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What went wrong for Yovani Gallardo in 2016?

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“Everything!”

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

When the Mariners acquired RHP Yovani Gallardo from the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, the immediate, popular reaction was a collective ‘ugh’. Gallardo was bad in 2016, posting career-highs in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and his lowest fWAR since 2008, when he threw a grand total of 24 innings.

Given that Gallardo was always a model of consistency prior to 2016, however, I was very interested in seeing what exactly went wrong with him last year, how fixable those issues are, and whether there might still be a good pitcher left in him. The issues, understandably, were immense. There was an endless list of things you could point to and say “well that certainly wasn’t any good”. Here are five things on that list, all of which I feel carry their fair share of the blame.

He got a late start

Gallardo was one of those unfortunate souls who fell in that awkward limbo of being too good to accept a qualifying offer, but not good enough for teams to feel comfortable surrendering a first-round pick. The result? When the calendar turned to February 2016, Gallardo still found himself without a team to call his own. It wasn’t until February 25th, a few days after pitchers and catchers had reported, that Gallardo was able to find a landing spot in Baltimore with a 2-year, $22M deal with a $13M team option in 2018.

Obviously, starting a few days late isn’t going to wreck a whole season the way, say, a Kendrys Morales situation where a player doesn’t even sign until midseason will, but it can mess with a pitcher a bit. Gallardo remarked upon this aspect quite a bit, citing it as the cause of early command issues and again reiterating the point to Shannon Drayer on Friday.

He dealt with his first DL trip since 2013, and the longest of his career

One of Gallardo’s most attractive qualities heading into the 2016 season was his reliability as an innings eater. A gander at his MLB.com page shows these previous disabled list trips prior to the 2016 season:

  • 2010 (July 5-22): right oblique strain, still throws 185.0 IP
  • 2013 (July 31-Aug 27): tight hamstring, still throws 180.2 IP

On April 23rd, less than two months into his time with the Orioles, Gallardo is placed on the disabled list with right shoulder bicep tendinitis. He doesn’t pitch for the Orioles again until June 18th, by far the longest stay on the disabled list he’s endured in his career.

The good news that sprouted from all of this was that Gallardo experienced a drastic increase in velocity when he finished rehabbing, returning to his career norms after throwing bizarrely slow prior to the DL trip.

His walk rate was horrendous

Limiting free passes has never been a strength for Gallardo, but even going by his relatively low standards, 2016 was a terrible year for him. His 4.65 BB/9 was a career high, rivaled only by the 4.56 mark he put up in 2009:

You can walk a lot of guys and still maintain value if you’re doing most other things right, but as you’ll see over the course of this article, that was not the case.

He moved to the division with all of the little league fields and became more of a fly ball pitcher

When you’re spending a lot of your season pitching in places like Camden Yards, Fenway Park, and Yankee Stadium and you’re not particularly great at limiting hard contact, it’s probably in your best interest to keep the ball on the ground.

Gallardo spent all of 2013-2015 hovering around the 50% ground ball-rate that typically christens a pitcher a “ground ball pitcher”. In 2016, the numbers shifted fairly drastically:

The change wasn’t significant enough to warrant a “fly ball pitcher” tag–he hovered around league average rates in all three categories in 2016–but it certainly suggests there was something different going on with Gallardo’s ways of attacking hitters. Further evidence of this can be seen in his pitch location:

After spending all of 2013-2015 pounding the bottom half of the zone, Gallardo suddenly shifted to using all of the zone. More elevated pitches will generally lead to increased fly ball rates. Now whether this change of attack is a result of the Orioles’ philosophy or poor command on Gallardo’s part is something we’ll need more time to understand, but either way, the change didn’t work.

His slider was one of the league’s worst

Gallardo has always thrown a fairly effective slider, but this changed in 2016. His -2.17 SL/C ranked as the 8th-worst in all of baseball. Of the seven players worse than Gallardo, none were anywhere near Gallardo’s 26.6 usage percentage. Here is the top-ten:

Not only was Gallardo throwing his slider ineffectively, but he was throwing that ineffective slider more than a quarter of the time. Even Colin Rea threw his slider once, realized it was pathetic, and swore to never subject the planet to such a god awful pitch ever again. The most obvious observation to be made here is a potential relation to his shoulder issue and how it may have impacted his mechanics. One thing to keep an eye on this season is whether he A) gets his slider back to normal now that he’s healthy or B) scraps the slider and focuses more on a pitch that is a little less stressful on the shoulder, such as his cutter (I credit this idea to John Trupin).

How Gallardo performs for the Mariners moving forward depends heavily on how he addresses the issues above (more the last three than the first two). The argument that they’re all tied together and that he could bounce back in a pleasant way in 2017 certainly has some weight to it, and in a way, I’m as interested in seeing Gallardo in Spring Training as I am in any other pitcher on the staff. For the Mariners’ sake, let’s all hope Gallardo just needed to get healthy.