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The Case for Yovani Gallardo

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Was Gallardo’s best start of the season a fluke or a sign of things to come?

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I think it’s safe to say that the expectations for Yovani Gallardo heading into this season were as low as they could go. Between his rough season a year ago and a disastrous performance in the World Baseball Classic, many were calling for Gallardo’s job before the season even started. We’re four starts into his Mariners career, but I’d say that Gallardo has pitched much better than anyone expected.

Just glancing at his statline gives us a pretty good idea of how Gallardo has improved this season. His strikeout rate is right in line with the norms he’s established the last few years, he’s shaved almost five points off his walk rate, and his ground ball rate is back up above league average. It all adds up to a park- and league-adjusted FIP that’s seven percent better than average (better than Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander, and Corey Kluber, to cherry-pick some names). In the last episode of the Lookout Landing Podcast, I revealed myself to be the Gallardo defender. Let me lay out my case in full.

You’ve probably heard about Gallardo’s fastball velocity rebounding to his previous norms. His average fastball velocity is as high as it’s been since 2011, which is very encouraging from a health standpoint. But he’s also added velocity to his slider, pushing it up above 90 mph on average. He’s also been tinkering with his pitch mix. He’s throwing his excellent curveball around 17% of the time, matching his previous career norms with the Brewers. He’s also mixing in a changeup more often, particularly in his last two starts where he threw it around 12% of the time. That pitch has been very, very good for him, generating a whiff more than half the time a batter swings at it. He’s getting far more horizontal movement on his changeup this season, making you wonder if someone in particular has been helping Gallardo with the pitch.

During the TV broadcast yesterday afternoon, Bill Krueger mentioned that he thought Gallardo’s natural pitch movement was “north-south” rather than “east-west.” With an over-the-top delivery, Krueger is saying that Gallardo is naturally going to generate more vertical movement with his pitches than horizontal movement. And that’s confirmed in the data, for the most part. His four-seam fastball is a “rising” fastball with an excellent amount of vertical movement. His curveball is mostly up-and-down. Even his slider is more like a cutter, with a lot less horizontal movement than your standard sweeping slider.

But Gallardo has two pitches with tailing action—away from left-handed batters and in to right-handed batters—that are moving horizontally more than ever before. I already mentioned his changeup but Gallardo’s two-seam fastball also has a lot more arm-side run to it this season. That’s really important because he’s already changing the eye level of the batter with his other three pitches. Adding some horizontal action to his repertoire will give opposing batters just another thing to think about during an at-bat. Both of these pitches will help him neutralize his platoon split too. Left-handed batters have swung through Gallardo’s two-seamer almost 40% of the time this season, an unreal rate for that type of pitch.

Not only has Gallardo’s pitch repertoire markedly improved, opposing batters are generating fairly weak contact against him. As his strikeout ability has deteriorated as he’s aged, Gallardo has found a lot of success by turning himself into an elite contact manager. That’s how he managed a 3.42 ERA in 2015 despite a strikeout rate of just 15.3%. Among pitchers who have seen at least 50 balls in play against them this season, Gallardo’s 86.8 mph average exit velocity ranks 20th in the majors. He’s gotten a little unlucky on the contact he has allowed, with a BABIP of .347 that is bound to regress towards league average.

Last week, I took an early look at exit velocity and launch angle data for Mariners batters. I want to show you the same kind of analysis for Gallardo’s ball in play data because I think it’s pretty instructive. Below you’ll see a table with three years of Statcast batted ball data from Baseball Savant:

Year Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle FB+LD Exit Velo GB Exit Velo % Balls in Play >98 mph Avg Launch Angle >98 mph
Year Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle FB+LD Exit Velo GB Exit Velo % Balls in Play >98 mph Avg Launch Angle >98 mph
2015 88.6 8.5 90.0 87.6 25% 7.8
2016 89.6 14.9 92.7 87.4 26% 10.4
2017 86.8 7.1 89.3 85.2 27% 7.8

As you can see, Gallardo is seeing weaker contact in both buckets of batted balls—fly balls plus line drives and ground balls. He’s seen a slight increase in the number of balls hit harder than 98 mph but many of those have been on the ground where they’re not doing as much damage. I already mentioned how his ground ball rate has rebounded to his previous career norms. Well, it looks like all of his relevant contact management metrics look remarkably similar to his line in 2015.

When Gallardo puts all these skills together, you’ll see a start like we saw on Sunday afternoon. He got seven strikeouts—all swinging—and half the balls in play against him were on the ground. There were three balls in play hit harder than 98 mph, two of them were on the ground, and the hardest one wasn’t hit until the bottom of the seventh. This was Gallardo at his finest, and I believe a sign of things to come. The best case scenario for him is a season like he had in 2014 or 2015, where he maximized all these skills to accumulate 2.2 fWAR across 185 innings. That would go a long way towards providing a stable back end of the rotation.