Saturday, February 24 2024

A night after right-hander Brandon Pfaadt delivered the start of his career in the Diamondbacks’ biggest game of the season to date, center fielder Alek Thomas connected on the club’s most important swing of the year, a two-run, game-tying blast in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

Their performances were not exactly unexpected. Both were top prospects, players whom the Diamondbacks had been projecting as major parts of their future. But both had another throughline that makes their heroics a little more meaningful, even a little more storybook.

In the middle of May, Thomas, mired in a weeks-long skid, was sent down to Triple-A Reno. Two weeks later, Pfaadt, after getting hit hard for the third time in five big leagues starts, was sent there to join him.

Both spent weeks down in the minors, working through adjustments and earning their way back to the majors. And both are now thriving on baseball’s big postseason stage.

It is, of course, the players themselves who deserve the majority of the credit. They were the ones who persevered, improved and ultimately performed. But their success also represents a win for a Diamondbacks organization that charted their path, both anticipating speed bumps and building in guardrails to keep them on course.

“Watching them grow up in these environments is going to give everybody more confidence, including the player, that they belong here,” Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen said. “Hopefully the offseason is geared towards being even better. Performing on this stage is what it’s all about.”

Thomas and Pfaadt both appeared to benefit from a new approach to player development the Diamondbacks implemented this year. In the past, when players would be sent down, they would often depart with muddied objectives: They knew they needed to perform better, but sometimes the nuances of how to do that would get lost in transit.

The Diamondbacks expanded their big-league coaching staff in recent years in hopes of combating that, adding assistant pitching and hitting coaches who would float occasionally between the majors and the minors. They took that a step further this year.

When Thomas walked into the clubhouse on his first day back in the minors, he was surprised to see assistant hitting coach Rick Short was there, too.

“He was like, ‘What’s he doing here?’ But he knew why I was there,” Short said. “It was about executing the plan we had for him. That was my mission on that one.”

Both times Pfaadt was sent down this year, an assistant pitching coach, either Barry Enright or Dan Carlson, not only accompanied him, they literally were on the same flight as him.

“It just kind of said to me that they care,” Pfaadt said. “I knew that the whole time, but for them to send another pitching coach with you and work with you every day, it goes a long way.”

Manager Torey Lovullo said that when players are called into his office and told they are going to the minors, they often drift in and out of the conversation that ensues. Often they miss out on some of the finer points of development on which the club wants them to focus.

“When a player goes down, we’ve probably had discussions for a week leading up to it,” Lovullo said. “It’s like, ‘OK, who is here? Where is — if it’s a position player — where are (hitting coaches) Drew (Hedman) or Shorty? What is the message? What are we going to deliver? How are we going to deliver it to them?’ When we send him down, he probably isn’t going to hear us, so we have a lot of firewalls.”

Early in the year, the Diamondbacks had a situation in which a message was misinterpreted when a coach did not travel. Right-hander Drey Jameson was sent down in April and told to focus on his secondary pitches, his slider in particular. When he appeared in his first game for Reno, he threw sliders on 48 of his 79 pitches.

“We were like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’” Hazen recalled. “We wanted him to throw more breaking balls, not all breaking balls.”

Hazen continued; “We had always had the intent of (sending a coach with the player) and that was a stark reminder to us that that needed to be followed through on better.”

Pfaadt made a variety of changes during his time in the minors, including altering his positioning on the rubber. But the biggest difference of late has been the life on his fastball, the result of months of work and gradual improvement. In Game 4 against the Phillies, he generated a season-high nine whiffs on the pitch.

Pfaadt said it is finally feeling like the fastball he had throughout his minor league career, a pitch that coaches and evaluators said had both ride and cut, allowing him to throw it by hitters even when they were expecting it. Pfaadt said the pitch had come naturally to him prior to this year.

“I know early on it was kind of inconsistent,” Pfaadt said. “It was really weird; I had never worked on my fastball before this year. I think we were getting on the side of it and it was running instead of cutting. The little adjustment was staying on top of it.”

Thomas’ changes were more subtle. His focus was on hitting left-handed pitching, and when he first went down, he tinkered with the possibility of eliminating the big leg kick he employs as he starts his swing. He ultimately abandoned the idea, saying he felt too uncomfortable without the big move.

“He likes some athleticism and some movement in his swing,” Short said. “Harnessing that movement can be a challenge for him sometimes, but to his credit he went down there and modified it a little bit. He knows how to cut it down when he needs to.”

Thomas’ postseason has been kind of boom or bust — in 30 at-bats, he has only six hits in the playoffs but four of them have been homers — but he also has risen to the occasion in some of the biggest moments of October.

Just as catcher Gabriel Moreno has begun to show his offensive upside, Thomas and Pfaadt, with their recent performance, have helped instill belief not only that their developments are on the right track, but that the Diamondbacks will be able to count on them to be major contributors in the coming years.

Thomas looks like he can be the impact bat the Diamondbacks always hoped he would become. Pfaadt has looked every bit like a mid-rotation starter — and often times like he could be even better.

“We’re seeing the version of him,” Enright said of Pfaadt, “that I think we all expected to see.”

Watching Thomas launch the tying homer in the eighth inning on Friday night made Short feel like a “proud dad.”

“It is always about the player and they’re always the one executing,” Short said, “but to see what they go through, to be behind the scenes and have long conversations with them every day, and for him to have that moment, I was so happy for him.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Dbacks’ time investment in Alek Thomas, Brandon Pfaadt paying off

Source: Yahoo Sports

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