Yovani Gallardo has always been a bit of an enigma. For the years between Ben Sheets/CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke, Gallardo was the Brewers de facto ace. He was a very good pitcher during that time, but he could never get over that proverbial hump and become elite. He showed flashes of brilliance, reaching back and firing his fastball up to 95 mph, followed by a hammer curve that just fell out of the sky. We all remember those dominant games. I, personally can remember sitting on the first base line when he pitched a 1-0 shutout, where he also hit a home run to score the game’s only run.
Those dominant games weren’t enough to define his career, though. His game logs were always peppered with 5 inning outings. As much potential as Gallardo had, he simply threw too many pitches in too many games. He made the most of those innings, but he was so reliant on the strikeout, or perhaps so afraid of contact, that he’d rack up 100+ pitches before making it to the 6th inning, rarely giving the bullpen a day to rest.
Now that he’s reportedly agreed to a 3 year deal with the Baltimore Orioles in the $40-$45 million guaranteed range, Gallardo is drawing mixed reactions once again. Many think he’s a talented, reliable pitcher, who’s not yet in the twilight of his career, while others think 3 years is far too long of a commitment for a pitcher with a declining skill set.
Since the true answer almost always lies somewhere in between, let’s take a look at how Gallardo has matured over the years.
The most common critique from his detractors is that he’s no longer the flame thrower that he once was. This is a serious problem for Gallardo, whose velocity was used not only used to punch batters out, but was also vital in setting up his dangerous curveball. Let’s look at his declining velocity a bit closer.
That’s not exactly the trend you want to see. Gallardo has lost 2 full mph from his average four-seam fastball since 2011. For a pitcher that relies on strikeouts, that’s can be a major problem, so how has it affected his results?
Just as you likely expected, Gallardo’s K:9 has dropped dramatically. We’re talking about nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings to below 6. There’s obviously a direct correlation with his drop in velocity here, and this is precisely the reason many fans are lukewarm on Gallardo going forward. However, when we start to look at his other results, things get a bit curious.
Gallardo’s ERA has been remarkably consistent. Considering how far his fastball velocity and strikeout rate have fallen, a consistent ERA is counter-intuitive, to say the least. As a matter of fact, Gallardo’s ERA has actually gotten better as he’s gotten used to his new, reduced velocity. In his last two seasons, he’s posted the lowest ERAs of his career.
What’s going on here? How is he allowing fewer runs, despite what appears to be a declining skill set? Many will note that he’s now out-performing his FIP by more than half a point, suggesting that he’s been the beneficiary of some good luck, and that he is likely to regress moving forward. However, if we dig a little deeper, we can see how Gallardo has altered the way he pitches to adjust to his own physical decline.
This gives us a bit more insight on how Gallardo has evolved over the years. As his velocity has declined, he’s had to rely on the movement of his pitches more and more. Each year since his rookie season, he’s thrown his 4-seam fastball less frequently (if we ignore the slight uptick last season). Gallardo’s been increasing his slider usage since 2009. His two-seamer became a significant piece of his repertoire in 2011, and he now throws it as often as his four-seamer. That’s all well and good, but how has that affected his results? How has this adjustment in pitch selection helped him to maintain — nay, lower — his ERA?
The answer may be ground balls.
As Gallardo has gotten away from his four-seam fastball, he’s gradually turned into a groundball pitcher. If you can’t strike batters out, you had better be able to pitch to contact. Gallardo is becoming much more comfortable pitching to contact and trusting his middle infielders to finish the job. It also is worth noting that his HR:9 has been below 1.00 for three straight years, despite playing those seasons in Milwaukee and Arlington. Last year he allowed just one home run for every 2 games played.
Gallardo is, of course, not the first pitcher to make adjustments in his pitch selection to prolong his career, while maintaining an ERA significantly below his FIP. Gallardo’s former teammate Kyle Lohse quite famously turned his career around by swapping his four-seam fastball out for his two-seamer. From 2011, when Lohse really committed to the two-seamer, to 2014, Lohse’s excelled, with an ERA well below his FIP. Strikeouts are weighted so heavily with FIP that it tends to underrate control/pitch-to-contact pitchers.
Lohse joined the Brewers in 2013. The next year, Gallardo’s two-seam fastball usage spiked from 19.5% to 30.5%. It’d be interesting to find out how much, if any, impact Lohse had on Gallardo’s pitch selection.
Gallardo’s clean bill of health has allowed him to start 30+ games for 7 straight years. That’s an impressive achievement. He’s still only 29 years old, but all of those pitches have likely taken their toll on his arm, and a few miles per hour off of his fastball. It remains to be seen if he will continue to lose velocity as he ages, but for now, concerns of him fading into the abyss should be tempered, as he’s shown the ability to identify his problems and make the proper adjustments. There’s no reason to think that he won’t be able to continue to roll with the tide.