August 20, 2014
Being Wrong About Yovani Gallardo
Admittedly, this article stems from a recent article by our own Craig Goldstein and an ongoing series by Jason Parks. It revolves around the idea of making preseason projections and ultimately being wrong. Goldstein took the high road in his article last week and explained that baseball analysts can occasionally hide behind process as a way of lessening the impact of making an incorrect prediction. He writes:
I often think my reasons at the time were justified, and that just because it didn’t break my way, doesn’t mean I was wrong, just that it turned out differently. This is hiding behind “the process.” I was wrong, and good reasoning at the time or not, that needs to be owned.
That’s noble and carries plenty of weight. However, it does tend to minimize the overall human randomness of baseball. That is to say, humans unexpectedly improve, which can stem from doing something differently or from doing the same thing better. Simple random variance comes into play, as well, but I’m more interested in the idea of being incorrect due to unforeseen player development.
When projecting player performance at the big-league level, there’s an inherent risk of being incorrect. In fact, we’re often wrong more than we’re right. That harkens back to that “human randomness” that I mentioned above. Instead, all one can do is take the information at hand and make the best-possible argument. Now, all of us can miss or devalue certain pieces of information, and in those cases, I think it’s important to “own up” and figure out what we missed. On the other hand, when the player unexpectedly does something better that counters previous trends, that’s something that should be celebrated and explored.
With that said, I was wrong about Yovani Gallardo. I thought he was done and would be nothing more than a back-end starter this season. I think this is interesting for two reasons: (1) He took a significant and unexpected step forward that countered the overall trends over the past couple seasons; and (2) the unexpected development on the mound has completed the transformation that now seems obvious and something that I should have seen.
Thus, I think this is a combination of what Craig and I have discussed in our two articles. Part of this is me owning up to missing the forest while focusing on the trees, as well as highlighting an unexpected improvement that no reasonable person should have expected based upon recent numbers.
This all comes down to one thing. Yovani Gallardo has started to throw more strikes and limit his walks. It counters a negative trend over the past two seasons and is what has helped him bounce back from a 4.18 ERA last year to a career-best 3.32 ERA (if we don’t count his 24.0 innings in 2008).
I had largely written off Gallardo heading into the 2014 season. His swinging-strike rate had dropped significantly to the point that he had one of the league-worst marks in 2013. He was no longer sitting in the mid-90s and was becoming more hittable. Furthermore, opposing hitters had begun laying off his curveball more and more often, and because he couldn’t throw strikes consistently or get guys to chase his curveball, he was being forced to come in the zone with a fastball that had lost velocity and a slider that hasn’t been a phenomenal pitch throughout his career.
And all of that has pretty much stayed the same. He’s still not missing bats. His velocity has increased marginally, but nothing significant. His strikeout rate has fallen even more dramatically to only 18.4 percent, which is below Bartolo Colon’s 18.8 percent strikeout rate. Opposing hitters are still not chasing his curveball, and his 27.1 percent O-Swing clip is the eighth-worst among qualified starters.
That’s all not good. As I said, though, Gallardo is starting to throw more strikes than he has in previous seasons, and his current 6.2 percent walk rate is the lowest of his career. Furthermore, look at the percentage of pitches that have been thrown in and outside the zone over the past four seasons (per Brooks Baseball):
It’s not difficult to see the massive improvement in both columns this year. It’s also not difficult to understand why I didn’t expect Gallardo to suddenly throw strikes and limit his walks like never before. I mean, people shouldn’t get in the habit of projecting players to counter negative trends and suddenly set career-best marks. That doesn’t make sense. But here we are.
I mentioned earlier that I had missed the forest through the trees. By that, I meant I missed the overall transformation that was happening to Yovani Gallardo, as he learned to cope with diminished stuff on the mound. He was a high-strikeout hurler who threw a ton of pitches and always frustrated fantasy owners by never quite becoming an ace, and when he lost that high-strikeout ability, I focused on the loss. I assumed different was bad, I guess you could say.
Because Yovani Gallardo has transitioned himself into a straight-up sinkerballer who lives on getting ground balls and limiting his walks. His current 52.2 percent ground-ball rate continues a positive change that has happened the past four seasons; however, I missed that the past two seasons because I’ve been focused on the deficit. Now that he’s unexpectedly slashed the walk rate, the decreased ability to miss bats doesn’t matter as much. He’s different. He’s now John Lackey, instead of Sonny Gray.
I missed the fact that Gallardo had begun throwing more sinkers and sliders than ever before. I missed the focus in emphasis and became sidetracked by what he had been, by placing a label on Gallardo and forgetting that he could attach a new label on himself after the old one fell off.
For fantasy owners, this change in identity also matters. Gallardo used to be a great source of strikeouts, and that’s no longer the case. He’s not a liability in the WHIP category anymore and he’s now posting a better ERA than ever before, but because of the lack of strikeouts and the mediocre win totals, he’s not elite. This is an article about the success of Gallardo this season, and he’s not even a top-50 starter in ESPN leagues. He’s currently ranked no. 51.
That’s an improvement from the 2013 season, though. He barely cracked the top-100 starters last year, so even though Gallardo is no longer a second-tier option that he was in his mid-20s, he’s relevant again for fantasy owners. If he’s limiting his walks, he’s useful in all formats. I’d like to see the decreased walk rate continue for the remainder of the season before I’m comfortable projecting it as “here to stay,” but he seems to have taken a significant step forward in that regard.
Yovani Gallardo improved one of his core skills this season. That should be celebrated. I didn’t see that happening, but I don’t think that I necessarily should have. However, I should have seen his incremental transition to becoming a sinkerball pitcher as a way to cope with decreased stuff on the mound. That’s on me. That’s something that I should have noticed. As always, it’s a lesson to learn and something to remember going forward. But ultimately, this should be a celebration of Gallardo’s ability to adapt and improve, and in the end, become something different to remain effective. That, in itself, is impressive.