Zach Davies and Zac Gallen: Dynamic Fielding Duo in Diamondbacks Pitching Rotation
The Arizona Diamondbacks have Zac Gallen has set the league on fire with his recent performance. Since August 2, he has only given up runs in two innings out of the 52 2/3 he has pitched. This has thrust him into the conversation for the National League Cy Young Award. Zach Davies has a deceptive record due to the strict pitch limit set when he returned from injury. He has not factored in a decision since his August 1 return; however, the team has gone 6–3 in his starts over that span.
But lost in the shuffle is the defensive play of Davies and Gallen. That’s common with pitchers, since their priority is, well, pitching. But they both rank high in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which does a far better job than fielding percentage at measuring defensive performance. Davies is third, with five, and Gallen is tied for fifth, with three.
Saving Runs by Adding Outs
DRS takes range and difficulty of a play into account. Fielding percentage does not — it only measures how often a defender fields, throws, or catches a ball without making an error. But to paraphrase the late Tommy Lasorda, longtime Hall of Fame manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a player doesn’t get an error on a ball he can’t reach.
DRS compares a player’s defensive ability to the average defender in the league at his position. It tells how many fewer runs a team gives up by having this player instead. A negative DRS means the team gave up more runs by having him there.
Diamondbacks players and coaches were unaware that Davies and Gallen ranked so high in the league in DRS, but that was only because they don’t look at the leaderboard. When told that the two rank so high, no one was surprised, and they certainly were proud. First baseman Christian Walker, an elite defender who takes immense pride in his defensive play, beamed like a proud parent when he heard the news. “That’s cool,” he said with a hint of excitement. “That’s great,” echoed pitching coach Brent Strom. “Any time a pitcher can field their position is pretty awesome,” smiled catcher Carson Kelly.
What Zach Davies and Zac Gallen Add with Their Gloves
Skilled fielders like Zach Davies and Zac Gallen aid their infield greatly. In essence, their abilities add a fifth infielder to the mix. “It takes away some of those bunts,” Kelly said. “The balls in the middle between first and the mound they can get to — those make a big difference. One less guy on base ultimately helps us win games.” Josh Rojas, who plays both second and third, also liked what the two add to bunt coverage. “When you have those guys on the mound,” he pointed out, “you don’t have to cheat in for the bunt as much. At second base, you don’t have to worry about the push bunt as much. You know they’re gonna cover the ground, get the ball, and cover first base.”
A strong gloveman on the mound allows the coaching staff to set the defense differently than they would otherwise. “It’s a great asset when you have a pitcher that’s a very adequate fielder,” manager Torey Lovullo explained. “But not only that, is a very accurate thrower. Those two guys are good at driving the baseball, throwing it on time to the base they need to throw it to.”
“It’s huge,” proclaimed third base coach Tony Perezchica, who also works with the infielders defensively. “It allows you to play defenses where — if there are guys that can bunt — we honor the bunt, because they can do it. But we know that there’s a fielding pitcher that can go to either line, either direction, and make outs. Up the middle, (the infielders) could tell (the pitcher), ‘Hey, we’re here,’ but they know that there’s a guy that can possibly get ground balls up the middle, so they don’t play directly in back of him. They play it to the side of him a little bit more.”
Stay Out of the Way
There’s another factor that even the experienced and knowledgeable observer can overlook. Walker added, “Plays where the infielders need the pitcher to stay out of the way, that’s super valuable, too. We get the shortstop up the middle and a guy on first base, we let the pitcher know, ‘Hey, we’re up the middle. If a ball is hit right back at you, let it go through.’” If the shortstop is up the middle and a groundball goes straight to him, he can step on second and throw to first for an easy double play. That is easier than the pitcher fielding, whirling around, throwing to second, the pivot man catching and relaying, and the throw beating the batter-runner to first. “You can take a person out of that scenario and still get your double play,” Walker explained.
Trust also comes into play. “If I need to play four-hole” — the term for the hole between the second baseman and first baseman when the infield is playing straight-up — “I can say, ‘Hey, this guy may bunt. I need you to do this in this situation,’ I have full confidence they can handle that. And they’re confident that I’m telling them to do the right thing. There’s trust both ways, and it’s valuable.”
This trust came into play on August 7, Davies’ first home start since returning from the injured list. In the top of the second against the Colorado Rockies, Davies was in a jam. Runners were on first and second with one out and center fielder Yonathan Daza at the plate. Daza, a righty, hit a one-hopper to the right side. With the infield shading him to pull, it went straight to Walker. He spun, planted his feet, and made a strong, accurate throw to second. Sergio Alcantara caught the throw on the bag, stepped in front, and whipped the ball to first.
