Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hey, Yo...We're Going to Miss You

October 1st, 2011
By: Jesse Jirik - WSS Senior Baseball Correspondent

Well…at least I am going to miss Yovani Gallardo. But it’s looking like I might just be in the minority on this one. And that makes me sad.

By now everybody knows that Gallardo was dealt to the Texas Rangers last week in exchange for three low to mid-range prospects in what is looking increasingly like a move made strictly for financial flexibility in the hopes of adding some bullpen help to the team. Now it can be argued that the trade itself might turn out to be a savvy move by Brewers GM, Doug Melvin in the long run. But  am going to save my critique of the actual trade for another time.

Currently, I am far more interested in the reaction to the trade, and more specifically to the departure of Yovani Gallardo, from Brewer Nation. The general vibe surrounding the loss of Gallardo, a player who has been a key part of the team’s success for the past 11 years, has ranged from “Good Riddance” to “meh” from most Milwaukee die-hards. To me, this feels like a rather strange and callous reaction to the departure of the team’s best long-term starting pitcher over the past decade and arguably the second best home-grown pitcher in the history of the organization. Shouldn’t we be more appreciative of one of the greatest Milwaukee Brewers to have ever graced the pitching mound at Miller Park? Shouldn’t we, at the very least, be a tad bit reflective? After his many years of on-field contributions, off-field community relations and this classy social media farewell to Brewer fans, I feel as though he has most certainly earned it.

Of course, the primary reason for the collective malaise in regard to Gallardo is a problem that has plagued several athletes competing in Wisconsin’s sporting landscape over the years. People are seemingly upset because early in his career, Gallardo demonstrated an aptitude for greatness. He slowly built on this greatness, peaked (possibly a tad too soon) and then leveled off to a slightly lesser degree. Despite all of the many positive aspects of this career arc, in the eyes of Wisconsin sports fans’, failing to maintain an elite level of performance is one of the worst things a star player can do. If don’t believe me, just ask AJ Hawk or Rickie Weeks and they’ll be able to proctor a seminar on the topic. If you were supposed to be great, you better damn well be great. And then you better keep being great. Or else!

Sadly, Yovani Gallardo endured the brunt of this negative line of thinking over the past two seasons as Brewer fans have been turning on him faster than Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannety in a barbershop. But while a case could be made that a certain level of disappointment surrounding Yo and the fact that he was often seemingly on the cusp of taking “the next step” without ever quite taking it might have some credence, most of the criticism against him seems largely unfair (although I’m pretty sure I missed the press conference in which he claimed that he was ever going to ascend to that level in the first place).

It seems that most expectations fans feel Gallardo did not live up to, were expectations that they, themselves had set up in their own heads. And while I’m sure he is apologetic for never quite living up to Dale in West Allis’ expectations of him, Yovani Gallardo certainly should be proud of pitching his guts out every five days for the past decade solely to increase the success of this team and this city. He may not have ever gotten that Cy Young Award (he finished 7th in 2011), but he was still a hell of pitcher while he was here.

Let’s begin with the idea of these big-time expectations for Yovani Gallardo. One of the chief misconceptions about Gallardo is the misplaced sense of entitlement from fans that he was pre-ordained to be the “next big thing.” Major choruses forwarded by Brewer’s fans over the years were ideas like, “Gallardo’s not an ace,” and “He’s a number three, not a number one.” And while the groundswell of that general notion grew, people forgot that the fact of the matter is, he wasn’t necessarily drafted to be “the man” in the first place. Check out that 2004 draft again and you’ll immediately gain a new level of appreciation for Mr. Gallardo and his accomplishments.

Anybody remember that in that ‘04 draft the Brewer’s had the fifth overall pick in the first round? Anybody remember how they used that pick? No? Well it wasn’t on future All-Star, Yovani Gallardo (taken 41 picks later in the second round). Rather, Plan A for the Brewers that year was none other than the immortal Mark Rodgers! You know…the one who came complete with detachable action arm, for hours of after school fun! It was Rogers, not Gallardo that was supposed to be the
This may have been the only pitch Rogers threw in the majors
organizations thoroughbred for years to come. Gallardo was simply Plan B. It’s funny, but I haven’t heard many people in Milwaukee complaining about Mark Rogers’ lack of innings or decreased strikeout rate during the last two seasons. Maybe because, unlike Gallardo, the only year he came close enough to getting a shot at cracking the rotation, he never even made out of spring training. I guess when your baseline is non-existent it’s difficult for fans to have anything to complain about.

Perhaps Brewer’s fans would have been happier with the likes of the third overall pick, Phillip Humber. Shortly after being drafted by the New York Mets, Humber became the subject of a biography titled: My Irrelevant Career and Why Nobody Will Remember me. Ever: The Phil Humber Story. Great read.

How about Jeremy Sowers (6th), Wade Townsend (8th) or Scott Elbert (17th)?

