Trading places: Rookie right-hander Gallen continues to shine in big leagues

For the second time since he was drafted in 2016, Bishop Eustace Prep alum Zac Gallen was traded last month. But after making his big league debut two months ago, his stock is on the rise.

Zac Gallen, a 2013 Bishop Eustace Prep graduate and Gibbsboro resident in the offseason, made his major league debut two months ago and has impressed. The right-hander had a 2.58 ERA after his first nine big league starts. (Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks)

Life can be hectic for professional baseball players who haven’t made the jump from a minor league world spent traveling on buses all across the country to one riding in team charter planes with multimillionaires in the majors. 

But it can be a little crazy at the big league level, too, particularly when you have to make quick mental notes to remind yourself what color undershirt to wear underneath your uniform. 

Zac Gallen, a 2013 Bishop Eustace Preparatory School graduate and a Gibbsboro native who still calls the town home in the winter, has lived both of these lives this summer. He made the thankless bus trips during the first part of the baseball season as a rising Miami Marlins pitching prospect, and now he’s in the big leagues as a promising rookie starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Gallen, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft, spoke with South Jersey Sports Weekly after making his Diamondbacks debut against his hometown team, the Phillies, a couple of weeks ago.

South Jersey Sports Weekly: I saw you nearly made your MLB debut against the Phillies, being called up a day before the Marlins arrived to Citizens Bank Park. But I guess having it against the Cardinals (on June 20) worked out alright?

Zac Gallen: I’m kind of glad it was in St. Louis, because (if it was Philly) it would just have been so much going on, having my debut in Philly. So I think it worked out perfectly. I grew up a Cardinals fan and then got drafted by the Cardinals, I was pretty pumped to make my debut in St. Louis. I thought I’d be wearing a Cardinals jersey but I got there one way or another. It was still cool to make it in Busch Stadium against the Cardinals, kind of a, you know, a look-what-you-could-have-had kind of deal. I thought it was fun. You kind of have that chip on your shoulder. It’s still the big league (debut) so you have that chip that would want to prove you belong, but even more so against a team that traded you.

Gallen held the Phillies to one hit in five shutout innings in his Diamondbacks debut on Aug. 7. (Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks)

SJSW: And now you have two teams that have created that chip, the Cardinals and Marlins. (The Cardinals traded him in a deal that brought them Marcel Ozuna two winters ago).

Gallen: I know, right?  [laughs]

SJSW: These last two months must have been pretty hectic, getting the big league call-up one month and getting traded the next month.

Gallen: This game is ever-changing and you can’t lose sight that it’s a business, these things happen. Teams have different needs so I 100 percent understood both moves. But both were shocking because I had no idea. But this game, it’s ever-changing and you always have to be on your toes. But it’s definitely been a hectic last two months. But hopefully I’ve found somewhere where I can stick and be for the long term. 

SJSW: And another way to look at it is these other teams wanted you.

Gallen: It’s always nice to be wanted, that’s for sure, that’s what I’ve learned now. And you know, I don’t know many people that can put on their resume “traded twice before (age) 24” but I look at it as a positive. The Marlins wanted me first and now the Diamondbacks wanted me, so I won’t look at it in a negative light.

SJSW: I remember seeing in June you led all Triple-A starters in ERA and you’re off to a good start in the big leagues (2.58 ERA through first nine games). What’s been working well from the mound?

Gallen: I mean a couple things clicked mechanically, on the simplified level, from spring training. But once I got into the season I had catchers calling great games. Bryan Holaday was in Miami and (Triple-A) New Orleans for my first eight or nine starts (there). From the first inning of that first game we were on the same page, mixing pitches, being able to throw all of my pitches for strikes. It opened up a lot of different avenues that I may not have had in years prior. I think mixing pitches has been the biggest thing for me.

 

SJSW: I was watching the game vs. the Phillies and your changeup had some serious drop. When did that become a big weapon?

Gallen: The funny thing about my changeup, that was my pitch growing up. When I was younger I didn’t have a serviceable breaking ball until my sophomore year (at the University of North Carolina). The tough part in high school was that the changeup was doing a lot of guys favors so I stopped using it as much, (maybe) if I was facing a bigger left-handed hitter that I figured could handle velocity I’d use the changeup, but as I got older I kind of shied away from it, I didn’t use it as much in college, just a little here and there. And then pro ball, I lost a feel for it. Last year the Marlins pitching coordinator and coaches said we think you should really focus on using your changeup this year. I was getting back into it and something happened that I guess reverted back to when I was younger and it started to click and it felt good. It’s been a huge weapon for me lately.

SJSW: Your first two months in the big leagues, despite it being hectic, have been really good: Did you think it’d be that seamless of a transition?

Gallen: You don’t know what to expect when you get up here, you just try to carry through what you’ve been doing. It definitely takes a little bit of an adjustment period. I wouldn’t say I’m through that my any means, but I‘ve definitely felt, I don’t want to say uncomfortable, but those first few outings you have to feel your way around and see how it is. The game is the same, but the game speed is different at the same time. So I think I’m just starting to feel more comfortable with my stuff, slight mechanical adjustments now I think are paying off. I just try to build off each outing, whether it’s negative or positive.

SJSW: Was your phone flooded with texts and missed calls after five shutout innings against the Phillies (on August 7)?

Gallen: [Laughs]. Yeah, I had quite a few people saying their family was mad at them because they were cheering for me instead of the Phillies. There was some divided households it sounded like. [Laughs]. But, no, it was really nice to get some support from back home, staying up late to watch the game. It was pretty cool.

 

SJSW: South Jersey right now is making an imprint on the big leagues, with three of you making your debuts this year (Devin Smeltzer, who plays for the Minnesota Twins and graduated Eustace a year after Gallen, and Gloucester Catholic’s Mike Shawaryn of the Boston Red Sox) then you have Sean Doolittle (Medford/Washington Nationals), Ryan Buchter (Blackwood/Oakland A’s), and obviously (Mike) Trout (Millville/Los Angeles Angels). What does this say about South Jersey baseball?

Gallen: Yeah, it says a lot. Trout obviously put South Jersey on the map in terms of the talent. Any time you get South Jersey guys up to the big leagues it just proves that South Jersey kids, the ones with the chips on their shoulder, they can show everyone. There is good baseball in South Jersey and I’ve believed that ever since. I used to tell guys in college, come to New Jersey, specifically South Jersey, there’s good baseball. So when guys reach the big leagues it proves that point even more. I’m pumped for those fellow guys, especially Smeltzer and Shawaryn, the guys I know pretty well personally. So anytime you see a fellow South Jersey guy it’s easy to root for them because you know what they went through.

SJSW: I imagine you and Smeltzer (Minnesota Twins) are texting buddies?

Gallen: We text every couple of weeks. … When I was in Miami and we played the Twins (last month) and the pitching schedule first looked like we’d pitch against each other, but they wound up sending him down, we talked about that. We tried to grab dinner, but have talked frequently last couple of months.

SJSW: Two Eustace grads squaring off in the big leagues. That would have been fun.

Gallen: It would have been pretty cool and it would have been funny because he normally doesn’t have to hit and the Twins were in Miami, so it would have been fun to see him in the box. I don’t know how well we would have kept it together, a couple of laughs during that first at-bat.