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Gallardo, Garza, and Lohse: The remarkably average top of the rotation

Looking back at preseason projections for the top of the rotation, and looking forward to see where the Brewers stand.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in February I went one-by-one through projections for players I assumed would be getting regular playing time at each position. Regrettably, I also chose the over or under on each individual stat line in terms of overall production. Now that the season is over I'm going to go back through, because I think it's both interesting to see how opinions develop with new information (I'll be quoting heavily from the projection article in these and responding), and it's good for transparency/accountability purposes-- how wrong was I?

I'll follow the pattern of the original articles and start with what was projected to be the top end of the starting rotation: Gallardo, Garza, and Lohse.

Yovani Gallardo

Gallardo Innings Pitched Strikeouts Walks FIP ERA
ZiPS 185 21.0% 8.0% 3.80 3.90
Actual 192 17.9% 6.7% 3.94 3.51

I feel the need to quote the entire passage I wrote in February because I think it gives us a nice frame of reference to talk about where we are currently at with Yovani:

Yovani Gallardo's age 27 season was his worst as a major leaguer, but before we slot the guy down in the middle of the rotation let us first remember that it was his age 27 season. I feel like I have written about 5 posts over the years about strange short term changes in Gallardo's effectiveness, in particular his strikeout and walk rates where we would see month-plus trends where his strikeouts were either way up or way down. Despite that, he still ended his four full seasons prior to 2013 by striking out between 23% and 27% of the total batters he faced (that's between 9 and 10 strikeouts per 9 innings). That fell all the way down to 18% last season. His swinging strike percentage, often a good proxy for how "good" a pitcher's stuff is, was also a full point worse than his previous career low.

So if we can agree the results were bad it's naturally time to turn to why, which both gives us some closure and could give us some sort of idea about what we should expect next year. A good place to start would be his velocity chart. As has been noted elsewhere, there was a significant decline on his overall velocity average of about 1 mph, and probably more discouragingly, that decline was spread out over the entire season and it looked like even his highs per game were not generally near his highs from the past two years. I wrote more in depth about this back in October, but the important thing to remember when projecting is that we shouldn't expect a player to duplicate his career high every year, nor should we expect a bad year to be the new norm. If Yovani has been anything, it's been durable, and I think there's a strong case that we should expect better from him this year than last.

This season seemed to confirm that we've moved into some sort of New Yovani territory. His velocity and strikeout rates in fact did not bounce back. But even though they didn't, he was better this season than last, and that's mostly due to the fact that he kept his walk rate under control this year and set a career high in ground ball percentage.

An illuminating comparison for Yo is 2011 vs 2014. In 2011 (which may go down as his career year) he struck out a batter per inning and held opponents to a walk rate that was almost identical to his walk rate this year. His peripheral indicators of pitching skill were worse this year than in 2011, but his ERA ended up just about the same.

It seems like that's what we're going to be dealing with going forward with Gallardo. He's now a solid middle of the rotation guy who has to rely more heavily on his defense to have a great year. It's a bit puzzling that he seems to have entered this phase of his career earlier than most (he'll still only be 29 next season). Either way, it was a no-brainer to pick up his option as even an average starting pitcher is worth over $10 million on only a 1-year commitment. He's changing his profile and had a solid year, and though that's not exactly what we hoped would happen, in retrospect it makes sense.

In spring I took the under, just slightly, on that ZiPS line above. It's fair to say I was wrong, but pitcher evaluation can be ambiguous that way.

Matt Garza

Garza Innings Pitched Strikeouts Walks FIP ERA
Projected  173 22.0% 7.0% 3.60 3.60
Actual 163 18.5% 7.4% 3.54 3.64

All in all you would have to say that Garza lived up to the expectations we had for him this year. Here were my thoughts on the over/under guess, after raving about the contract:

Over by a little this time. He's only posted a FIP under 4 twice (once under 3 his first year with the Cubs, !) so though he's capable of it, I'm not expecting it. However, 210 innings of 3.8 or 3.9 is about equal to the line above, and 210 of 3.6 would make this a marvelous deal-- and I am confident enough in the possibility that I would bet on it.

Garza's strikeout rate was down a bit from where it had been the past few years, but he has had years like that with slightly lower strikeout rates earlier in his career. His swinging strike rate was also the lowest it had been of the past 4 years. Garza and Gallardo are in similar stages of their careers; as their fastball velocities have fallen from where they were in their younger days, they need to find new ways to get people out. But they're both solid-to-good middle of the rotation pitchers who are capable of great seasons if things break right.

Kyle Lohse

Lohse Innings Pitched Strikeouts Walks FIP ERA
ZiPS 165 16.0% 5.0% 4.20 3.90
Actual 198 17.3% 5.5% 3.95 3.54

Here's me talking about how unexpectedly good Lohse was in 2013:

Kyle Lohse had a heck of a season last year. After the signing I was actually on the more optimistic side of things than most, basically saying that it wasn't really worth it to forfeit the draft pick to get him, but that he wasn't the awful pitcher people were saying he was as long as he kept the walk rate down. That's about exactly what happened, and his 2013 peripherals with the Brewers were almost weirdly the same as his 2012 in St. Louis. Though I don't expect a repeat performance (especially as his peripherals again didn't match his ERA), he inspired enough confidence to solidly slot him in as a 3rd starter for a possibly competitive team and not feel too awful about it.

Lohse then came out and arguably had an even better year at age 35 than he did at 34. He basically matched Gallardo's production and had the second highest K% of his career-- behind only 2006. I took the over on his projected ZiPS line mainly because I thought he was good for more than 165 innings. There's always a risk that a player at Lohse's age could break down unexpectedly, but at this point if he throws near 200 innnings a year I think we can be confident in his near-exactly-average production-- he's been working with an average fastball of around 89.5 mph since 2009 and he's been doing just fine.

Where do we stand?

It's a little easy to get a thrown off by how fast baseball is changing to a much lower-scoring environment. Only 5 or 6 years ago, a pitcher with a 4.40 ERA/FIP (which I am thinking of here as "true pitching skill") was about league average if they threw close to 200 innings on the year. Now a pitcher has to check in with an ERA/FIP solidly under 4 to achieve that. That means that all three of these guys were right around league average on the year, which is worth about 2 wins more than a replacement level pitcher. That's pretty good! Most teams would love to have 3 guys like that in the middle of their rotation. But they would also love to have a anchor ace at the top of the rotation, too, and right now the Brewers don't have that. We'll talk more about if there's a possibility they develop one of those in the next installment.