Remember that time when Jeremy Sowers… no you don’t. Never happened.

And Townsend? Townsend is currently playing a hell of a bass guitar for the Won’t Get Fooled Again’s on the north side of Baltimore. $5 cover next Thursday evening at Bluford's Cafe. Come early.

Rather than belabor the point by making more bad jokes about the nobodies drafted before Yovani that year (you get the point), let me just point out this little factoid. Of the top 25 position players taken in 2004, Gallardo currently has more major league home runs as a pitcher than 16 of them.  The point is, in the context of the needle-in-a-haystack failure percentages of any given draft year, the idea of being disappointed in one of the dozen or so guys that actually make it out of the draft to go on to career success is a completely spoiled and perverse point of view. The level of accomplishment it takes simply to avoid busting, let alone starting 200 games, making an All-Star team and winning postseason games is ostensibly a statistical anomaly. That Gallardo did these things as the 46th overall pick should never be forgotten or underappreciated.

Let’s piggyback off of this idea for a moment and look at some of Gallardo’s career numbers. Statistically, Gallardo may have never quite reached the heights of fellow draftees Justin Verlander (2nd pick) and Jered Weaver (12th pick). But once again he was taken forty spots later than those guys and so his statistics are appropriately more in line with where one would project them to be in relation to draft order expectations. The individuals below were all drafted within a year and 25 draft spots of Gallardo and have all carved out successful careers for their respective teams:

Gio Gonzalez
Clay Buchholz
Matt Garza
Chad Billingsly

Observe the almost eerie similarity in the career paths of these late-first/early-second round selections. Their strengths and weaknesses practically mirror one another in every way. It is also easy to see that Gallardo sits right among the very best when taken in context of his contemporary peers with similar skill sets.  Of this group, Gallardo not only won the most games of the bunch but is neck and neck with Gio Gonzalez as the best overall pitcher in the group. (These players were not chosen to make a point either, they were the only players during these three draft years taken after pick 20 and before round 3 with name value that made it to 100 career starts before busting or turning reliever.) Viewed through the objectivity of this lens it becomes increasingly difficult to justify looking at Gallardo’s Brewer career as a disappointment.

Another pervading theme in the anti-Gallardo movement over the years is that he threw too many pitches early in games and often never went deep enough into the late innings of games to be considered a true ace. But this line of the thinking also proves flawed when taking a closer look.

Once again, when Yo was on, he was ON. And sure, when he was off, he could be very OFF. But focusing on the interspersed shorter outings of Gallardo’s tenure seems to be largely a case of selective memory feeding on a negative. Again let’s look at Gallardo’s draft buddies for some context in regard to their average innings pitched per nine:

Average innings per start (career)
Justin Verlander
Jered Weaver
Jason Vargas
Yovani Gallardo
Gio Gonzalez

As is demonstrated above using the top five starters of the ’04 draft, most of the best starting pitchers in the league average somewhere within the six-inning/per game range (probably why 6 innings was chosen as the measure of the quality start statistic) in a given season. Gallardo is once again right in line with the other quality pitchers of his era. Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers in the game over the last five years, averaged less than two outs per game more than Gallardo. Are two additional outs per game by a team’s starter important? Probably, yes (doing the math, it spares the bullpen 20 extra innings in a typical season). But the comparison, certainly throws some water on the perception that “true ace” pitchers are going out and tossing eight and nine innings every time they pitch, while Gallardo is consistently getting bumped from games in the fourth or fifth inning. It just isn’t true. Sure there were times when Yo nibbled around the plate to an almost maddeningly degree. But for every frustrating five inning game, Yovani countered with a seven or eight inning gem. That’s just the law of averages folks. If you choose to remember the bad Gallardo games in your memory don’t forget to add the good ones as well.

Now what about the whole “ace” question? Gallardo was certainly a “good” pitcher, but are fans who claim that Gallardo never quite made it to ace level justified in their thinking? Not exactly.

It is no secret that from 2009 to 2012, Gallardo was armed with one of the best fastball/curveball combinations in all of baseball. During that four year period, he struck out 200 batters every single year while successively owning the 3rd best K/9 rate in all of baseball during that time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there aren’t a whole lot of mediocre pitchers accomplishing feats like this on a regular basis. It takes a pretty special level of talent to strike out over 800 batters in four years. In fact, only two other pitchers in all of baseball were also able to realize four years of 200 K’s during that same time period: Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. (David Price, John Lester and Max Scherzer each had 3 years in that time period.) I’d say that’s pretty rarified air Gallardo was flying in for a while.

