MILWAUKEE — Yovani Gallardo has been a different kind of pitcher in 2014, and it isn’t by accident.
Without the fastball velocity he featured earlier in his career, Gallardo has adapted on the fly. The right-hander is no longer chasing the strikeout, instead transforming himself into a pitcher that seeks early contact.
The results have been outstanding thus far, as Gallardo is off to the best start to a season in his eight years in the big leagues.
"That’s the plan," Gallardo said of pitching to contact. "I think for myself, that’s important. It’s going to keep your pitch count down when you get early swings from guys.
"It’s all about being aggressive in the strike zone, having guys hit their way on. There’s no defense against a walk. If you put guys on you are putting yourself into trouble to give up that big hit to the other team."
Gallardo is 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in his first five starts, allowing just five earned runs over 31 2/3 innings. He’s walked just nine batters this season with four of those coming during a start on April 17 in Pittsburgh.
The change in philosophy has led to reduced pitch counts for Gallardo, as he’s gone over 100 pitches in just two of his five starts and has gone at least six innings in each of his outings.
Gallardo’s quick start to the season will be put to the test Monday when he faces St. Louis, the team he’s struggled against the most over the course of his career. Gallardo is just 1-11 with a 6.46 ERA in 17 starts against the Cardinals with his lone win coming in May of 2011 when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Busch Stadium.
"I’ve just been consistent these starts that I’ve had so far," Gallardo said. "That was one of my main focuses in spring training, and I’ve been able to do that. It’s just a matter of keeping it going throughout the year."
Much was made of Gallardo’s dip in fastball velocity last season, as that, combined with an inflated ERA, led many to wonder if the 28-year-old was reaching the end of his time as a consistent top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Gallardo returned from the disabled list in August and posted a 2.41 ERA over his final eight starts of 2013 and provided hope that he could return to form.
According to Fangraphs.com, Gallardo’s average fastball velocity in 2014 is 90.7 miles per hour, exactly the same as it was a year ago. The change has been in the way he’s pitched. Gallardo’s ground-ball rate is at a career-high 51.6 percent this year, while his strikeout rate is at a career-low of 18.3 percent.
Gallardo is averaging just 6.54 strikeouts per nine innings, well below his career average of 8.8.
"Last year everybody said it was his velocity, but his velocity is exactly the same (this year)," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "His walks are down. You make adjustments later in your career. Mike Mussina made it in his career later on. There’s a whole list of them that make it, and some don’t. You have to be able to command the strike zone."
Gallardo has stranded 89 percent of the baserunners that have reached against him, meaning he’s making big pitches when he does get into trouble.
He’s also used his curveball far less this year than he has in past seasons, only going to it 15.9 percent of the time. Only six pitchers in baseball have thrown more sliders than Gallardo, as he’s thrown the breaking pitch 29.6 percent of the time.
Although Gallardo only used his curveball on occasion in his last outing against San Diego on Wednesday, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was encouraged with the results when he did throw the pitch.
"His curveball today was as good as I’ve seen it," Roenicke said. "I can’t remember last year, maybe once or twice, having this curveball. It was really good. It’s encouraging when you see him throw the ball like that."
In the final guaranteed year of his contract, Gallardo has a $13 million team option for 2015 with a $600,000 buyout. Gallardo was at a low point in his career at this time last season but is now proving there’s a lot left in the tank.
"I’ve been feeling good," Gallardo said. "Last year I had a different spring training getting ready for the WBC and things like that. It felt a little rushed. This year in spring training I was able to take my time and get my rhythm and get my mechanics. Once I got that underway I think I was able to find my pitches."