Rangers to Try Yovani Gallardo Out of Context

At first glance, Monday’s Yovani Gallardo trade probably seems more significant than it really is. Gallardo is a recognizable name, someone who’s pitched important innings, but he is no longer what he once looked like, and he’s a year away from free agency. Luis Sardinas is a real prospect, recently ranked No. 7 in the Rangers’ system by Baseball America, and he has big-league experience, yet his offensive ceiling is very low. Corey Knebel is another real prospect, with his own big-league experience, yet he’s a reliever with control issues and an elbow injury. And while Marcos Diplan has what they call a live arm, he almost couldn’t possibly be further from the bigs, for a baseball-ing professional. This feels like the Rangers just made a major upgrade to a middling staff, but in reality, Gallardo is something around league-average, and he could be gone by November.

So in that sense, it’s a bit underwhelming. The Rangers did need rotation help, and they got it, but they presumably still aren’t going to the playoffs. And the Brewers have made room in the rotation for Jimmy Nelson, but now they have weaker depth, unless they turn around and make a play for, say, James Shields or Jordan Zimmermann. But there is one part of this that I find particularly fascinating. Yovani Gallardo is changing teams, and Yovani Gallardo is changing leagues, but maybe most importantly, Yovani Gallardo is changing catchers.

You probably already know about Gallardo’s worrisome strikeout trend. In 2010, he struck out a quarter of the batters he faced. The rate has dropped every season, plunging to last year’s 18%. As a consequence, his FIP- has arrived in the triple digits, and it’s no longer accurate to think of Gallardo as a big strikeout pitcher. Last year he finished with a lower strikeout rate than Aaron Harang. The Rangers aren’t idiots; they’ve looked at Gallardo’s record.

More subtle would be the potential catching effect. Over the last five years, Gallardo has thrown virtually all of his innings to Jonathan Lucroy or Martin Maldonado. I feel like I haven’t written about pitch-framing in a while, so, here’s a reminder: Lucroy and Maldonado have been shown to be real good at pitch-framing. The data’s held up year to year. If the studies are capturing anything, they’re capturing something that’s gone on in Milwaukee. And this is observable elsewhere: since 2010, Brewers pitchers have generated the lowest zone rate in baseball, by a decent margin. They’ve been encouraged to pick around the edges by the guys doing the receiving.

What of the benefits? What of the benefits to Gallardo in particular? I’m going to go back to a simple stat I created some years ago, based on the plate-discipline data we have on the leaderboards. It’s possible to calculate an expected number of strikes for each pitcher. It’s, obviously, easy to see the actual number of strikes for each pitcher. When you compare the two numbers, you can get an idea of who has and hasn’t been helped by sound-receiving backstops.

So, for each year between 2010 – 2014, I calculated actual strikes minus expected strikes, then I put that number over an even denominator. I made up leaderboards for everyone who threw at least 1,000 pitches in a year. Let’s check out Yovani Gallardo’s rankings in extra strikes:

  • 2010: 4th, out of 261
  • 2011: 9th, out of 250
  • 2012: 2nd, out of 263
  • 2013: 5th, out of 255
  • 2014: 5th, out of 257

Every year, Gallardo has shown up near the top. Unsurprisingly, there have often been other Brewers pitchers. Four times in the last five years, Gallardo has finished in the top two percent in this stat. That one other year, he finished in the top four percent. This is Gallardo pitching to Lucroy or Maldonado. Now he might be pitching to Robinson Chirinos or Tomas Telis.

Chirinos, so far, has ranked as a below-average framer. The same goes for Telis, over a very limited sample. Granted, the Rangers are said to still be looking for help, and maybe they’ll sign Geovany Soto. Soto is a decent framer, but he might be declining. The Rangers might instead deal for Carlos Corporan. Corporan rates as a very good framer, and then for these purposes that would be annoying, but Gallardo probably wouldn’t pitch to Corporan and Corporan alone.

For right now, at least, Gallardo’s set up for a big change. And that would make him interesting to monitor, because we don’t have a lot of cases of starting pitchers working in Milwaukee and then leaving to pitch a bunch somewhere else. Shaun Marcum tried, but injuries stopped him short of 80 innings with the Mets. Zack Greinke, in 2011, struck out 28% of batters. With the Brewers the next year, he came in just above 24%. After getting dealt to the Angels, he dropped closer to 21%. The next year as a Dodger, he finished below 21%. But Greinke’s just one guy.

It would be helpful to have some more data points. Is Gallardo going to have a lot of trouble working with other catchers, presumably worse catchers, or is he going to compensate for having worse framers by pitching more aggressively and surviving? How good is Yovani Gallardo, outside of his established context? If the Rangers were too worried, they wouldn’t have made this trade, but it’s not costing them much, and Gallardo would have to be pretty bad to not be better than Nick Tepesch or Nick Martinez.

I’m interested in seeing how Gallardo adjusts to a new group of catchers. I think we can learn about Gallardo, and I think we can learn about Lucroy and Maldonado. As always, this’ll just be a sample size of one, and Gallardo is also swapping leagues, but more information is more information. Maybe someday we can do something with it.

What are the Rangers losing, in making this modest upgrade? What are the Brewers receiving, as they replace Gallardo with Nelson and Nelson with God knows what? Turning to Kiley, he ranked Knebel 11th in the Ranger system. Sardinas, 12th. Diplan, 24th.

Knebel, when healthy, is big-league ready. He has the big heat, and he has a good curve. Yet he also has trouble finding his spots, so walks can be a problem, and he was also shut down last year with a UCL sprain that didn’t require surgery. What frequently happens is that UCL injuries that don’t require surgery do require surgery not long after. So, Knebel is a volatile sort.

Sardinas is young, and he can legitimately play shortstop. That’s the selling point. Last year, between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors, he drew a combined 16 walks, and mashed a combined one dinger. He’s a groundball hitter with a minor-league ISO of .066, so the future here is probably more utility player than starter.

And Diplan turned 18 last September. That’s not all you have to know about him, but it conveys the right idea. Good arm. Talented kid. Several years from now, he could be a major-league rookie, or a mailman.

The Rangers can feel pretty good about this, because Gallardo has a history of success, and they didn’t give up much of impact value to get him. The Brewers might feel pretty good about this, because they save money, and they like Nelson, and to some extent maybe Gallardo was a product of his context. The Brewers now have weaker starter depth, but they also have some money to move, so, who knows? Some people are interested in what the Brewers do next. Me, I’ll be watching the guy they just lost.

We hoped you liked reading Rangers to Try Yovani Gallardo Out of Context by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Dealer A

As a Brewers fan I’ll miss Gallardo. He’s has the 9th highest WAR in the NL since he was called up in ’07. One of the few solid starters that the Brewers have been able to draft in the last few decades.

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Dealer A

*WAR for a starter.