikeouts are the obvious headliner, it’s an ability to adapt and change that has had the greatest effect on his career.
“This guy is very focused, very determined, and it's no surprise. He was a fifth rounder. He didn't even start on his college team,” Barfield told MiLB.com in October. “So, for somebody like that to do what he's done so far in his professional career, it didn't happen by accident. It's a lot of hard work he's put in. A lot of determination, and I think it's getting off in spades for right now.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.