The Milwaukee Brewers completed their first sweep of the Boston Red Sox in more than two decades Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, riding an impressive outing (6.2 IP, 7 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K) by veteran right-hander Yovani Gallardo to a 4-0 victory that ran their regular season record to 4-2 through six games.
Shutting out the Atlanta Braves over six complete innings on Opening Day in Milwaukee, Gallardo’s 6.2 inning shutout of the World Series champions to cap the weekend kept his season earned run average at a steady 0.00. It was the first time the former second-round draft pick started a season with two consecutive scoreless outings in eight career seasons — giving reason to believe Gallardo has re-established himself as Milwaukee’s staff ace after a career-worst campaign (4.18 ERA, 94 ERA+) in 2013.
With only two outings to his credit this season, Gallardo’s sample size of work is much to narrow for us to jump to too many conclusions about what the rest of the season might entail. However, there is one specific thing that we can conclude: Gallardo’s plan-of-attack on the mound has, is, and very well might continue to change over time.
Here’s what I mean.
Fewer Misses, Pitching to Contact
Gallardo’s ability to hoard strikeouts made him a can’t-miss prospect from 2004-2007, generating approximately 10 strikeouts per nine innings on a consistent basis from the rookie-levels of the minors up through his final stint in triple-A back in 2007. While we don’t know the exact reason behind those strikeouts (i.e. through swings-and-misses or painting the corners with tremendous efficiency), we do know that his knack for strikeouts progressed into his big league days — evidenced by a career-best K/9 of 9.7 in 2010.
But since then, things just haven’t been the same. As we can see from the chart above, Gallardo’s swinging strike rate has declined progressively since 2011, while his opponent in-play rate has inclined in that same span. His K/9 rate suffered in consequence, deflating to a career-low 7.2 last season and 5.0 through two starts in 2014. The reason? He’s pounding the strike zone with greater consistency, evidenced by a zone rate that’s increased to a career-high 48.3% this season.
A reduction in strikeouts and in-plays would normally be cause for concern; but as we already know, Gallardo has been incredibly successful in his two starts this season. So the question must be asked: How has he held two of the more feared offenses in baseball to scoreless outings this season? Look no further than the chart below.
Curveball? Steady. Slider? Stable. Changeup? Never really had one to begin with. Fastball? Yeah, something’s up.
As is the case with most pitchers whose fastball velocity declines substantially over time, Gallardo has begun mixing in his rendition of a two-seam (i.e. ‘sinker’) more frequently with each passing season, hoping that increased movement will lead to softer contact and subsequent easy outs. In 2010, Gallardo didn’t throw the pitch once. Now, it’s his second-most frequent offering, tossing it at a 21.89% frequency this season, according to Brooks Baseball. Conversely, Gallardo’s four-seamer has declined near progressively over the past five years.
How this relates to his early-season dominance can be found in his in-play results; Gallardo has held opponents to an overall career-low 26.8% fly ball rate through two outings, while his fastballs have generated a career-high 51% ground-ball rate, which is significantly higher than the 42.6% grounder rate he posted last season with those same offerings.
Improved command of those pitches has certainly helped his cause, locating 48.3% of his fastballs ‘down’ compared to 41.2% last season — a region of the zone where the majority of grounders occur.
What we’re seeing is a transformation Gallardo’s plan-of-attack on the mound. He’s tossing more stuff in the zone than ever before and pounding the lower half of the zone with sinkers and four-seamers. And while his swinging strike rates have taken a hit, he’s overcome them by producing ground-balls at a career-high rate — a product of his improved fastball command.
We must be wary of regression to the mean, however. Gallardo has but two starts under his belt so far this season and a regression in these escalated numbers should be anticipated, especially when we consider the strong correlation between opponents’ BABIP (currently at a career-low .268 against Gallardo) and increased in-play rates (currently at a career-high 52.5%).
But if he continues to command the lower half and mix his fastballs, who’s to say the reinvention of his game won’t continue to produce results?
I know I won’t.