But Walker wasn’t there to take the throw. He didn’t have to be. Davies covered first quickly enough to take the throw, stretching like a first baseman as it arrived half a step before the hustling Daza. Threat over. (View play here.) After that game, Davies said, “Walker, luckily, being off the bag with a guy on second base made it nice, because that ball would have been a hit otherwise. Anything to the right side, for me, I break towards first base so I’m ready to try and field something.” Walker said Davies’ fielding ability “(allowed me to be) able to gather myself and not make a rushed throw, knowing that he’s going to be there” at first for the relay throw.
What Makes Zach Davies and Zac Gallen Such Good Fielders
All the way through high school, both Davies and Gallen were shortstops that also pitched. This, along with their athletic abilities, developed their footwork and reflexes. Being a strong defender, especially when positioned more than 30 feet closer to the hitter than any other infielder, requires both of those traits.
Another key, when it comes to pitchers, is the stance after the follow-through. Perennial Gold Glover and former Diamondback Zack Greinke was a master at this. Davies and Gallen both do this as well. Lovullo said, “Think back to Greinke. He had a really good delivery — got in position to field the baseball and became the fifth infielder. And that’s what I think both of our guys do. They’re able to get back under control, get their body facing home plate, and then use their hands and their feet to field ground balls.” Strom, who coached Greinke in Houston, also mentioned their deliveries allowing them to be in “good position” to field the ball and cover first, when necessary.
Zach Davies: Every Out Counts
Davies traced his fielding instinct to “competitiveness,” saying, “If there’s a ball coming my way, I’m gonna react to it.” He added that it is “taking pride in making sure that I’m not one-dimensional and just throwing the ball. Furthermore, if a bunt comes his way that he can’t make a play on, that’s one more runner on base. “Being able to get those outs when I can is definitely helpful for me…. I don’t strike a whole lot of guys out, so I know that every out counts. It’s one of those things that I make sure that I take care of my end of it, too.”
Davies is hard-wired to head toward first the moment a ball is hit to his left. “Anything to the right side, you’ll see me take a step,” he said. “Even if it’s at the second baseman, if I can be over there, if I can help out on the play, I don’t want that guy on first base. So if I can run 65 feet from the mound to first base, I’m going to try and make that play. I can take five seconds on the walk back to get my breath and try to get the next hitter out.”
Zac Gallen: Pride in Playing Defense
Gallen played the field more than he pitched all the way up to his senior year of high school. In the process, he took more pride in his defense than he did in his hitting. His background has aided his glove work on the mound. “Quick feet, quick hands. Pickoffs or the 1-6-3, 1-4-3 double plays are probably the two things I would highlight where I feel the most like an infielder,” he said.
There’s definitely “merit” to defending his position well, especially lately with the shift, although that is going away next season. “Some guys like to ‘take their free hit,’” he said. “So being able to take that away (is big). The guys that want to try and bunt and put a little bit more pressure on have to bunt it a little bit harder to get it past me or at least have a shot at making a play.
“The other big thing is learning a free arm stroke. At shortstop, you have to throw from all different angles across the field. It teaches that flexibility, for lack of a better word, in your arm.” In addition, it gives “understanding of what the natural throwing progression in your arm motion” is.
The Dynamic Fielding Duo
Zach Davies and Zac Gallen, with their glove work, give an added obstacle to hitters trying to reach base. With Davies being third in DRS, he should at least be a finalist for the NL Gold Glove. Philadelphia Phillies hurler Ranger Suarez (seven DRS) and New York Mets right-hander Taijuan Walker (six DRS) will likely be the other two. At that point, the player/coach/manager vote will take over, which might give the award to Davies. Gallen, despite being tied for fifth with three, has something else working in his favor: this play. The highlight-reel play might get enough votes for him to crack the top three.
Winning Gold Gloves is always something to be proud of, and if current trends continue, these two should be in the running for the next several years. But regardless of what awards they do or don’t win, each member of the fielding duo brings an added defensive threat while on the field. For a team like the Diamondbacks, whose manager and coaching staff value fielding so highly, it plays right into their system. Defense hurt them badly in the nightmarish 2021 campaign. In 2022, defense has improved significantly, and so has their record.
Zach Davies, Zac Gallen, Tommy Lasorda, Christian Walker, Brent Strom, Carson Kelly, Josh Rojas, Torey Lovullo, Tony Perezchica, Yonathan Daza, Sergio Alcantara, Zack Greinke, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker