Yovani Gallardo pitched 14 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings to start his 2014 campaign. Only four Brewers have ever strung together more goose eggs. Gallardo’s strong start has been a welcome surprise. After battling through the toughest year of his career, both on and off the field, some questioned whether Gallardo had lost his magic. His pitching peripherals were trending in the wrong direction. His strikeouts and velocity evaporated before our eyes. Fans and statheads began to worry. Gallardo noticed too, but, instead of sinking with the ship, early returns suggest he did something about it.
In 2013, Gallardo compiled a 94 ERA+ — the first time in his career that it had sunk below the league average of 100. He was also striking out almost two fewer batters per 9 IP. His 7.2 SO/9 was the lowest of his career and the first time since his injury-plagued 2008 season that it had been below 9.0 SO/9. Simply, Gallardo was having a tough time missing bats. Batters were swinging and missing less frequently, as his swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) dipped well below his career norm to land at 6.9%. Meanwhile, when batters did swing, they made contact more frequently — an 82.9 Contact%, three points higher than his career average. Throw in a sudden one mile-per-hour dip in fastball velocity, down to 90.7, and Gallardo was beginning to look less like a top of the rotation starter and more like a pitching machine.
So what explains Gallardo’s strong start to 2014? How has a pitcher, whose skill set was statistically deteriorating, come out of the gate with a 0.96 ERA / 2.27 FIP / 3.42 xFIP over three games? After Gallardo’s second start in Boston, Alec Dopp noted how Gallardo had adjusted his arsenal of pitches. Now, more than ever, Gallardo is throwing a two-seam fastball (sinker) instead of his old bread and butter – the four-seam fastball. Meanwhile, fellow DoUer, Jaymes Langrehr pointed out that Gallardo was pouring in the strikes to start the season and, notably, had increased his first pitch strike percentage (F-Strike %).
Yet, even with the stellar numbers, statistical red flags still fly. So far this season, when batters swing at a Gallardo pitch, they make contact at a whopping 91.0%. That’s an alarming 12.1% more than the current league average contact rate of 78.9%. Going hand-in-hand with the increased contact is Gallardo’s plummeting swinging strike percentage – down to 5.1%. That’s 4.4% lower than the league average of 9.5 SwStr%. So what balance of sweating and celebrating should a Brewers fan be doing? How hard will the regression come back around on Gallardo?
That answer may depend on how much you believe in Kyle Lohse. This spring, Ron Roenicke encouraged Lohse to take more of a leadership role in the clubhouse, and Lohse accepted the challenge. Lohse has already changed the Brewers’ approach to bullpen sessions. Previously, a starter throwing a bullpen session would do it alone. Under Lohse’s leadership, they’re now become group events with the rest of the rotation providing encouragement, advice, and plenty of good-natured ribbing to whoever has the honor of throwing the session. When David Laurila interviewed Lohse, during the Crew’s recent foray into Fenway, one of his questions was if Lohse thought he’d ever become a pitching coach. Lohse’s response was, “In some ways, I already am.”
Laurila’s conversation also covered Lohse’s evolution into a control pitcher. Like Gallardo, Lohse primarily used a four-seam fastball early in his career. In 2007, his age 28 season, Lohse finished with a 4.62 ERA / 4.53 FIP / 4.71 xFIP. He’d never had a season with a sub-four ERA or FIP. Then Lohse landed in St. Louis under the tutelage of pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Duncan converted Lohse into a sinkerball pitcher. Lohse ditched the four-seam fastball for a two-seamer and was told to pound the lower part of the zone with it. As Lohse explained to Laurila, “You can get away with a lot more when you have movement on your fastball and stay down.” Just because Lohse took the lesson to heart doesn’t mean it was easy for him to make the adjustment. Even with his career 5.7 SO/9, Lohse admitted to Laurila,
“I’d rather strike guys out, but if I can get an out in two or three pitches because I’m locating and ahead in the count, that will result in a lot more efficient innings.”
In 2008, his first year with the Cardinals, Lohse pitched 200 innings for only the second time in his career and finished with a 3.78 ERA / 3.89 FIP / 4.11 xFIP – all career lows. Lohse’s new approach worked, and, following injury ridiculed seasons of 2009 and 2010, turned him into the pitcher we know today. A pitcher, who since 2011, has compiled a 3.22 ERA / 3.77 FIP / 4.02 xFIP.
So how does all of this effect Gallardo? An argument could be made that Gallardo’s new approach is following in Lohse’s footsteps. The changes Lohse made to become a control pitcher correspond with Gallardo’s early season statistical trends, as noted by Alec Dopp (more two-seamers) and Jaymes Langrehr (more first pitch strikes). Since it’s early in the season, and small sample size may be skewing the numbers, it can’t be definitively claimed that Gallardo’s pitching script has changed. However, the numbers are moving in that direction. A change in pitching style could also explain why Gallardo has been so successful to start the season. He’s flipped his script enough to stay a step ahead of the hitters.
A glance at Gallardo’s percentage of called strikes (L/Str) shows that hitters have been taking more called strikes from him. Currently, Gallardo’s 37.0% L/Str is the highest in his career and third best in all of baseball. It’s almost 5% higher than his career norm of 32.1% L/Str and almost 10% higher than the league average of 27.7% L/Str. As a final point of comparison, let’s look at total percentage of strikes (Str%) Gallardo has thrown over his career.
*Gallardo made only four starts and threw 24.0 IP before requiring knee surgery.
Though he’s missing fewer bats, Gallardo is still throwing the same amount of strikes. Whether those extra called strikes are on account of Gallardo sneaking across more first pitch strikes, better mixing his arsenal to keep batters off-balance, or overall improved control is still to be seen. Either way, Gallardo has made adjustments that work to his benefit.
Whether Gallardo has followed Lohse’s lead and flipped his script to become a control pitcher will be revealed by the stats over the course of the season. For the Brewers, it’s great to see that Gallardo has made adjustments to the league. How successful Gallardo’s season will be hinges on what happens once the league adjusts to him.