At the end of last season, Brent Strom had a request for the Arizona Diamondbacks front office: Find me more power arms.
A year earlier, Strom had arrived from Houston hailed as a pitching coach savant. In year one, he delivered on that promise when it came to the starting rotation. Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly had the best seasons of their careers, and the rotation’s ERA as a whole dropped from 5.20 to 4.05.
The bullpen was a different story. Not only did the Diamondbacks tie a major league record for bullpen losses with 41, but Strom and manager Torey Lovullo were never given a chance. When they looked into the left field bullpen at Chase Field, there was nobody who could go get them a strikeout. Nobody who could blow major league hitters away with stuff. Every game felt like a battle, trying to mend an old car together with zip ties and duct tape just long enough to cross the finish line.
The stats backed that up. In an era of ever-increasing velocity and subsequently booming strikeout rates, Diamondbacks relievers struck out a league-worst 7.71 batters per nine innings. That would have been below the major league average in 2009. In 2022, it tied one hand behind Lovullo and Strom’s backs.
“We had envy over other teams last year,” pitching coordinator Dan Carlson said. “You go out there and you’re looking at 98, 100 with a good breaking ball. It’s like, man, that’s tough to hit. Some teams roll out four or five guys like that.”
So as the Diamondbacks players and coaches left town for the off-season, Strom asked Hazen for options like those he watched from afar in 2022.
“At the end of the year, we have conversations about some of the needs and (the front office) does a great job of listening to what we talk about from the dugout level,” Lovullo said.
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General manager Mike Hazen did not splash out on any high-money bullpen signings. He did not trade valuable pieces for relievers, either. Their most notable bullpen acquisition was Andrew Chafin, who averaged 91.6 mph on his four-seam fastball. Finesse pitchers like Mark Melancon and Joe Mantiply still figure to have sizeable roles.
But around the fringes, Hazen delivered, giving his coaches options to work with. He signed Miguel Castro, a veteran who averages 97.9 mph with his sinker, and traded for Carlos Vargas, a Guardians prospect with a triple-digit four-seamer.
“We’ve added some guys,” Hazen said in February, “that have electric stuff that we’re gonna hopefully give to Strommy and (Carlson) and (bullpen coach Mike Fetters), that they can channel into the strike throwing a little bit and end up with some power out there, too. We’ve lacked that, for sure. We’ve lacked strikeouts. Those are some things I’m hoping we’ve added to the bullpen.”
Three weeks into spring training games, those additions are filling the role Hazen envisioned.
With the typical caveats that accompany spring stats, Castro and Vargas entered play Tuesday having pitched nine innings, struck out 10 and not walked anyone. The Diamondbacks have also accelerated the development of Justin Martinez, a 21-year-old in their own system who throws over 100 mph. Martinez will begin the year in the minors after being optioned Tuesday, but he was promoted to Triple-A after just two Double-A appearances last summer. He also pitched in the Arizona Fall League and was added to the 40-man roster in November. During spring training, he has repeatedly been tasked with facing lineups full of major leaguers early in games.
In one of those outings, against the Guardians last week, Martinez showed the Diamondbacks what they missed out on last year.
He loaded the bases with one out, displaying some of his remaining rawness. But Lovullo told his staff, “I want to test this guy,” and opted to leave him in the game. Martinez responded by striking out the next two batters on six pitches.
“That’s something that we have missed,” Carlson said. “That’s elite swing and miss pitches. The fastball and the splitter and the slider, that’s really great to look down there and see. I always think about a closer, you have bases loaded and no outs, who’s your best guy to get out of a situation without giving up a run? And he goes out there and he does something similar to it. There was one out with the bases loaded. But that stuff, that’s elite. Everybody wants that guy.”
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Martinez still has his challenges to work through. Having pitched just nine innings above High-A, the Diamondbacks want him to learn how to take something off his pitches to gain a bit more control — something they’ve been through with Drey Jameson over the past two years.
“Some guys pitch at 90%, some guys pitch at 95%,” Carlson said. “To pitch at 100%, that’s almost like redlining a car. You’re on the extreme all the time, that’s difficult.”
Ultimately, though, there’s a reason they’ve pushed Martinez — he has something you can’t teach. It’s the same reason that Vargas has been given similar opportunities against tough spring training lineups. Although he struggled for the first time Tuesday, striking out two Giants and then walking three to allow a run, he’s still in major league camp with a chance of making the roster, despite only reaching Triple-A at the tail end of last season. It’s also why they acquired Castro, who will give a bullpen still reliant on finesse a power arm from Opening Day onward.
“We want power arms that can strike you out and can also place the ball where you want,” Lovullo said. “And we’re watching that happen in a lot of cases.”
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