The Yovani Gallardo gamble: Can the Texas Rangers get more from Yovani?

On Monday, while the world was reacting to the news of Max Scherzer’s signing, the Texas Rangers made a nifty little trade, acquiring Yovani Gallardo from the Milwaukee Brewers for three so-so prospects they probably won’t miss too much. Gallardo immediately slides in behind Yu Darvish and Derek Holland as the team’s No. 3 starter, giving the Rangers some much-needed pitching depth in their quest to avoid a repeat of their disastrous 2014 season. 

The Rangers clearly needed at least one more reliable starting pitcher, and Gallardo has made 30 or more starts in six consecutive years, proving to be a durable innings eater at worst, while occasionally flashing some front-of-the-rotation stuff. But there’s a reason the Brewers traded him, and it wasn’t just to open up a rotation spot for young hurler Jimmy Nelson; Gallardo’s slowly becoming a different kind of pitcher than he was earlier in his career. 

The graph below is the easiest way to see Gallardo’s evolution as a pitcher:

The green line shows Gallardo’s strikeout rate over each season of his career, while the blue line is the league average strikeout rate over the same time period. From 2009 to 2012, Gallardo struck out at least a batter per inning pitched, and over those four years, he had the third-highest K/9IP of any starting pitcher in baseball. But then, in 2013, he posted a strikeout rate below the league average for the first time in his career, and his K/9IP dropped again last year. Among 98 starting pitchers to throw at least 150 innings last year, Gallardo’s strikeout rate ranked 66th

Declining strikeout rates are generally a pretty big red flag, often suggesting that a pitcher’s stuff has declined, and sometimes a big drop in strikeouts is a precursor to an injury diagnosis. However, Gallardo’s 2014 velocity numbers were pretty much in line with his career averages — his fastball averaged 91.3, just a tick down from his 92.0 career mark — and his total of 3,216 batters faced was the third-highest number of his career, so Gallardo doesn’t seem to be physically broken. 

Instead, this appears to be something of a conscious decision. At some point in the last couple of years, Gallardo seemingly decided that strikeouts really are fascist, and pitching to contact was a better way forward than trying to strike out everyone the way he had been previously. So, Gallardo started moving away from the four-seam fastball and toward a two-seamer that he had not thrown earlier in his career. The change in pitch repertoire can be seen in the graph below.

In 2009, Gallardo threw nearly 2,000 four-seam fastballs, representing 60 percent of his total pitches on the year. In 2014, Gallardo threw just shy of 1,200 four-seam fastballs, representing only 37 percent of his entire pitch mix. Instead, Gallardo is now throwing a steady diet of two-seam fastballs, looking for more sinking action at the bottom of the zone rather than swings-and-misses up near the letters. And just as his strikeout rate has collapsed, his groundball rate has increased, going from a low of 43 percent in 2010 up to a career-best 51 percent last year.

So after four years of being a dominant strikeout hurler with an average groundball rate, Gallardo has now moved to being a groundball pitcher with an average strikeout rate. Unfortunately for the Rangers, groundballs are less effective than strikeouts, since groundballs go for hits a decent amount of the time, yet strikeouts are outs by definition. The pitcher Texas is acquiring is probably not the same pitcher who looked like an All-Star during his peak in Milwaukee, and instead, should likely be viewed as more of a solid innings-eater. Gallardo now looks more like solid depth than significant upside. 

But there’s a flipside to every downward-facing trendline; things can only trend downward if they were higher at some point in the past, meaning that the player has some track record of performing better in whatever area is being highlighted for its decline. One man’s regression is another’s buy-low opportunity, and perhaps the Rangers think that if Gallardo switched from strikeouts to groundballs by choice, maybe they can get him to switch back. And it might not be an entirely crazy thought.

For comparison, here are the pitch location heatmaps for Gallardo from 2009 and then from 2014. 

In the first chart, Gallardo pitches primarily on the left side of the plate, but uses the entire height of the strike zone, pitching both up and down with regularity. Because he was throwing primarily four-seam fastballs, these locations make perfect sense, as the four-seam is often thrown at the top of the zone as a swing-and-miss pitch. 

In the second chart, you’ll notice that Gallardo almost entirely abandoned the top of the zone, and moved his location mix much more toward the bottom right part of this graph; the area that would represent down-and-away to right-handers or down-and-in on lefties. This is where two-seamers are often thrown, and it’s not a coincidence that Gallardo has moved his locations to the bottom half of the strike zone at the same time he’s using his sinker more than ever. If you pitch in these spots, you’re going to get contact and induce some groundballs, which is the profile Gallardo has shifted to as his location mix has changed. 

This is not the Rangers style of pitching, however. No team in baseball generated fewer groundballs than Texas last year, and Texas ranked 29th in two-seam fastball usage. Their general philosophy has been to focus on four-seam fastballs and go for strikeouts, and perhaps a culture change will nudge Gallardo back towards his prior approach to pitching. 

It’s certainly possible that Gallardo made the switch because his four-seam fastball has eroded in quality to the point where he’s not capable of generating strikeouts anymore. And perhaps asking him to go back to that style of pitching would result in a disaster. But pitchers are tinkerers, and it’s also possible that Gallardo moved more toward the bottom of the zone because the Brewers catchers are among the best in baseball at expanding the bottom half of the strike zone. In a different environment, with different coaches and different catchers, perhaps we shouldn’t assume that Gallardo can’t adjust once again. 

The Rangers have him for only one year, so there’s not a ton of risk in seeing if they can get him back toward more of the pitcher he was before. If it works, they bought low on a 28-year-old and get first crack at signing him to a long-term deal; if it flops, they probably weren’t going to challenge for the AL West title anyway. 

Perhaps Gallardo has no interest in going back to trying to strike out everyone, and maybe the Rangers have no interest in trying to change him back to what he was before. But it’s worth at least considering that if Gallardo made the move toward groundballs intentionally, perhaps his recent decline might not be as extreme as his strikeout rate would otherwise suggest.