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What to expect from Yovani Gallardo

He’s been pretty bad lately, but there’s reason for optimism.

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Over the weekend, word broke that the Milwaukee Brewers are reuniting with former rotational stalwart Yovani Gallardo for the 2018 season. The transaction has yet to be officially announced, but the belief is that it will be a relatively minimal deal that may not even be fully guaranteed, something similar to the contract Tommy Milone signed last winter. GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell have both discussed on numerous occasions this winter how important it will be to shore up the pitching staff heading into next spring. It’s fair to say, though, that the signing of Gallardo isn’t what most fans had in mind.

Yovani began his career as a 2nd-round pick back in 2004 and enjoyed a highly productive eight-year run in Milwaukee starting with his MLB debut season of 2007. He pitched 1289.1 innings while logging a 3.69 ERA and worked 180+ innings in each of the last six seasons of his first Brewers’ stint. He holds the franchise record for most strikeouts at 1,226, including four seasons of 200+ punchouts from 2009-2012. He was an All-Star in 2010, finished 7th in Cy Young voting in 2011, and he appeared in five postseason games as a member of Milwaukee’s two most recent playoff runs. Gallardo was dealt to the Rangers prior to the 2015 season in exchange for Corey Knebel, Marcos Diplan, and Luis Sardinas.

Since leaving Milwaukee, however, Gallardo hasn’t been the effective hurler that fans around the Cream City remember. He managed a 3.42 ERA in 184.1 innings during his lone season in Texas, but his velocity had begun to decline and the peripherals didn’t quite line up with the results. He had a difficult time securing a contract in free agency after being saddled with a Qualifying Offer from the Rangers and had to wait until February to agree to a contract with the Orioles. It was originally a three-year pact, but that contract was voided after Baltimore’s medical staff found some issues with his shoulder during the physical. A few days later, Gallardo signed a new two-year contract with Baltimore that made the third season a team option.

What wound up being Yovani’s lone season in Baltimore in 2016 was a disaster. The O’s were prescient in their wariness about Gallardo’s shoulder, as he spent time on the DL with “Right Shoulder Bicep Tendinitis” and wound up making only 23 starts and tossing 118.0 innings. He lost two MPH on his fastball and posted a career-worst swinging-strike rate, walk rate, and his 2nd-lowest strikeout rate. Gallardo’s 5.42 ERA was putrid enough, but Deserved Run Average thought his results should’ve been even worse than that with a 6.33 mark. After the season he was shipped to Seattle for outfielder Seth Smith.

Yo’s results with the Mariners in 2017 weren’t much better. He was healthy enough all season, but ineffectiveness bounced him from the starting rotation to the bullpen and back again as he made 28 appearances - 22 starts - and logged 130.2 innings. He did that with a 5.72 ERA, which DRA (5.69) felt was pretty representative of how he performed last season. Like much of the rest of the league, Gallardo was plagued by home run issues (1.7 HR/9) that helped contribute to his bloated run totals. Seattle declined his contract option following the end of the year, allowing Gallardo to enter to free agent market.

With his recent results in mind, it would obviously be wise to keep expectations tempered for Gallardo’s performance in 2018. When we look beyond the earned run averages, however, we can find some reasons to remain optimistic about Yovani’s outlook going forward.

First off, Gallardo found the velocity that he was missing during his injury-plagued year with the Orioles. His fastball averaged 92.6 MPH last season with Seattle, the hardest he’s thrown on average since 2011. Even though he only struck out 16.3% of the batters he faced last season (well below his career mark of 20.7%), his swinging-strike rate of 8.3% was better than his career average (7.9%) and was once again the highest total he’s posted since 2011. His O-swing, Z-swing, and contact rates all trended in the right direction, as well.

Gallardo’s command doesn’t appear to be what it once was as his CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) has declined in each of the last four seasons, though his CSAA of 0.18% was still above the league-average last year. He walked more than four batters per nine innings in 2017, but he did shave over a point off his walk rate from 2016. The previously mentioned long ball issues are problematic, of course, as is the above-average rate of hard contact that Gallardo allowed in 2017.

Derek Johnson and Milwaukee’s coaching staff along with the analytics department will be tasked with helping Gallardo find something resembling the form he showed during his previous tenure with the Milwaukee Nine. At the very least it appears as though Yovani will be working with raw “stuff” that’s not appreciably different or worse than it has been during his previous runs of success. His velocity rebounded last season and the movement on his pitches (at least when compared to league-average) is similar to what it was in his heyday. Perhaps a couple of tweaks to his pitch selection could help Yovani become a positive contributor once again.

Gallardo’s curveball has been his best secondary pitch going back the last few years, though he’s never thrown it as often as he throws his slider. Batters managed only a .210 average and .343 slugging percentage against his Uncle Charlie in 2017, making it the most effective pitch in his arsenal. For his career, he’s held opposing hitters to a .218 average and .325 slugging percentage, the best of any of his offerings. Yet he has only thrown his curve a little over 18% of the time as a big leaguer. As the game shifts more towards off-speed pitches, hurlers like Rich Hill and Lance McCullers have found success by throwing their curveballs nearly as often (or more) than their fastball. Maybe the same could work for Gallardo.

Yo has also shifted his four-seam fastball location to predominantly up in the strike zone, though without much success. Batters teed off against Gallardo’s heater in 2017, walloping it to the tune of a .296 average, .554 slugging percentage, and nine home runs. His velocity is back, so that’s not an excuse. Yo has had much greater success with the four-seamer earlier throughout his career (.254 career BAA) when he’s been more willing to throw the pitch to all four quadrants of the zone, rather than focusing solely on the four-seamer up high and the sinker down low. So that might be another issue for Johnson and company to address.

Yovani Gallardo hasn’t been very good the last two years, but the Brewers didn’t sign him to be a front-line starter. The guarantee is expected to be minimal, meaning there figures to be little risk involved on the Brewers’ part outside of committing a 40 man roster spot. His peripherals trended back up in 2017 and there’s reason to be optimistic that he’ll improve next season. What Gallardo provides is veteran depth to a pool of starting rotation candidates that are collectively pretty short on big league experience. The Brewers are a team in need of innings, and they’ll give Yovani Gallardo a shot in spring training to prove that he can capably provide them.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball