Have you ever played the card game "Hearts" before? Do you know that sinking feeling when you realize that all of the other players have already played their spades, you're ticketed to lead for the rest of the hands, and you're still stuck with the Queen of Spades in your hand? Good, then you know what it feels like to be a team that is still searching for a starting pitching solution on the free agent market. Do you know that freeing feeling when you're the Queen of Spades? Like, literally, the card? Good, then you know what it feels like to be Yovani Gallardo. You probably don't know, though, because then you'd be a playing card. And do you know that exhilarating feeling when you have a bet on the guy with the Queen of Spades losing and you know you're about to make a bunch of money? Good, then you know what it feels like to be Yovani Gallardo's agent.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, now that Wei-Yin Chen and Ian Kennedy have signed, Gallardo really is the last big-name free agent starting pitching option remaining. But judging by the lack of interest in Gallardo so far this offseason, no team really, really wants him. Now, Gallardo isn't a bad pitcher per se; if he showed up the day after the 2016 draft and offered to play for the minimum, almost every single team would offer to sign him that very second. But the fact of the matter is that signing Gallardo will cost a draft pick, which more and more teams seem to be holding onto like it's their newborn child these days. And signing Gallardo will almost certainly cost a significant amount more than the minimum, and at a multi-year commitment. But are teams right to be staying away from him?
If you read Beyond the Box Score, you probably are aware that strikeouts are very good for a pitcher, and walks aren't. Out of the 78 qualified starting pitchers last season, Gallardo ranked 76th in K/BB ratio. That helped lead to an ugly 4.59 SIERA and 4.31 xFIP. His 5.91 K/9 was by far the lowest of his career; for a pitcher whose game used to be centered around the strikeout — Gallardo struck out at least 200 in each of his first four full seasons from 2009-2012 — this precipitous drop can certainly portend trouble. In June, fellow BtBS writer Spencer Bingol detailed Gallardo's drop in velocity, drop in strikeouts, and increase in groundballs. I agree wholeheartedly with his conclusions, but I have another reason to throw into the mix as well: Gallardo has been throwing his fastball lower in the zone.
Fastball Location (avg. vertical inches from center of plate)|
FB GB %|
FB Whiff %|
Data courtesy of Brooks Baseball
The theory that throwing lower in the zone will lead to a higher groundball rate and a lower strikeout rate seems to be backed up both by the data in the table and by general intuition. Hitters will often chase or swing through pitches higher up in the zone, and it will also be tougher to get on top of elevated fastballs than it would be for similar pitches located at the bottom realms of the strike zone. (This probably isn't the only reason that Gallardo's GB% and K% are trending in the directions that they are; there's a good chance that Gallardo's increase in the usage of his two-seamer plays a part as well.)
Most pitchers make adjustments to compensate for their natural loss in fastball velocity throughout their careers, and Gallardo is no exception. But the question is — did this adjustment make Gallardo better? Well, if you look at it as a results-oriented conclusion, then sure. His 3.42 ERA last season was actually the lowest of his career. However, if you look at his season through a process-based approach, his work in 2015 left a lot to be desired. His 2015 FIP, xFIP, and SIERA were all the highest marks of his career. So was his contact percentage allowed. His velocity hit an all-time low, a full MPH off his 2014 mark. His ERA was supported by an artificially low HR/FB rate. In other words, all of the red flags are there for a severe regression, with a non-zero chance of a full-on collapse. Teams may very well be right for staying away from Gallardo so far this offseason.
This isn't just a study of Gallardo, however. It's also a data point in the study of the optimal location of pitches. Pitching coaches from Little League all the way up to the Major Leagues constantly stress keeping the ball down. But is it actually ideal? Andrew Friedman probably doesn't think so.
In the end, optimal location of pitches is an inexact science because pitching is an inexact science. It's likely a case-by-case basis that depends on the individual pitcher. But it's pretty evident that pitching lower in the zone has been a prime factor in robbing Yovani Gallardo of his once-prolific strikeout ability. Gallardo's location change has isolated him, making him the market's Queen of Spades.
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Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond The Box Score.