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Godley flourishing in D-backs' rotation

'The Bull' racking up whiffs and grounders after starting '17 as reliever in Triple-A
MLB.com

NEW YORK -- The man they call "The Bull" stood impatiently on the Citi Field mound, waiting for Mets youngster Dominic Smith to get back in the box. His eyes glared toward home plate. The glove on his left hand began to quiver as he turned, loaded his left leg and fired. Out of his hand came a fastball -- until Smith began to swing. By then it was a curve in the dirt.

Smith turned to the third-base umpire, who rang him up for strike three. When he looked back to the mound, "The Bull" was gone. In fact, Zack Godley was already sprinting toward the dugout.

NEW YORK -- The man they call "The Bull" stood impatiently on the Citi Field mound, waiting for Mets youngster Dominic Smith to get back in the box. His eyes glared toward home plate. The glove on his left hand began to quiver as he turned, loaded his left leg and fired. Out of his hand came a fastball -- until Smith began to swing. By then it was a curve in the dirt.

Smith turned to the third-base umpire, who rang him up for strike three. When he looked back to the mound, "The Bull" was gone. In fact, Zack Godley was already sprinting toward the dugout.

"It kind of scares me," said D-backs catcher Chris Herrmann. "At home games, I'll sit right in the middle of the dugout by one of the entrances and I'll see Zack charging at me like a bull.

"He's almost fallen a couple times," Herrmann joked. "Thankfully he hasn't gotten hurt yet, but it worries me a little bit."

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: Zack Godley will wear the nickname "Bull" on his #PlayersWeekend jersey. His sprints off the mound might be one reason why. #Dbacks pic.twitter.com/f5n8TFuDoQ

The goatee and the long brown hair. The stocky build and the windsprints off the mound. And the glare ... oh that glare. Godley breathes intensity from head to toe, and he's channeled that energy into a breakout year for Arizona.

An oft-overlooked part of the D-backs' transformation from the National League's worst rotation by ERA in 2016 to its third best this year, Godley has come seemingly out of nowhere to be a top-shelf starter. The right-hander from the University of Tennessee has compiled a 3.15 ERA and 3.28 FIP over his first full Major League season in a rotation, and he could start an NL Division Series game for Arizona should it qualify and advance past the NL Wild Card Game. It's been a big year for the former Cubs prospect, who came over in a trade for catcher Miguel Montero in 2014.

"I'm just looking at what hitters are doing and how my strengths play into their weaknesses," said Godley, who's as self-effacing off the mound as he is aggressive when on it. "Other than that, I'm just trying to play baseball."

Fans previously unaware of Godley can be forgiven. Pitching in the shadow of Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, Godley posted a 6.39 ERA for the D-backs last year, mostly in relief. But there were little hints of a premier pitcher; opponents were missing over 27 percent of their swings against him and hitting the ball on the ground on more than 55 percent of their contact.

Video: ARI@STL: Godley K's seven over seven scoreless frames

Still, Godley began 2017 as a reliever for the club's Triple-A affiliate in Reno, getting his chance only when an injury felled one of the Aces' starters. Then Shelby Miller got hurt, giving Godley a chance to spot start again with Arizona. Over time, the D-backs realized there were fewer and fewer reasons to send him back down.

"He's been tremendous for us." said Herrmann. "You love playing behind a guy who takes the game as seriously as he does."

Both the command and differentiation between Godley's two primary fastballs -- his sinker and his cutter -- have improved this season. That's allowed Godley to showcase his best weapon more often: a sharp breaking ball that might be better classified as a spike than a curve. It's a pitch that makes big leaguers look like cricket players.

Gif: Zack Godley K's Altherr

"It's got such a hard snap to it," said Herrman. "It hits the top of its peak, and then it seems like it just falls straight down."

"It's one of the better curve balls in the game right now," added rotation-mate Ray.

Godley typically starts his curveball low in the zone and watches it drop even lower, often from hitters' knees down to their ankles. Roughly one-third of his curves end up below the strike zone, according to Statcast™'s detailed zone metric, but opponents treat the pitch like it's catnip. Godley has induced a swing on 27.3 percent of his pitches below the lower boundary of the zone, the fourth-highest rate among 78 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 300 pitches there, behind Corey Kluber, Alex Wood and Carlos Carrasco.

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: The #Dbacks feature 2 of top 5 SPs in chase % on non-borderline balls. Godley w/ curves. Greinke w/ mostly sliders. https://t.co/6id5c4ZLTD pic.twitter.com/jN0QKxwxyL

"I don't know [hitters'] thoughts and feelings on [my curve]," Godley said earnestly. "I just know when I'm throwing it where I need to, guys don't hit it that often, and when they do, they don't hit it that well and they hit it right at someone. I like that.

"As long as they keep doing that, I'm going to keep throwing it."

Second-year pitching coach Mike Butcher has overseen Godley's transformation, and he points to two improvements: Godley's understanding of his delivery and his deception.

"He's worked a lot on trying to get every pitch to come out of the same arm slot," said Butcher. "His release points on the four pitches he throws are all very close to each other now."

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: Zack Godley's xwOBA by yr: '15: .358'16: .342'17: .2831 reason why: He's tightened his release points, turning hitters into guessers. pic.twitter.com/hQb8YBMQp1

Big league hitters have only a few hundred milliseconds to decipher a pitch and swing at it. Now that Godley has tightened his release points, those hitters have to choose whether he's throwing a sinker that runs from right to left, his cutter that runs left to right, or that devastating hook that drops off the table. All three of those pitches are coming out of the same spot, with similar spin rates that make it even harder to read the seams.

"His curveball looks like a low fastball, and it just keeps going lower," said Ray. "And they have to honor it because he has such a good fastball now."

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: Zack Godley's cutter/curve combo. They both look like fastballs until the very end. Got whiffs from Justin Turner in back-to-back swings. pic.twitter.com/kN31wJcFBU

Opponents have hit just .169 against Godley's curve ball and .190 against his cutter, both among the top starter marks in baseball versus those respective pitches. Furthermore, Godley is the rare combination of both a strikeout artist and a ground-ball specialist. Per Statcast™, there are only three starting pitchers in baseball who have gotten hitters to both whiff on at least 30 percent of their swings and hit grounders on at least 50 percent of their batted balls: Kluber, Masahiro Tanaka and Godley.

Those skills keep the ball in the yard, and Godley has allowed only four home runs all season at hitter-friendly Chase Field. It's just one more part of the versaility that could make "The Bull" a major advantage -- as either a starter or long reliever -- if October baseball returns to the desert.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Arizona Diamondbacks, Zack Godley