PITCHf/x profile: Yovani Gallardo

Yovani Gallardo, at 23, is the ace of the Milwaukee Brewers. Gallardo has overcome a couple of leg injuries to become one the premier pitchers—young or old—in the National League. After just four starts in all of 2008, the Michoacan, Mexico native was asked to step forward two steps, one each for C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets.

The young right hander now has accumulated a season’s worth of innings (181) over 28 career starts and three relief appearances. If you look at his basic line, it’s obvious he’s already been successful.

181   IP
13-6  W-L
3.28  ERA (3.60 FIP)
168   K
61    BB (2 IBB)
16    HR
5     HBP
3     WP

Oddly, Gallardo’s wild pitches all were unleashed during his first seven starts of 2009.

PITCHf/x: Gallardo’s repertoire

Gallardo relies heavily on a four-seam fastball and a big, slow curveball. He throws right over the top, so he’s maximizing his downward slope while varying his movement vertically far more than laterally. While he may put a little more tail on the fastball from time to time, he’s basically a three-pitch pitcher. The third pitch depends on the batter: Lefties get a straight change-up and righties a slider, which may lack somewhat in sink, but has good action.

Click the images for larger/readable versions

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With a fastball that sits around 92 mph but can top out around 95, the action hitters will experience is “rise” or hop, as the speed gives gravity less time to pull the ball down, and the backspin defeats Newton’s math by almost 11 inches.

Gallardo’s curve, meanwhile, doesn’t exactly float on in, but he’ll usually keep it at or under 80 mph. A lot of pitchers will come a little more over the top when throwing a curveball, but Gallardo actually throws more overhand with his fastball, and least so with his change-up. The effect is just a couple of inches, but he does slide down a bit from fastball to slider to curve to change-up.

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Gallardo likes to work the ball away with the off-speed pitches (both of which check in around 83-85 mph), and that tendency is reflected in his choices to lefty and righty hitters. Aggregating his data and normalizing the plate locations gives us layers and slices, and the slices also show his keep-it-away approach.

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The fastballs dominate the scene, so let’s take those out of the picture.

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While he will work up a bit with the off-speed stuff, he mostly keeps it down. The opposite holds true for the fastball, but to less of an extreme.

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How’s that working out for you, Yovani?

Clearly, Gallardo’s line in his first season’s worth of work is impressive. So how well is he doing with each of his pitches? Keep in mind the context—a “rising” fastball complemented by a bunch of stuff down in the zone. Each pitch sets up the next.

Gallardo’s most effective pitch is his slider, measuring up to just 0.011 runs of offense per 100 pitches (Run Value per 100, or rv100). Its success is based on a couple of factors. First, he throws sliders for strikes almost as often as he does fastballs (.524 and .541, respectively; using a two-foot wide zone). Hitters swing at it often (.550) and make a reasonable amount of contact considering it’s a breaking pitch (whiff rate of .276).

That brings me to the second factor of his success, and my yearning for HITf/x. When put in play, including home runs, the slider yields only .152 total bases per ball in play (nkSLG or SLGCON). Average for all pitches/pitchers is about .510. Gallardo isn’t giving up big hits off his slider and he’s pounding the zone with it.

That gravity resistant, but not defiant, fastball is Gallardo’s second best pitch. With an rv100 of 4.9, it’s a couple or more runs better than average. Considering it makes up nearly 64 percent of his pitches, his overall rv100 of 5.4 should come as no surprise. Gallardo consistently gets ahead with the four-seamer (or the slider, for that matter) and gives up only a slightly above-average number of extra base hits when it’s put in play (nkSLG .527). The whiff rate of .160 is above average for a fastball, which helps balance out the occasional liner off the wall.

Moving down the quality ladder to the third rung, we find Gallardo’s second favorite pitch. Thrown to both left- and right-handed hitters, and more times than the change-up and slider combined, is Gallardo’s curveball. Producing an rv100 of 7.2, it’s his third best pitch, which gives you an idea of why Gallardo is so tough. He has three good pitches, and two of them are plus pitches (fastball/slider). Gallardo throws his curve for strikes at a high rate (.421) and hitters just watch those strikes more than half the time! With a swing rate of just over .33, and a whiff rate of .25, not many balls are put in play on the yakker. When they’re put in play, it isn’t serious trouble (nkSLG .549) by any stretch.

Gallardo’s change-up is his least thrown and least effective pitch. Still, he gives up an rv100 of only 11.7 with it—nothing to write home about or hang on the fridge, but not awful. I suspect he’d have more success if it weren’t for the strange way he uses it. The two most likely situations for Gallardo’s change-up are when he’s behind a lefty (17 percent of pitches in that situation) or when the count is even to lefties, including first pitches (~10 percent, slightly more on 0-0 counts).

While Gallardo uses the change-up’s cousin, the slider, most often when he’s ahead of righties, the change-up isn’t used to put lefties away. So, by overall usage, there is a platoon preference between the slider and the change-up, but Gallardo doesn’t use them the same way. Since he tends to fall behind or not get called strikes with his change-up, it seems better used when he’s ahead in the count.

He also could benefit by throwing a few more first pitch sliders. When he does, he does well with it, but throws twice as many first-pitch curveballs as sliders. But these are minor quibbles, nitpicks and micro-analysis. He’s doing just fine as is.

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author. Run Values from Baseball Analysts.

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