Prior to the 2013 season, right-hander Yovani Gallardo had been a number-two starter for the Milwaukee Brewers and roughly a third-tier starter for fantasy owners. He’s been a good source of strikeouts and an ERA between 3.50 and 3.75 on an annual basis. But owners have largely spent the last five seasons waiting for Gallardo to take the next step forward.
This can be seen by the fact that he was the 24th-drafted starter on draft day, selected in the same breath as James Shields, Max Scherzer and Mat Latos. All three of those starters finished the season as a top-25 starter. Gallardo, on the other hand, suffered through the worst season of his career. He compiled a 4.18 ERA, saw his strikeout numbers drop significantly, and was ranked outside the top-75 fantasy starters.
To be fair, it wasn’t a complete trainwreck of a season for the 27-year-old hurler. He barely kept his ERA under 5.00 in the first half, but he wrestled the train back on the tracks in the second half, posting a very solid 3.09 ERA in 67 innings. The turnaround has led some to believe Gallardo’s first half was mere aberration and he’ll return to his career norms in 2014.
Such an argument holds a lot of water. After all, in 1097 innings of work, his 4.83 ERA in the first half last year sticks out as an exception rather than the rule. We should be careful not to prioritize roughly 100 innings when analyzing his whole body of work. However, things look much bleaker when isolating certain trends, such as his fastball velocity, his strikeout rate and his swinging-strike rate. All three fell at alarming rates last season, and his velocity and swinging-strike rate have descended for the past couple years. Gallardo’s disastrous first half still shocked the senses, but we shouldn’t pretend red flags didn’t already exist.
Those are the common arguments surrounding Gallardo. They seem to be selling the situation short, though. Simply explaining away his drop in strikeout rate to decreased fastball velocity is overly simplistic. It doesn’t explain why his swinging-strike rate on his curveball has dropped from 16.6% in 2011 to only 11.1% in 2013. That’s significant because his curveball has traditionally been his put-away pitch when ahead in counts. A less effective curveball results in fewer strikeouts, which is obviously an issue for fantasy owners.
The problem, it seems to me, is opposing teams are simply waiting out the right-hander. Gallardo has never possessed a high swing rate — and once again, his 41.6% swing rate was the lowest amongst qualified starters — but it’s more directly applying to his curveball. Teams understand he struggles to throw his curveball for strikes; thus, teams have started to lay off his curveball more often which forces him to come in with more fastballs and sliders.
As the chart illustrates, opposing hitters are swinging at his curveball less and less every year. They’ve essentially chosen to challenge Gallardo to throw his curveball for strikes, something which is very difficult to do with a sharp-breaking, 12-to-6 hammer curve. The result in 2013 was a .319 wOBA against four-seamers, a .316 wOBA against sliders and a .397 wOBA against two-seamers.
Obviously, Gallardo needs to get to his curveball more often to optimize his effectiveness and bring the strikeout numbers back to normal. To do that, he must get ahead in the count. Nothing groundbreaking there. We quickly ascertain that’s a problem for Gallardo, though. His 55.9% first-strike percentage was third worst in all of baseball last year. That’s also dropped precipitously since the 2011 season from 62.7% to 55.9%, respectively.
The idea that opposing hitters are increasingly laying off his curveball and keying on his fastball becomes more concerning once we return to the velocity loss. His average fastball velocity has dropped from 92.7 mph in 2011 to 90.7 mph in 2013. Teams are forcing Gallardo into fastball counts and taking advantage of a less dominant fastball. Then, there’s also the problem with the velocity differential between his fastball and slider, which is only four miles per hour. If opposing hitters can largely eliminate the curveball, they can focus on the fastball and slider, but more importantly, they can focus on one general speed. That’s huge.
Making a long story short: Yovani Gallardo may have found more success in the second half last season, but his red flags are only becoming a deeper shade of red and being run further up the flag pole. If his curveball continues to decrease in effectiveness, his strikeout rate will not rebound. And considering he’s always walked his fair share of batters and doesn’t offer much in the WHIP category, he needs the strikeouts and ERA to be an above-average fantasy starter.
I’m not confident to project the strikeouts return at this point. Yovani Gallardo is someone I will be wholly avoiding on draft day. Other owners may see a bounce-back candidate. However, I see nothing but red flags. Not to mention the concern about a possible arm injury perpetually exists as his velocity continues to drop. Too many negatives exist for me to invest on draft day. I suggest you follow the same advice.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).