Even though Zack Greinke’s impending debut should be the story with the Milwaukee Brewers, Yovani Gallardo’s fifth straight poor start has shifted the attention to a much more disappointing place. Gallardo’s ERA after Monday night’s five inning, five earned run start rose to 6.10, far from what was expected of the de facto ace in Greinke’s absence. After 41 innings, it might be time to start worrying, or at least to try and figure out what’s wrong. Let’s examine some areas that might be causing Gallardo’s problems.
Gallardo’s average fastball velocity according to FanGraphs was 91.8 MPH, against a career average of 92.1. Not much there, particularly considering Gallardo’s velocity numbers from Monday per Brooks Baseball: 93 on the four-seamer, 92.6 on the two-seamer. Velocity is not a problem.
The home run has been a bit of an issue for Gallardo, as he allowed his fifth of the season to the Braves’ David Ross. Five in 41.1 innings is a poor rate to be sure (1.08 HR/9), but it’s not anything that can’t be explained away by random variation. The unlucky thing for Gallardo, however, has been how many runners have been on for those homers: of the five, two have been solo shots, but three have been three-run bombs. That’s an average of 2.2 runs per homer, well over the 1.4 mark of the average home run. It can be argued whether or not this is a matter of skill or not — certainly, high-walk pitchers will allow more runs on their home runs, for instance — but we should expect both the number of home runs and the number of runs per homer to come down as the season progresses. It’s not like he’s giving up more fly balls than usual (32.2% season vs. 35.6%)
Monday’s start was actually a step in the right direction in terms of strikeouts, as Gallardo retired seven via the whiff in five innings. However, that only brings his K/9 up to 6.5, well below his typical one-per-inning rates. The problem to date has simply been hitters making more contact off him than ever before: a 6.9% swinging strike rate against an 8.6% career rate. This may explain some of his problems prior to Monday night, but it doesn’t explain his issues against the Braves: Atlanta’s hitters whiffed eight times in 89 pitches, a 9% rate. Unless he reverts to the low swinging strike rates, I don’t think contact or strikeouts is cause for concern just yet.
Walks were a killer for Gallardo on Monday, as two walks were instrumental in Atlanta’s sixth inning rally. Gallardo walked four on Monday in total, and his rate rose to 3.70. That’s not a good mark, but it’s actually marginally better than his career mark of 3.77, and just marginally worse than last year’s mark of 3.65. Sure, it’s a problem in a sense, but Gallardo has lived as a high-walk pitcher for much of his career, and the walks almost certainly the driver behind his struggles.
Balls in Play
Although the walks hurt, the sixth inning was largely an exercise in why we use defense-independent statistics to evaluate pitchers. Dan Uggla reached on a slow roller that was just out of Yuni Betancourt’s (admittedly not great) range. Alex Gonzalez’s double was roped, but if it was four feet to the right, it’s right to Casey McGehee and the Brewers may turn two instead of sit down two. Gallardo has a .332 batting average on balls in play this year, which is likely related to a 21% line drive rate. However, Gallardo has an essentially perfect batted ball distribution on Monday night — 7 grounders to only one line drive and one fly ball. Unfortunately, the results were just as poor as before: a .615 BABIP. It wouldn’t be nearly as big an issue if Gallardo were striking batters out at his normal rate, but it’s also a near-certainty that hitters won’t continue to get such good results on balls that stay in the park.
When the strikeouts come back, the results will come back, and in two of his last three starts (Monday and Houston), Gallardo has actually recorded seven strikeouts. However, in those starts the BABIP luck dragons have attacked. Obviously, early returns from Gallardo have been disappointing and have certainly hurt the team. Right now, there just isn’t anything in the numbers to suggest that he is either hurt or done as a productive pitcher.