The path to a pivotal year: Yovani Gallardo
Aug 29, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo (49) delivers a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning at PNC Park. Image by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The 2014 campaign for the Milwaukee Brewers could have a monster effect on a number of players' careers, including that of starter Yovani Gallardo.
The longtime Brewers starting pitcher looks to rebound from a scatter-shot year in 2013 that saw his status as the team's best pitcher come into question. Gallardo will be fighting to re-assert his sometimes-dominant production from seasons past and to prove that he's worth his hefty contract.
Gallardo, who turns 28 on February 27, is coming off perhaps his worst, most disappointing season.
In 2013, Gallardo finished with a 12-10 record and a 4.18 ERA in 31 starts. It was Gallardo's first finish with a 4.00-plus ERA in five years. He pitched fewer innings (180.2) than he had since his debut season of 2007 (110.1 in 2007, 24 in an injury-plagued 2008).
It seemed Gallardo's control and composure were out of whack for much of the season, and his velocity was down; he continuously fell behind hitters and once again suffered from short starts. Gallardo has historically been a strikeout pitcher who creeps steadily if not speedily toward a high pitch count.
Though Gallardo certainly isn't afraid to "waste a pitch," wasting a lot of pitches gets him in trouble and leads to a very poor pitch economy. He moves the ball around lackadaisically at times rather than aggressively attacking hitters. When he's not hitting the edges and getting called strikes, particularly with the curveball, hitters can sit back and wait on something straight and over the plate.
Gallardo's strikeouts per nine innings dropped to a career-worst 7.2 in 2013, and his overall strikeout numbers for the season were way down, falling by 60 punchouts from 2012 in only two fewer starts.
Gallardo has been a vitally important home-grown pitcher for the Brewers since he had his first full healthy season in 2009. In 2010, he was an All-Star. Then he came up clutch for the playoff-bound Brewers during the 2011 season, going 17-10 with an ERA around 3.5 and more than 200 innings pitched. He also finished seventh in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2011.
Yet according to Fangraphs WAR (fWAR), which is calculated using FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) rather than simply runs allowed, Gallardo dropped to a 1.7 value for wins above replacement in 2013.
That's not horrible, but the Brewers are paying a significant amount for his services - $11.25 million to pitch for them in 2014 and hold a team option for 2015 at $13 million with a $600,000 buyout. With those numbers, GM Doug Melvin and his staff face tough decisions going forward.
Gallardo figures to be a keystone part of a revamped rotation for the 2014 season, but if the Brewers aren't contending this year, he could find himself saying goodbye to Milwaukee in the not-too-distant future. He has been a fan favorite and it would be hard to see him traded or bought out in 2014.
Gallardo returned from a stint on the disabled list in mid-August 2013 and fared much better over the last month and a half of the season than he had previously. Perhaps that's a sign of a rebound. He's an extremely talented athlete who's struggled to harness his potential brilliance.
Perhaps with another high-caliber pitcher in Matt Garza joining the staff, Gallardo can relax a little and focus on consistency rather than the burdens of being an "ace" pitcher for the Brewers.
As much as the Brewers rotation has been solidified for the 2014 season with the boost that Matt Garza provides, it could look drastically different in two years, when Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada become free agents. Change could arrive as early as sometime in 2014, when Gallardo, the best pitcher drafted and groomed by the Brewers organization since Ben Sheets, will either be traded, bought out, or brought back by the team.
Hopefully Gallardo's on-field performance will make the decision difficult for the Brewers front office, because that would mean the team is in contention.
For the Brewers to gain any traction in a formidable National League, the team will have to rely on Gallardo to channel his talents into quality starts. He doesn't need to be an ace, but if he can be a workhorse, the Brewers rotation will be a challenge for other clubs.