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The New Yovani Gallardo?

Prior to the season, I wrote an article in which I warned fantasy owners to stay away from Yovani Gallardo on draft day. I cited his velocity decline, his decreased strikeout rate, his decrease swinging-strike rate, and his increasingly-ineffective curveball. I mentioned how he could experience a bounce-back season, but the right-hander would need to reverse a couple of those worrisome trends.

After a trio of starts this year, however, Gallardo has thrown the ball brilliantly. He’s tossed a quality start in every outing. He owns a 0.96 ERA and 2.23 FIP, and the Milwaukee Brewers have won all three of his starts. He also has a .333 OBP at the dish, which is largely irrelevant, but I love when pitchers aren’t inept at the plate and it does mark the first time the hurler drew a walk since 2011.

So, where did the preseason analysis go awry? To put it differently, where has Yovani Gallardo shown improvement and what didn’t I see coming into this season?

The overall trends remain. The strikeout rate is down, the velocity hasn’t returned, and the swinging-strike has gotten worse. However, I can confidently assert that I didn’t foresee the 28-year-old re-fashioning himself as a pitcher. A couple years ago, he was a power, strikeout pitcher who appeared on the cusp of ace-hood. In 2014, we’re witnessing a pitcher adjust his approach on the mound to cope with declined stuff. In short, Yovani Gallardo has essentially transformed himself into a traditional low-strikeout sinker-baller. And he’s finding significant success in doing so.

I don’t mean to suggest a simplistic analysis in which we merely cite a lower strikeout rate and a lower walk rate and talk about him pitching to contact. It’s more than that. Gallardo clearly understands his stuff has declined to the point that he won’t miss many bats; thus, he’s relying more on his fastball and getting ground-ball outs. Furthermore, he’s pounding the strike zone more often than he has in recent seasons. ┬áThat’s what I mean when I say Gallardo is changing the way he pitches. He’s not working to get to his curveball and rack up the strikeouts anymore. He’s not nibbling as much. He’s leaning on his fastball — cutting it a bit to the left side of the plate and sinking it a bit to the right side of the plate — and allowing hitters to put the baseball on the ground more often than ever before in his career.

We’ve seen the ground-ball rate increase for Gallardo in recent years, as he’s incorporated a slider more into his repertoire, but it’s taken a significant jump yet again in 2014.

Year YoGa GB% Lg GB%
2010 43.0% 44.4%
2011 46.6% 44.4%
2012 47.7% 45.1%
2013 49.2% 44.6%
2014 53.6% 45.7%

In fact, his 2014 ground-ball rate is essentially identical to that of Justin Masterson, one of the quintessential sinker-ball pitchers in Major League Baseball right now. He’s throwing his fastball more often than he has in recent years, but more specifically, he’s throwing his curveball less often. He’s almost strictly been a fastball-slider pitcher this year, which has been a huge part of his increased ground-ball rate.

If one moves to his plate discipline statistics, though, one cannot help but cringe. His swinging-strike rate has fallen to 5.1% — the worst of his career, by far — and he’s only getting guys to swing at 22.3% of the pitches out of the zone, again the lowest mark of his career (outside approximately 20 innings in 2008). His contact rate has risen to a career-high at 85.7% and his contact rate inside the strike zone is a startling 94.7%. It’s understandable that one would shy away from Gallardo going forward based on these numbers, but I’m beginning to think this is part of the plan. Rely on the fastball and ground ball. Move the fastball. Keep it low in the zone. Induce weak contact. In essence, be a sinker-ball pitcher.

In terms of fantasy production, Yovani Gallardo is perhaps a bit more attractive at this point, but his profile isn’t very exciting. He doesn’t appear to be a good source of strikeouts, so his entire value will be tied in his ratios and the unpredictable win statistic. Best-cast scenario, fantasy owners are looking at Gallardo providing value close to the ’13 Andrew Cashner or the ’13 Hiroki Kuroda. That’s certainly valuable, but perhaps not the top-tier performance for which one would hope, considering his name recognition and early-season performance.

The important thing to remember with Gallardo is that if he’s truly transforming himself into a low-strikeout, high-grounder type pitcher (a sinker-baller), he’s going to be heavily reliant on BABIP and his infield defense. In other words, his expected performance will be more variable. He’ll have days when grounders find holes and he’ll have days when his pitches aren’t placed on the corners and down in the zone, and he won’t have the raw stuff to battle through those days and miss bats to compensate. But if he can continue to throw the baseball as he has the last couple outings, he could be a nice fantasy pitcher throughout the remainder of the season. Much more valuable than I thought he would be coming into the year.

Then again, I didn’t think we’d be talking about a completely different pitcher than we were a couple years ago. Baseball is a game of adjustments. Yovani Gallardo is learning how to be effective with declined stuff, and in a pure baseball sense, that’s beautiful to watch. Even if it is unexpected.