Fans, analysts, and writers have spilled a lot of virtual ink about Franchise Starter Yovani Gallardo‘s fastball velocity. As Tom Haudricourt reported recently, Manager Ron Roenicke insists that Gallardo is fine, adding that he is not sure why Gallardo’s fastball velocity is down.
The basic trend continued last night, as the Brewers lost Gallardo’s fourth consecutive start, which was also his second consecutive quality start. In fact, for all the clamoring about Gallardo’s stuff, the righty pitched well since his whipping in St. Louis, hurling five quality starts in his last seven (alongside a 34 K / 18 BB / 4 HR performance in 41.7 IP. When Gallardo has encountered rough stretches over the last month, he has largely limited the damage). If you’re scoffing at the idea of five quality starts in seven starts, or a 3.88 runs average, that’s markedly better than the Miller Park/NL runs average of 4.34; over a full season, that mark is 10 runs better than the league, which is a top rotation performance marker.
I’ve written about this before, so I don’t want to produce a repetitive beat, but when most fans, analysts, and writers mention Gallardo’s fastball velocity, they don’t place that velocity in the context of his other pitches. While our own Ryan and Steve have noted in their “Rounding the Bases” column that Gallardo’s mechanics have become inconsistent over time, those mechanical inconsistencies (and subsequent fastball velocity shifts) have accompanied (a) increased slider selection, (b) increased slider velocity, (c) near-elimination of the change up, and (d) lower curveball velocity. If you follow FanGraphs’s division between “four-seam” and “two-seam” fastballs (or, “primary” and “secondary,” “rising” and “moving” fastballs), Gallardo is notably throwing more of the “secondary” variety this year, compared to previous seasons.
I had the privilege of watching the Brewers’ FOX Game of the Week against St. Louis at the beginning of May, and I noticed something peculiar about Gallardo’s approach. It’s not so much that his fastball lost velocity, or that he was mechanically inconsistent, but that he appeared to be approaching his fastball in a completely different way.
Some of his fastballs were nearly indistinguishable from his hardest sliders, which almost act as cutters (over the last three years, according the TexasLeaguers, an average RHP cutter will run anywhere between 1 MPH and 3 MPH slower than a “primary” fastball). Some of his fastballs almost appeared to “fade” like a change up, or run in against righties. It’s not as though he was throwing a true sinker (like, say, Justin Masterson or Doug Fister, but simply that his fastball wasn’t “straight,” it wasn’t a typical, hard primary fastball (like someone such as Ben Sheets would throw). Since his fastball and slider were so close in velocity, it appeared that Gallardo’s approach focused on movement and location, rather than disrupting a batter’s timing.
If you follow TexasLeaguers’ (or FanGraphs’) horizontal and vertical movement measurements of Gallardo’s fastballs, the trends in his fastballs show that his primary fastball indeed breaks in on righties more than in previous years. Furthermore, his primary fastball does not “rise” as much. Since pitch f/x measures pitches against a spinless ball of the same speed, the tool can measure not only how a pitch “drops,” but also how a pitcher employs spin to keep a pitch from dropping as much as one might expect (of course we all know that pitches don’t ACTUALLY rise; but, for all intents and purposes, a “rising fastball” effectively challenges a batter’s eyes by not dropping as much as one might expect. Spin can accomplish this effect, if a pitcher uses it that way).
In short, Gallardo is not necessarily throwing a sinker (in fact, I’ve not read one report that says he throws a sinker. Save for an April 26, 2009 article on the Houston Astros’ site). However, he is either (1) approaching his fastballs differently, or (2) suffering from mechanical inefficiencies that cause his fastballs to move differently, or both. Frankly, given Gallardo’s success over the last seven starts, I have a hard time believing that Gallardo’s fastballs are changing due to basic inefficiencies or mechanical inconsistently. The manner in which he employs his fastball and slider suggest that he might be trying to do something different with the pitches.
The next time you hear about Gallardo’s fastball velocity from someone, pay attention to how he’s using his slider and fastballs in tandem, and also pay attention to the speed of his slider. A dip in fastball velocity is not necessarily a bad thing if Gallardo is executing his approach and simply trying to move his fastballs a specific way. Furthermore, if Gallardo effectively uses his hard slider, the increase in his slider velocity could be much more important than the dip in his fastball velocity.
The potential problem is that Gallardo does not have much velocity separation between his main pitches (for instance, more than 75% of Gallardo’s pitches in May are between 86 and 90 MPH, on average). However, even if we think about Warren Spahn‘s great adage that pitching is disrupting a batter’s timing, we can also think about pitching as a chance to “move” or “break” the ball in specific directions and locations. If Gallardo is doing this with his fastballs and slider, his drop in velocity might not be the most important or interesting development in his 2013 campaign.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.
Other articles or resources linked where cited.
Spin charts from TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.