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Yovani Gallardo's Weird Season

I thought projecting Yovani Gallardo this year wasn't going to be that difficult. After his 110 innings in the majors in '07 and lost season of '08 to his ACL tear, his 2009 and 2010 seasons were just about what everyone could have expected and hoped for: he kept striking everybody out (9.9 and 9.7 per 9 innings in those two seasons), and he showed big improvement on his big problem, walks, by dropping that rate from 4.6 to 3.7 over those two years. To put it another way, he kept striking out 25% of the batters he faced, and walked only 9% compared to 12% the season before.

Back when we were doing community projections for this year, I saw it all coming together in my head, Gallardo making the leap to extremely elite starter by building on those two seasons, dropping the walk rate further, and getting that FIP down into the 2s (it was 3.02 in 2010), and having an important race in September to make it necessary to go above 185 innings pitched, where he's been the past two seasons. I know I wasn't alone; Joe Posnaski even predicted that Yo would be the 2011 Cy Young Award winner in the NL.

The only problem with this nice little idea is that it didn't happen. Gallardo started off with outings of 6 innings, 2 earned runs and followed it with a shutout of the Braves (with only 2 strikeouts). Then things turned ugly: in 5 starts, he threw 26 innings and gave up 26 earned runs. There was widespread panic. I cautioned back in April that this looked like just a weird thing, his strikeouts were down and his walks were also lower, and he was getting more groundballs, but more were falling for hits. I was, however, hopeful that things would straighten out because some broader numbers looked fine and normally stretches like that tend to even out throughout the year.

Now it's September and things have really gotten weird. No doubt, Yo has rebounded in a big way: since he got out of the slump with that near no-hitter in St. Louis, he's struck out 153 in 150 innings and posted an ERA of 3. That's what we like to see. But here's where it gets weird. I noted back in April that he seemed to be adopting a policy of trading strikeouts for fewer walks and more groundballs. So far this mission has generally been a success: a career-high 47% of batted balls against Gallardo have been hit on the ground, and he's only walked 7% (2.6 per 9) of the batters he's faced, easily a career low. But strangely, at the same time, the rate of flyballs against him has also gone up. The only category left, of course, is line drives, and those have fallen.

This is really a roundabout way of getting to the question of "why is he giving up so many home runs". In truth I have no idea. There have been more fly balls hit against Gallardo this year than in a usual year for him, yes. And a fair amount of those fly balls been leaving the park, a career-high 12.9%-- way up from 7.1% last year, but not too far off of 12.3% in 2009 (for comparison, Braden Looper in 2009 had 15.8% of his fly balls leave the yard). Generally, this is something a pitcher has little control over-- so, yes, Gallardo giving up more fly balls this year is more of a concern than it would be if it were just a case of a higher-than-usual amount of fly balls going out. 

With that being said, I don't really see this as a long-term trend or anything. There's not much to suggest going forward that Gallardo is going to keep giving up a ton of homers like this. Pitchers go through phases like this. Zack Greinke had one earlier this season. Looking at Gallardo's season-long indicators of performance don't seem to show any big signs of trouble, either. His swinging strike percentage, for example, is actually higher than it was last year, and that's something that correlates very closely to overall strikeout percentage. And his pitch selection is pretty much normal for him as well-- he's gone away from throwing a changeup almost entirely, but that's not a pitch he has ever really used very much.

2011 has been a weird, though pretty successful, season for Gallardo. He hasn't exactly taken a step forward in the pitching skills department, but he's been somewhere between his 2009 and 2010 seasons in terms of effectiveness so far with a quite different approach. Based on the peripherals from the run he's been on since May, however, I think we have little to worry about and that going forward he can be the guy that strikes everybody out and doesn't walk anybody, provided he can get this little fly ball bug under control. If Gallardo's arm can withstand the workload of a (hopefully) deep playoff run, I think we could watch him really come around, like I hoped he would earlier this year.