As far as aces go, Yovani Gallardo has always been difficult to figure out. On the one hand, he has been one of the most prominent pitchers in Brewers history. He is sixth – and rising – on Milwaukee’s career Wins list, and has the second-most Opening Day starts in club history. Yet despite his place in the Brewers pitching pantheon, at times Gallardo has not lived up to his front-of-the-rotation billing. In fact, he has not even led Milwaukee in ERA since the team’s exciting 2011 run to the NLCS, perhaps belying his reputation as the club’s ace. In some respects this season has been incredibly disappointing for Gallardo. His 0.2 Wins Above Replacement is exactly the same as Rob Wooten’s. Further, despite a strong April, the right-hander posted an abysmal 5.79 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in May. Even worse, Gallardo’s strikeouts have decreased rather dramatically from a few years ago. Still, due to his ground-ball rates and his durability, there is reason to be optimistic about Gallardo going forward.
Gallardo’s strikeout rates have decreased dramatically this season. In 2012, Gallardo struck out exactly one batter per inning, a 9.00 K/9IP rate. This year, that number has declined to 6.95 K/9IP. It is worrisome for a 28-year-old pitcher ostensibly in his prime to experience such a dramatic decrease in strikeouts. In the offseason, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs analyzed pitchers with strikeout declines that mirror Gallardo’s. Sullivan found that, generally speaking, pitchers with declining Ks at this age are unlikely to return to prior dominance. Yet, due to adjustments in his approach, Gallardo seems to be a good candidate to buck this pessimistic trend.
Gallardo has compensated for his decline in strikeouts by drawing more ground balls. In fact, over half of all contact off of Gallardo (51.7%) has been on the ground, the highest rate of his career. Drawing grounders is certainly a good approach for a pitcher in homer-friendly Miller Park. Further, Gallardo’s 17.9% line-drive rate is the second best he has ever posted, indicating that hitters are making worse contact off of Gallardo this season. Perhaps this trend is due to an increased use of his slider (up 5% from 2012). Unfortunately when opponents have managed to hit fly balls, they have been reaching the seats. Gallardo’s 1.27 HR/9IP rate is currently the highest of his career. On the positive side, it seems that Gallardo is likely to concede fewer home runs going forward. Gallardo’s 15.5% HR/FB rate is well above his career norm, revealing that he has caught some bad breaks in giving up this many home runs. With batters making all-around weaker contact off of Gallardo, Brewers fans can expect Gallardo’s home run rates to improve.
Arguably the best thing that can be said about Gallardo is that he is a workhorse. An increasingly rare breed in this era, Gallardo is (knock on wood!) on pace to make 30 starts and throw over 180 innings for the sixth straight season. While this durability is worthwhile in and of itself, it also has a trickle-down effect that helps the rest of the ball club. One of the reasons the Brewers bullpen has been so successful is that it can be rested whenever Gallardo pitches. No, Gallardo is not a true dominating ace, a la Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright. Still, at the end of the day, he is dependable. If the Brewers had no other starting pitchers, perhaps they would need more out of Gallardo. But as part of a deep rotation, Gallardo can embrace his role as a durable innings-eater to keep Milwaukee in contention.