Yovani Gallardo made his last spring training start yesterday and is set to pitch next Monday as the Brewers’ opening day starter. Last year he threw 183 innings across 31 starts to a tune of a 4.18 ERA. If the Brewers are going to make a legitimate run at the postseason they'll need him to be better. But is that possible? To answer that we first have to ascertain exactly what went wrong in the first place.
Gallardo’s issues were mostly due to a sharp drop off in his strike out ability. His 7.17 K/9 and 18.6 K% were both career lows. His previous lows (ignoring 07-08 which weren’t full seasons) were 8.99 K/9 and 23.7 K%. Looking at his first-pitch strike percentage (F-strike%) and swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) might give us an answer.
Both were among the lowest in his career. That tells me that he wasn’t getting ahead of hitters early and he wasn’t inducing a lot of swings and misses. This suggests hitters were able to wait for the pitch they wanted and make better contact (it could also indicate batters weren't swinging as often, but that's not the case). Career highs in contact rate (82.8%) and batting average against (.256) are evidence of this. For context, his career contact rate and BAA are 79.4% and .239 respectively. Basically, he was striking guys out less and giving up more hits.
That answers what went wrong. To get an idea if he can get better, we have to figure out how things went wrong. That is a more difficult puzzle to solve. The first thing I notice when looking at Gallardo’s trends over the years is his velocity. It’s no secret at this point that he’s losing it. According to FanGraphs, Gallardo’s average velocity in 2011 was 92.6 mph. Last year it was 90.7 mph. That might not seem like much, but a mile loss in velocity in each of the past two years is pretty significant and it shows a trend in the wrong direction.
There's more to it than just the velo decline. Gallardo’s fastball, slider, and change-up are separated by only 4 mph. That might not be a stark enough contrast. If hitters only have to focus on one general speed it makes it that much easier to hit any of those pitches. Unfortunately for Gallardo and the Brewers, velocity isn't typically something guys can get back. It sometimes happens when there's an underlying injury that gets resolved or a mechanical change. An injury doesn't seem to be the issue and I'm not sure Gallardo's mechanics have changed over the last 3 years. Velocity isn't the only factor in play though.
I noticed something interesting thing about Gallardo’s pitches. Per Brooks Baseball, Gallardo began throwing a sinker (also called 2-seam fastball) in 2011 but didn’t really start using it until 2012. It was a pretty good pitch for him that year. Batters hit .245 with a .372 SLG% off it. The pitch was particularly brutal for right handed hitters. They only hit .199/.255. For whatever reason though, in 2013 it was by far his worst pitch. Batters teed off on the pitch, hitting .322/546. The advantage versus right handed hitting was gone as well. They hit .301/.466. Judging by his spring training starts, Gallardo is not abandoning the pitch. Fixing whatever went wrong would go a long way towards regaining at least some of his form. Short of that, perhaps he should just use it less.
When Gallardo has two strikes on a batter the pitch he uses most is his four-seam fastball. It used to be his most dominant out pitch. That's not really the case anymore. Based on pitch outcomes since 2009, Gallardo’s curveball is arguably his best pitch. Except for 2012, the lowest batting average and slugging percentage came off the curveball (in 2012 his slider was marginally better). The pitch also gets the highest whiff rate. Over the last three years he has thrown the curveball less and less to the point where last year he threw it almost as infrequently as his sinker and less than his slider and four-seam fastball. He can't throw it in any count because it gets a lot of balls, but maybe Gallardo should throw his curveball more. Specifically in two-strike counts.
This brings us back to the original question: Can Gallardo return to form? Honestly I don't know. But, there are enough things for me to look at that I'll allow myself to be cautiously optimistic. If can can't be as good as he once was, I think he can be better than 2013. If you need some help getting there, look no further than Gallardo’s FIP in 2013. At 3.89 it was more in line with his career numbers than his ERA was. That suggests he might have been a tad bit unlucky. Again, ignoring 2007-08, his 3.29 BB/9 and 0.91 HR/9 were each the second lowest of his career. Another positive sign was his career high ground ball rate. If that persists, perhaps a modest upgrade in defense at second base and a major one at first base could help him. ZIPS seems to have some faith in him. It has Gallardo projected for a 3.89 ERA. That’s not great, but it is better than last year. If our offense, and a couple other guys on the pitching staff, can stay healthy it might just be enough for a Wild Card.
*Information about pitch outcomes/usage courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
**All other statistical information courtesy of FanGraphs.