On Tuesday evening, the Braves selected five minor league players to add to the 40-man roster — Cristian Pache, Tucker Davidson, Jasseel De La Cruz, Philip Pfeifer, and William Contreras — a move that protects them from being chosen in the December 12th Rule 5 Draft.
The #Braves today selected the contracts of OF Cristian Pache, C William Contreras, LH Tucker Davidson, RH Jasseel De La Cruz and LH Phil Pfeifer. Atlanta now has 38 players on its 40-man roster.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) November 19, 2019
Among those five was left-handed pitcher Philip Pfeifer — a 27-year old, mostly reliever, and former 3rd-round pick out of Vanderbilt. If you didn’t follow much Braves’ minor league action in 2019, you might not know much about Pfeifer, but the minor league veteran enjoyed quite a breakout year this past season.
Back in July, I wrote a profile on Pfeifer, following a start in which he struck out 17 batters while with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs — a team-record for the most strikeouts in a nine-inning game. At that juncture in the 2019 season, Pfeifer was pitching the best baseball of his career. From June 30 to July 18 (4 starts), the lefty compiled a 0.71 ERA to go along with 39 strikeouts and just three walks in 18.2 innings pitched.
Up until last season, Pfeifer had been used largely as a reliever, having made only 14 appearances as a starter in his 5-season career in the minors (11 of those 14 starts, to that point, had come during the 2019 season). Luckily for Pfeifer, his success as a starter continued, and by the time the year was over, he had reached Triple-A Gwinnett, mastering two levels on his way. Overall, his final numbers were quite profound, especially when held side by side with what he’d done in 2018 while in the Braves’ organization:
- 2019 Overall: 18 starts, 12 relief appearances, 133.1 IP, 2.97 ERA, 10.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9.
- 2018 Overall: 1 start, 38 relief appearances, 55.0 IP, 5.73 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 6.5 BB/9
As mentioned above, Pfeifer was drafted in the 3rd round by the LA Dodgers in 2013 (he was originally selected by the Texas Rangers in the 44th round, coming out of high school, but decided to play at Vanderbilt). At Vandy, Pfeifer finished with a career 3.60 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 160 innings-pitched (21 starts, 21 appearances).
After two seasons with the Commodores, the 22-year-old was a sought after major league prospect, and the Dodgers liked his low-to-mid 90s fastball coupled with two above-average secondaries. Pfeifer started just one game and appeared in 17 as a reliever in the Dodgers organization before being traded to the Atlanta Braves in June of 2016, along with pitcher Caleb Dirks, for right-handed pitcher Bud Norris.
Pfeifer’s first season with the Braves’ organization (2017) was a strong one. In 41 total games (40 as a reliever), the lefty had trouble with walks (6.4 BB/9) but finished with a 3.49 ERA and allowed just two home runs in 59.1 innings pitched between Double-A Mississippi (44.1 IP) and Triple-A Gwinnett (15 IP).
However, in 2018, he started back in Mississippi, where he pitched well in ten relief appearances (2.51 ERA), earning himself another chance to perform for Gwinnett. But once with the Triple-A team, Pfeifer struggled with walks again. And unlike the previous season, Pfeifer wasn’t so lucky, as he ended the year in Gwinnett with the same walk-rate as in 2018 (6.4 BB/9), but an ERA of 6.86.
Pfeifer brings with him a low-90s fastball that, at times, can run up to 94-95 mph. The pitch is a good one, usually featuring some nice arm-side tail, and an offering Pfeifer consistently keeps down at the knees.
His breaking ball is just as strong as the heater, as Pfeifer throws more of a power-curve, one with an 11-5 break in the upper 70s-low 80s.
Lastly, he also wields a changeup, probably the weakest pitch in his arsenal, though still an above-average offering. Pfeifer’s offspeed works effectively because of his super quick delivery to the plate. He can exaggerate his windup as if he’s reaching back for his fastball, only to sneak a changeup past the batter. Pfeifer’s control is fine, but he could stand to improve his command a bit, even after a big jump in that department this past season.
Expectations for 2020
Pfeifer has been around the block awhile and knows how to pitch to his strengths, while also refraining from trying to do too much. He’s not a flamethrower, but he has learned to utilize his repertoire in the best way possible. As a strong three-pitch pitcher, he could potentially make his MLB debut as a swingman or a multi-inning reliever for the Braves this upcoming season, especially now that he’s already on the team’s 40-man roster.
Like Tucker Davidson — who also was included in Tuesday’s move to the 40-man — being a lefty will further increase his chances of receiving an opportunity to contribute in the majors this year, as the Braves currently only have five other lefty arms in the ‘pen (and that’s counting Sean Newcomb, who may wind up in the rotation once the regular season begins).
Regardless, Pfeifer’s journey through the minors has been an extraordinary one, featuring many ups and downs. I’m sure the increased confidence that comes with being added to a major league 40-man roster will be yet another piece of inspiration for Pfeifer to continue on his upward path to one day pitching in the big leagues. If he can match his incredible 2019 performance… it won’t be long until he’s in Atlanta.