PHOENIX – The starting pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the World Series has an odd-looking last name, comes from a small school most people outside the Midwest have never heard of and was in the minors to start the season. He’s also making a big mark this postseason and is looking to etch his name in Diamondbacks lore as the starting pitcher who helped put his team on top in the 2023 World Series.
Welcome to the national spotlight, Brandon Pfaadt (it’s pronounced “fought”).
Pfaadt, 25, attended Trinity High School in Louisville and then stayed local to attend Bellarmine University. Bellarmine has roughly 4,000 undergrad students (for comparison’s sake, the University of Louisville has more than four times that), but it is a Division I school, part of the Atlantic Sun conference. Still, Pfaadt is only the third Bellarmine baseball product to ever make the majors, following in the footsteps of Brad Pennington and Todd Wellemeyer. Neither Pennington nor Wellemeyer ever appeared in the playoffs, so Pfaadt is already making school history.
A fifth-round pick in 2020, Pfaadt quickly endeared himself to the Diamonbacks’ organization, rising to Double-A in 2021. By the end of 2022, he was well-established as a top-shelf big-league prospect. In 10 starts in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League (Triple-A), he was 5-1 with a 2.63 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 74 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings. This past spring, he was ranked as high as 27th on top prospect lists.
On May 3, the Diamondbacks summoned Pfaadt from the minors to make his first MLB start, joining the rotation after Arizona had just over a week earlier decided to designate Madison Bumgarner for assignment. Bumgarner made $23 million this season for his four starts and 10.26 ERA.
“Probably not,” Pfaadt said when I asked him how he’d have reacted if someone told him back in April that he’d be making a World Series start this year. Then the humble Pfaadt pivoted to talking about the team instead of himself.
“But it was always in the picture. I think we struggled early on but we knew the outcome, if it were to get in this spot, that we would be here and ready to help our team win.”
Pfaadt’s first start, rather coincidentally at this point, came against the Rangers. It did not go well. He gave up seven runs on nine hits — including four home runs — in 4 2/3 innings.
“It was cool going back to Arlington,” Pfaadt said of making the trip there for the World Series, given that his first MLB start was there. “It was like a full circle. That debut day was kind of a blur, but some things came back when we showed up to the ballpark. It was really cool to be there and kind of see that full-circle moment.”
Next time out, he didn’t fare much better as the low-powered Marlins offense touched him up for six runs on seven hits in five innings. Growing pains are common for rookies. Adjusting to Major League Baseball is really hard and most players, statistically, don’t make it long term.
There were flashes of brilliance through said growing pains, though, such as seven scoreless innings in San Diego on Aug. 18 or dealing against the Diamondbacks’ fellow wild-card hopeful Cubs on Sept. 15.
“You’ve seen glimpses of it all year,” first baseman Christian Walker said. “He’s been mostly great for us. I’m nothing but impressed with how he’s performed on this stage and with this opportunity. It’s been fun playing behind him and I look forward to some games coming up.”
Pfaadt has really seen things click in the last month. He finished the regular season with 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the hapless White Sox. His stat line wasn’t good in his Wild Card Series start, but he showed signs of battling. When they shocked the 100-win Dodgers with a sweep in the NLDS, Pfaadt threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings in the clinching Game 3.
Then there was the NLCS, where Pfaadt truly announced his presence with authority. He got the ball for Game 3 with the Diamondbacks down 0-2 in the series. He held the Phillies’ high-octane offense through 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He only gave up two hits, didn’t walk any and struck out nine. He was then tasked with Game 7. A berth in the World Series was on the line and he was facing a raucous crowd in Philadelphia in addition to the Phillies’ lineup that had feasted at home in the playoffs. He struck out seven while giving up two runs in four innings before turning it over to the bullpen.
Rangers manager Bruce Bochy has noticed.
“He’s got great stuff — movement, command,” Bochy said. “He’s pitching with a lot of confidence. We know we have our hands full with him.”
Speaking of the stuff, viewers of Game 3 who haven’t yet seen Pfaadt can expect a healthy mix of fastballs and sweepers (it’s in the slider family), but he actually throws five pitches, working in changeups, sinkers and curveballs, too. As he’s grown at the big-league level, so has the confidence his teammates have in him.
“Absolutely,” Diamondbacks right fielder Corbin Carroll said when asked if the confidence level in Pfaadt right now is high. “He’s throwing the ball real well. We’re excited to see what he’s got.”
The rookie will have a chance to show what he’s got in front of the biggest audience he’s ever had when he takes the hill in Game 3 of the World Series. Max Scherzer, a future Hall of Famer, is taking the mound for the other team. Nothing so far has bothered him, though, whether it is struggles at the big-league level, tough road environments or even starting an elimination game. The smart money is on nothing bothering him in Game 3. He might even turn in an ace performance. He’s shown he’s capable on multiple occasions this season, including the biggest start, so far, of his life.