Finding Yovani Gallardo’s Company

By the time this gets published, Yovani Gallardo might have agreed to a multiyear contract with the Orioles. Maybe that hasn’t happened yet, because I don’t know the future, but this is one of those situations where you think you do know the future, because Gallardo landing with Baltimore feels inevitable. I’m going to guess Gallardo knows it, and I’m going to guess the Orioles know it. It’s like a smaller-scale version of the Chris Davis talks, where both parties are about tired of tugging the rope. If there’s not yet an agreement, it stands to reason there will be soon.

If and when Gallardo signs with the Orioles, it’ll be underwhelming. It’ll feel like an overpay, like a lot of other pitcher contracts, and though that right there is a reason to believe our scale of expectations is just off, Gallardo doesn’t feel like the most excellent bet. Some people will be able to talk themselves into it, pointing to Gallardo’s experience, and saying he’s seen as a bulldog. The deal won’t single-handedly cripple the Orioles, and Gallardo might just prevent enough runs to make it work. There’s just that one trend, though. Gallardo comes off as an insufficient talent for an insufficient roster.

Let’s talk for a few minutes about that trend. You know the one.

This is obligatory for any article about Yovani Gallardo. Check around on the Internet — the following trend gets mentioned in every analysis, because it wouldn’t be good analysis if it weren’t mentioned. We can make do with a throwback. At the time of its origin, FanGraphs was a website that published some simple statistical graphs about baseball players. Did you know those graphs still exist? We never really use them, but, look, here’s one right now! It’s about Gallardo’s strikeout rate!

gallardo-strikeouts

Even though I’m sure you knew about this, it’s still visually striking. As league-wide strikeouts have risen, Gallardo’s own strikeouts have dropped, and, my own preference is to look at K% instead of K/9. Gallardo topped out at 26% strikeouts. He just last year dropped to 15%. Another way of putting this, to fit Gallardo into the overall league context — Gallardo’s strikeout rate once ranked in the 95th percentile among starters. Last year, he finished in the 22nd percentile. This is what’s happened, and it’s not like Gallardo’s walks have dropped to nothing to compensate.

The headline says this is about finding Gallardo’s company. It’s not enough to just say Gallardo has lost a bunch of strikeouts. That’s happened to pitchers before, but what I like about this pattern in particular is that Gallardo’s K% has dropped at least a little bit in six consecutive seasons. Sometimes, it’s dropped by very little. Sometimes, it’s dropped by quite a lot. But Gallardo in 2010 finished lower than in 2009. He finished lower in 2011 than in 2010. Lower in 2012 than in 2011, lower in 2013 than in 2012, lower in 2014 than in 2013, and finally, lower in 2015 than in 2014. Sharp fluctuations are confusing. Volatility is confusing. Gradual and consistent patterns are pleasing to the brain, and out of curiosity, I wanted to see if there are any other pitchers in history who’ve gone through something like this.

By which I mean, six straight years of strikeout-rate decline. So I went back as far as I could, which was about a century. I set a season minimum of 50 innings. My sample includes 3,960 sequences of pitchers throwing at least 50 innings for seven years in a row. Gallardo, of course, has very easily cleared 50 innings, and that’s one of his selling points — he’s certainly been durable. He’s continued to pitch every five days or so, despite the strikeouts going away. But all I care about here are the whiffs. It turns out Gallardo isn’t totally alone. Here’s the list of pitchers who qualified, losing strikeouts for at least six straight years:

Gallardo isn’t the “winner,” so to speak — it’s a group of eight names, and while Gallardo’s declined six straight years, Estes declined for eight. On the other hand, Gallardo still has some career to go. And this isn’t the most inspiring collection. Don’t get me wrong, no pitcher would have a problem being compared to Bob Feller. But this is post-peak Feller, and after Osteen’s six years, he was done. After Mingori’s six years, he was basically done. Lee, for his part, did have a little bit left in him. So did Medich. Estes, however, was toast. And Morris was toast. They couldn’t recover, so Gallardo is hurting for encouraging comps.

The most encouraging thing about Yovani Gallardo is that he’s himself. He’s not Shawn Estes, and he’s not Matt Morris, and last year he started 33 games, with a 3.42 ERA. He’s turned into something of a nibbler, sacrificing strikes but maybe helping in the pursuit of weak contact. Gallardo has yet to be actually bad, which is why he’s a pitcher with some value. But, you know, his second-half ERA was 4.69. Last year he pitched seven innings just four times. And history is mostly useful for trying to predict the future. Teams have tried to figure out 2016 Gallardo, and 2017 Gallardo. 2015 Gallardo doesn’t mean much to them anymore. It’s a gamble, because of the trend, and though runs allowed are more important than strikeouts, strikeouts tend to be more projectable than runs allowed, and there’s a relationship between strikeouts and runs that Gallardo has tried to keep at arm’s length. You know how all this stuff works.

Analysts love strikeouts, and brains love patterns. It’s almost out of my hands — I can’t be a big Gallardo fan. There’s too much working against him. There’s a perfectly good chance this is my own blind spot, and I’m being stupid. If Gallardo makes it work, that’s awesome, and it’ll be a learning experience for the lot of us. What we can say is Gallardo has but a small pool of peers. He’s got more innings left in the tank, but already, he’s done something few others have. He’s been interesting; you have to give him that.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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pitnick

Was surprised not to see Lincecum on the list. He narrowly misses the 6-straight season cutouff by managing to maintain a constant 23% from 2012-2013. Otherwise his K% has fallen every year since 2009.