When I saw Armando Garlarraga‘s performance last night and decided to write up a bit about him, I wondered if it would be possible to do so without mentioning the perfect game that wasn’t. Clearly I decided that such a mention was necessary, at least at this stage. It still is, and will continue to be for some time, Galarraga’s defining moment.
It is also the highlight in what is so far a very good start of the season for Galarraga. With his peripherals, a 2.67 ERA is certainly unsustainable — his 4.50 FIP and 4.91 xFIP speak to that — but a few things have changed for Galarraga. These small changes could make his 2010 season look more like his 2008 campaign than his 2009 hit parade.
Here are a few observations from Galarraga’s five starts and one relief appearance.
You can see it right in his Dashboard: Galarraga hasn’t walked many batters in his 33.2 IP this season. He is neither a strikeout nor a groundball pitcher, so keeping hitters off base can be be a bit of a problem. One way this type of pitcher can mitigate his situation is by issuing few free passes. Galarraga has walked just seven so far. Even more impressive: he walked three in his first start against the Red Sox, meaning he was walked just four in his last four in his last 28 IP.
A high walk rate was part of Galarraga’s undoing last season. He walked 4.20 per nine after keeping that number around three per nine in 2008. More walks plus a normal BABIP equals a ballooning ERA. If Galarraga can keep his walk rate in the 2 to 2.5 per nine range, he might be able to stave off disaster once his BABIP rises from its current .212 mark.
More bad contact
Galarraga has missed fewer bats this year than ever before. With just 13 strikeouts and a 6.4 percent swinging strike rate, his fielders will have to do plenty of work. Thankfully for them, the work hasn’t been all that arduous. Galarraga has been inducing poor contact, taking pressure off the defense that has to turn plenty of plays behind him.
Specifically, Galarraga’s line drive rate is way down, 12.7 percent. In 2007 he was at 16.8 percent, and I’d expect a regression to somewhere around that mark, if not a bit higher, by year’s end. His O-Swing% is actually down compared to the league average, but his O-Contact percentage is way, way up. He never even got to a league average level in 08 and 09, but this year he’s well above, 74.1 percent against the 66.4 percent average. Finally, hitters haven’t been hitting the ball far in the air, as just four of his 48 fly balls have left the park, which constitutes a mark below his career HR/FB rate of 12.7 percent.
Getting ahead in the count
Of the 131 batters Galarraga has faced this season, 67 have seen an 0-1 count while another 18 have put the ball in play. In other words, Galarraga is getting ahead in the count at an above-average clip. He’s also seeing good results in those situations. On the first pitch hitters are just 4 for 18 with one extra base hit. Once down 0-1, opponents are batting just .175/.224/.302. Those numbers probably won’t stand up, but for now they’ve been to his benefit.
More fastballs (and fewer changes)
Given the way the data is collected, it’s tough to find significant changes from year to year in a pitcher’s repertoire. For instance, the year-to-year, not to mention park-to-park, PitchFX calibration can make for tough comparisons. I’m not exactly sure what to make of these changes, but I wanted to note them anyway.
It looks like he’s definitely thrown his fastball more. According to the BIS data Galarraga threw 49.1 percent fastballs in 2008 and 48.9 percent in 2009. This year he’s throwing 64.6 percent. Not only that, but the BIS data has him a full mph faster. The PitchFX data is close, having him at 61.9 percent fastballs (including 7.6 percent two-seamers). He’s doing this by slightly cutting down on his slider usage, from roughly 38 percent in the last two years to around 32 percent this year. More drastically, he’s cut down on his changeup, nearly eliminating it from his repertoire.
It’s tough to say whether these changes will translate into future success for Galarraga. Given his history and scouting report it would appear that he’s due for a regression. It’s tough for any pitcher to succeed with Galarraga’s strikeout, home run, and groundball rates. Whatever he’s doing so far has worked, though. His season, and perhaps his career, might be defined by his outing against the Indians, but that’s just one big part of an otherwise excellent season to date.