It’s been the cause of a lot of talk recently, it was discussed on this week’s edition of the Disciples of Uecker podcast, and it’s hard to ignore: Yovani Gallardo suffered a down 2013 season, most obviously evidenced by his declining strikeout rates.
On a consistently annual basis, Gallardo was a shoe-in for number two starter numbers with Milwaukee. From 2009 through 2012, his age 23-26 seasons, Gallardo was worth 12.4 wins, won 60 games, 9.38 K/9, and steady year-by-year ERA- numbers of 90, 95, 91, and 91. He ranked 25th among all starting pitchers in WAR during those four seasons–by no means elite, but still easily a second-tier starter. Gallardo entered 2013 at 27, very much still the prime for most pitchers. Without Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, or Randy Wolf anymore, he was the veteran on a pitching staff without much experience. Because of all of this, Gallardo’s down season came as an unforeseen surprise.
In all fairness, Gallardo wasn’t a complete lost cause last season. He posted a 4.18 ERA, 3.89 FIP, and 3.29 BB/9. After a rough first half that included the off-field distraction of a DUI on April 16 and a 4.89 ERA inflated by a treacherous month of May, he salvaged the season with a 3.09 ERA over 67 second-half innings.
The narrative over the course of the season surrounding Gallardo’s struggles was the drop in his fastball velocity. Per Brooks Baseball, he peaked at 93.36 mph on his average fastball as recent as 2012 (his single-game peak came at 95.62 in 2009), a number that declined over 2 entire points in just one season. At 27, that number was alarming for Brewers personnel and fans alike, fearing possible arm fatigue or an impending injury.
But we can’t blame all his struggles on his velocity decline. Whether because of the velocity drop or not, he relied significantly less on his four-seam, a career-low 35 percent compared to when it was at its highest in 2009. Fewer fastballs doesn’t directly mean less success, though. There’s very few things more desirable and effective as a pitcher than good command of breaking pitches, especially on the first pitch. In a 0-0 count, when hitters took the pitch, he threw each pitch for a ball a greater percentage of the time than a strike. The most significant of these was the 16.3 percent gap between strikes and balls on first-pitch curves.
His breaking pitches–his curveball, in specific–have dropped in command. His first-pitch strike percentage dipped to a career-worst 55.9 percent. In turn, batters are swinging less and less. On curves out of the zone, opponents only swung 27 percent of the time, and whiffed on 29 percent of those. Batters are laying off the curve and Gallardo’s been forced to throw lots of four-seams, sliders, and sinkers in hitters’ counts, which they took full advantage of. Example A below:
Gallardo started Brandon Phillips with a curve nowhere near the plate. Phillips then fouled off a changeup, then buried a 1-1 slider in the dirt for ball two. Behind 2-1, and struggling with command of his breaking pitches, Gallardo was forced to throw a fastball to Phillips, and DatDudeBP took advantage of a 90 mph four-seamer (note the velocity again) up and out over the plate, driving it on a line over Carlos Gomez’s head for a game-tying homer.
Gallardo also saw a sharp decline in his K% that rested at 24.5 percent from 2009-2012. It had been on a decline every season since 2009, but the drop to 18.6 percent in 2013 was eye-opening. It was a result of all the things we talked about above–not just his drop in fastball velocity. For years, his curveball was his put-away pitch, but now we’re seeing hitters laying off the Uncle Charlie more than in the past. So let’s throw this together: slower fastball, less effective breaking ball, getting behind more hitters. Fewer strikeouts.
It’s difficult to pin Gallardo’s struggles on one specific problem, and so it’s also hard to predict the outcome of his 2014 campaign. I’m skeptical of a return to his K% of old because, historically, pitchers that suffer such large decreases in strikeouts before the age of 30 rarely return to their old numbers, though they do typically raise their K% slightly. For what it’s worth, the Oliver projection on Fangraphs has Gallardo’s K% up to 21.9, which is foreseeable.
Going forward, much of the pressure Gallardo was under last season is gone. The franchise placed the “ace” tag on him during the off-season, he served as Team Mexico’s top pitcher in the World Baseball Classic, suffered the off-field distraction of his April DUI, missed time in August with a hamstring injury, and faced constant trade talk rumors throughout the season. Entering 2014, there’s no doubt the Brewers are expecting a bounce back from Gallardo, but the burdens placed on his shoulders in the past are somewhat spelled by Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, and Marco Estrada.
The expectations that were on Gallardo–the ones that led to a bigger let down that his 2013 season actually was–exceeded his actual value. Though he was the playoff ace, Opening Day starter since 2010, and one of the few home-grown pitching prospects to actually pan out at the big league level, he had always been a number two starter for the Brewers. It seemed like Milwaukee was just waiting for Gallardo to take that next step and 2013 felt like it was finally “that time”, which, obviously, it wasn’t. Instead, it was a dose of reality, an affirmation of something that should have already been acknowledged: Gallardo is a good, sometimes great, pitcher, but isn’t going to reach the elite tier of starting pitchers in Major League Baseball.