Yovani Gallardo: Buy Low or Run Away?

With the lack of high quality pitchers on the trade block, the Brewers have made it known that Yovani Gallardo could be available for the right offer. Since Gallardo is only 27-years-old and under team control through 2015, he has the potential to bring back a more significant piece to help the Brewers rebuild than the rent-a-veteran types that other clubs are shopping. However, there’s one small problem; Gallardo is doing his best to scare off any clubs who might have seen him as an answer to their rotation problems.

In his last two starts, Gallardo has allowed 13 runs while pitching only seven innings, and those clunkers came against the Cubs and Nationals, neither of whom are known for their ferocious offensive attacks. It’s not wise to decide that a player is not useful based on a couple of recent poor performances, but Gallardo has been trending the wrong way for a while now.

Here’s Gallardo’s strikeout rate, by season.


Here’s that same data, just in number form, with average fastball velocity added to the table just for fun.

Year K% Velocity
2009 25.7% 92.3
2010 24.9% 92.6
2011 23.9% 92.6
2012 23.7% 91.7
2013 18.4% 90.7

You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to identify the correlation there, especially because I intentionally put them side by side and excluded every other factor. From that box, it’s easy to conclude that Gallardo’s missing fastball is the reason for his missing strikeouts, and both of those should be big red flags that tell contenders to look elsewhere for help. But, correlation is not causation, and while velocity loss can be a sign of an injury, it’s also just true that velocity peaks early and it is completely normal for pitchers to pitch at lower speeds as they get older. For most pitchers, the key is how they adjust to that velocity loss, and if they can learn to get hitters out without the fastball of their youth.

For Gallardo, the adjustment has been pretty simple; just throw the fastball less often. In his debut season in 2007, he threw 67% fastballs, but that’s trended downwards over time til now, where he’s sitting at just 53% fastballs. While he was primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher early in his career, he’s swapped out a large percentage of his fastballs for a slider, which he now throws 20% of the time. Unlike other pitchers who throw a decent amount of sliders, Gallardo hasn’t historically had huge platoon splits — he’s allowed a .322 wOBA vs LHBs, a bit higher than his .298 vs RHBs, but that’s about what you’d expect from a right-handed starting pitcher — and he’s not really having more significant problems with LHBs than usual this year.

But that doesn’t mean that the increase in slider usage hasn’t been a problem for Gallardo. He’s not a guy who has ever had pinpoint command, and breaking pitches are harder to throw for strikes than fastballs. By switching out some fastballs for sliders, Gallardo has seen his rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone tumble from 47% in 2009 to 40% this year, and his rate of first pitch strikes is down to just 55.6%, the second lowest mark of his career. As a result, he’s just not getting ahead of hitters anymore. Here are the percentages of at-bats ending by count type, for both 2013 and his career.

2013 Percent Average On Base Slugging   Career Percent Average On Base Slugging
Batter Ahead 38% 0.315 0.465 0.600   Batter Ahead 37% 0.270 0.447 0.479
Pitcher Ahead 26% 0.239 0.250 0.301   Pitcher Ahead 35% 0.186 0.188 0.272
Even 36% 0.269 0.274 0.372   Even 28% 0.271 0.272 0.407

Fewer pitches in the zone and a fastball that hitters won’t swing through as often mean that at-bats that used to end with his advantage are now ending in even counts, which is a dramatic shift in value to the hitter. And, as you can see, he’s simply getting pounded by opposing hitters when he falls behind now.

When it averaged 93 mph, his fastball was an out pitch. Now sitting around 91, it’s much more hittable, as his whiff rate on four seam fastballs has fallen below 5% this year; for reference, it was 9.4% in his 2007 debut. Gallardo just hasn’t been able to throw his fastball by hitters of late, and by swapping fastballs out for sliders, he’s increasing the rate at which he ends up in less favorable counts, forcing him to throw hittable fastballs in the zone.

Velocity isn’t everything, and Gallardo might eventually learn how to pitch at 90-92 like he used to at 92-94. Even with declining velocity, his walk, strikeout, and groundball numbers paint the picture of a solid enough innings eater, not that different from Scott Feldman, who was traded for value this afternoon. However, Gallardo’s inability to throw his fastball past opposing hitters has to be a legitimate concern, especially when viewed in tandem with Milwaukee’s catchers reputation for turning marginal pitches into called strikes. If Jonathan Lucroy is even half the framer that the numbers suggest he might be, removing him from the equation could be even more disastrous for Gallardo’s strikeout rate.

While some might see a chance to buy low on a young hurler with a strong track record under team control for multiple years, I think I see too many warning signs to suggest anyone pay a significant price to acquire Gallardo. He’s probably not any kind of ace anymore, and paying for what he used to be is unlikely to result in a deal a team would be happy with in the long run.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

and that’s also why the brewers are willing to part with him. if he were still the ‘ace’ they thought he was/could be, they’d keep him around for the 10M or so per year he’s scheduled for.