The Milwaukee Brewers entered the 2011 season with some of the biggest expectations in team history. Behind a strong 1-2 punch of Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo (not to mention Shaun Marcum), the team finally had a pitching staff strong enough to match their offense. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned for the Brewers, however. Greinke made his first start for the team last night, while Gallardo has struggled in seven starts. While Greinke should be fine as long as he’s healthy, it’s tough to pinpoint whether Gallardo will turn things around this season.
Gallardo’s numbers through seven starts have been perplexing to say the least. While his walk rate has remained consistent, his strikeout rate has plummeted to just 6.53 this season (down from 9.14 over his career). Because much of Gallardo’s value is tied up in his ability to get strikeouts, his dwindling strikeout rate is a real cause for concern.
Gallardo’s ability to rediscover his strikeouts will be paramount to his success as the season progresses since his other peripherals don’t present any major reasons to worry. Gallardo is currently suffering from the lowest strand rate, and highest BABIP, of his career. The BABIP issues could stem from the fact that Gallardo is getting more ground balls this season. A heightened ground ball rate would typically be a reason for optimism, until you remember the Brewers’ atrocious infield defense. Still, all of those numbers seem to indicate that Gallardo is fine. Again, the only issue is his low strikeout rate.
Pinpointing the exact cause of Gallardo’s disappearing strikeout rate is difficult to explain. Although Gallardo has maintained his velocity, his fastball and slider are getting pounded more often this season. For the first time in his career, Gallardo’s fastball and slider each carry a negative pitch type value. For whatever reason, Gallardo hasn’t been able to throw either pitch effectively this season.
Another reason Gallardo has been unable to rack up big strikeout numbers is due to his high contact rates this season. If batters are making more contact against a pitcher then it’s likely leading to more balls in play, which makes it tough to accumulate strikeouts. Whether or not the pitch ends up in the zone, batters are making more contact against Gallardo this season. On pitches in the zone, Gallardo’s Z-Contact% has risen to 92.4% this season, which doesn’t necessarily lead directly to failure but it shows that Gallardo has been more hittable this season.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Gallardo’s poor start is his declining SwStr%. As Mike Podhorzer pointed out in April, Gallardo has always managed to post more strikeouts than his swinging strike rate would indicate. Now that Gallardo’s SwStr% has fallen to a career low 7.1%, it might be time to worry if his poor rates are starting to catch up to him.
At the same time, Gallardo has always been able to outperform his swinging strike rate and this year may be no different. Outside of the lack of strikeouts, Gallardo has been the same pitcher he’s always been. The issue is that strikeouts really play a huge role in Gallardo’s value and effectiveness. If he can rediscover his strikeout rate, he’ll return to his rightful place at the top of the Brewers’ rotation. If he cannot raise his strikeout rate, Gallardo’s average control could come back to haunt him. Gallardo has never had a problem racking up strikeouts in the past, and there doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for his lack of strikeouts this season. If that’s the case, and there’s nothing physically wrong with Gallardo, there’s no reasonable explanation to expect him to continue to struggle as the season progresses.
*Since this worked out so well the last time I wrote about the “What’s Wrong with Player X” topic, you Brewers’ fans can thank me when Gallardo tosses a no-hitter on Saturday.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.