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What's Up with Yovani Gallardo

There's no question that Yovani Gallardo hasn't pitched like himself so far in 2011. And, as Roguejim likes to point out, Gallardo's second half last year was none too spectacular in the results department-- his ERA was 5.77 after the All-Star break last year. So what I'd like to look at if this is part of a longer-term struggle for Gallardo, which would be a greater cause for concern. In addition, I'd like to see if there's anything in his approach that could be fixed to help his production. 

First, a note about what we've accomplished in a few years. It's phenomenal how much more analytical baseball fans and media have become. I'll point to last night's postgame thread, in which a number of commenters brought up points I would normally make in a post like this. In addition, our excellent beat writer, Adam McCalvy, wrote this story, in which he reported on concerns of the Brewers coaching staff while citing Fangraphs data about fastball velocity. I just flipped on Baseball Tonight, where they showed a breakdown of Gallardo's splits (before showing a graphic comparing career WAR between Fielder and Pujols). We've made a lot of progress, folks. 

Anyways, on to the information. First, let's take a look at the second half of last season to see if there's any continuity, and at first glance it seems unlikely. His strikeout rate stayed consistently in the upper 9s per 9 all year. His walk rate actually dropped a bit in the second half. Hitters were much better against him after the break, but that seems to be driven by a really high .374 BABIP, as opposed to a .300 BABIP before the break. Is it possible that he became a bit more hittable in an effort to reduce his walks? Maybe, but we didn't see the a dropoff in stuff. I'm inclined to say that whatever we are seeing with Yovani this year is independent of his struggles in the second half last year, which look to be a classic case or random variation. 

I think we're to the point in baseball knowledge where it's generally accepted that strikeouts and walks are an extremely good proxy for pitching skill. Almost without fail, if a pitcher strikes out a lot of batters and walks few, they're going to be a good pitcher. And despite the classic argument about "pitching to contact", more strikeouts tends to correspond to lower pitch counts. 

With that qualification, I hope Gallardo isn't making a conscious effort to try so hard to avoid walks that his swinging strike rate has dropped and his strikeout rate has dropped. After all the talk about needing to drop his walk rate to get to the "next level" after 2009, he cut it down by 1 to 3.5 in 2010. It's even lower so far this year. Unfortunately, his strikeout rate is down to closer to 6. The rates he's putting up are right on par with a Dave Bush pitcher. It makes sense that Yovani's groundball rate is up as well. His complete game shutout against the Braves was heavy on the groundballs and low on the strikeouts.

Intentionally or not, Gallardo's having a very different effect on hitters this year than he has in the past. They're making quite a bit more contact-- from 77% to about 83%-- and that also ties to hitters generally swinging more at pitches. In the past, Gallardo has been among the league leaders in fewest swings against, which I always considered strange because he's not exactly an overpowering guy. The last 2 years it was 40.8%, this season it's 44%. Both are significant jumps and indicative that he's just not fooling hitters this year-- either his pitch sequencing has just failed to surprise hitters, or his command has simply tossed up too many hittable pitches. 

Past Gallardo has been something of a 3TO pitcher. Batters rarely swung against him, struck out a lot, and walked a decent amount. His home run rates have run between .5 and 1 per 9 innings, and that (at .8 right now) is in line for this year as well. The difference this year is a big drop in strikeouts, a rise in ground balls, and a rise in hits-- not coupled with a rise in BABIP, making me think the problem is a result of things he's been doing and not just random variation. 

Meanwhile, I've searched Pitch f/x archives up and down, left and right, and there's not much in to say there. Everything checks out just fine, and there's no variation in any of the movement of his pitches outside the variation I'd expect to see at this point in the season. The same goes for pitch selection, which is almost perfectly in line with what he threw last season. 

So, my conclusions are pretty simple. There hasn't been any sort of change in Gallardo's stuff or velocity, as far as I'm concerned. His pitch selection and stuff are right in line with his past. Unlike his struggles in the second half of 2010, however, these are of a different type. The second-half struggles were driven by a high BABIP, also known as random variation, while his skillset remained stable. So far this year, Gallardo's been much more hittable, much more predictable from a batters perspective, and has traded groundballs for fewer strikeouts, and it hasn't worked out well. If I were the Brewers, I would make the objectives clear to Lucroy and Gallardo that the norm needs to return. Aiming for fewer walks is a noble effort, but if it comes at the expense if this many strikeouts something needs to change in approach, and the first place I'd look is pitch sequencing-- something that's hard to evaluate analytically, like command of individual pitches. Even if he has thrown the same rate of each pitches, it's possible that they have been sequenced in a different way. 

All in all, though, I don't think this warrants overreaction. The stuff is there. Yovani is a heck of a pitcher. If I really had to diagnose the problem, as of right now, I'd say he's just missing his spots right now and that he'll come around soon and even out. And if he has altered his approach this year, which seems unlikely based on looking at his pitch f/x data, now would be a good time to go back to what worked.