Furthermore during this time, there were two years in particular that stand out as undeniably ace-level performances for Gallardo. The apex coming in 2010 and 2011:


As you can see, the only real flaw in Gallardo’s game during this time was his WHIP sitting a touch higher than one would ideally like it. This was due in large part to both allowing some extra walks related to his skill as a strikeout pitcher (a controllable factor) and an inflated home run rate from Miller Park’s short fences (less controllable)[1]. And if fans didn’t recognize the ace they had on their hands at the time, Gallardo’s peers certainly did. He was chosen for his first All-Star birth in 2010 after posting a stellar start to the season. And after he helped carry the Brewers to the playoffs in 2011, he finished 7th place in Cy Young voting that year. Again, these types of things are generally reserved for ace level players.

Additionally in 2011, despite the fact that Zack Greinke gets much of the credit for returning the Brewers to the playoffs that year, it could be argued that Yovani Gallardo and his 17 wins were in essence just as valuable to the team’s success. Especially when you consider the time Greinke missed with a rib injury to start the season and his piss poor performance in the playoffs. Observe the contributions of each and you’ll see that both were invaluable to the team’s overall success that season:


2011 was, of course, also the year that Yovani Gallardo simply owned the NLDS. This is perhaps the single most obvious reason that Brewer fans need to be more appreciative of Yovani Gallardo’s Brewer career. In case you’ve forgotten (and I apologize for going all ESPN on you here, but) – HERES A GUY THAT PITCHED THE GREATEST POSTSEASON GAME IN FRANCHISE HISTORY!!! AND HE’S BARELY EVEN GETTING A GOODBYE ON HIS WAY OUT THE DOOR!!!!!! GIVE ME A BREAK PEOPLE!

This was and always will be one of my favorite games and pitching performance of all time. Yo was in full-fledged Serial Killer mode that day, striking people out with reckless abandoned and skulking off the mound with an almost amoral lack of emotion.[2]  Gallardo ended up going eight innings, giving up only four hits and one earned run while striking out 9 Diamondbacks on the day. He ultimately chose to end the day by strapping on his Jason Voorhees mask and slicing the Snakes fucking head off, striking out the entire freaking side in the 8th inning. The only thing missing that day was Wayne Larivee and his dagger.

At the very least, Yovani Gallardo should get a lifetime pass from Brewer’s fans simply for his performance in the eighth inning of NLDS Game 1 alone.

As an encore, five days later Gallardo went on to pitch six more innings of one run ball and subsequently win the biggest game of the organization’s past thirty years. Sure the double encore against the Cardinals didn’t go so well (big surprise anytime the Cardinals are involved). But with the complete and utter meltdowns of Greinke (6.48ERA) and Shaun Marcum (14.90 ERA) in those same playoffs, Gallardo was near the end of the line in order of blame for not making the World Series that year.

Maybe the central takeaway from his entire career was that on the days that Gallardo was right, he was truly one of the best pitchers in the game. And it was truly a joy to watch him pitch on those days. On any given evening, Yovani had the ability to channel greatness on par with any other ace in the game. He could put on a transcendent pitching show’s like this and this and this on a regular basis:

There just aren’t that many players in sports that possess the skills and ability to reach heights like this over the course of a three hour sporting contest. That so many times, he was able to take the crowd on a ride that made everyone in the stadium believe that anything from 15 strikeouts to a complete game shutout was possible each time he stepped to the mound was an amazing thing.

Unfortunately, the last couple of seasons have seen Yovani’s performance dip from that of peak-Gallardo. It’s been pointed out by just about anyone who has written about Gallardo that he has become a different pitcher since 2013. As Fangraphs, Dave Cameron points out in this wonderful piece about the Brewers trade with Texas, Gallardo has all but abandoned his strikeout prowess and actively transitioned into a groundball pitcher (presumably to combat the park effects of Miller Park and now Texas Stadium). Without the threat of the strikeout that once made him so fearsome, he hasn’t been nearly as dominant in these last two seasons as past years. However, he still managed, last year, to be a reliably effective workhorse by pitching 192 innings and generating a 50% ground ball rate while also lowering his walk rate to an all-time low.[3] But without the elite K levels, Yovani ultimately seemed to be trending toward that middle of the rotation pitcher that some fans erroneously perceived to be the case all along.

Of course, all of this has now culminated in the trade with Texas. Gallardo is leaving and we will probably never see him in a Brewer's uniform ever again. Am I arguing that he was the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball? No. Did I hope more than anyone that he would take that last step after 2011 and continue to improve and dominate well into his thirties? Absolutely. Like any good fan, I am always hoping my wildest expectations will be met and exceeded by the teams and the players I love.

Rather, my point in all of this is simply to remind Brewer fans that we did indeed have something special in Milwaukee with Yovani Gallardo. A career Brewer drafted and developed in a farm system that has done a pretty miserable job of drafting and developing, Yovani took the reins handed to him as the 46th pick in 2004 and directed a helluva career for himself in Milwaukee. For a good period of time he was incontrovertibly not a “B - pitcher” or a “disappointment.” He was a Milwaukee Brewer of the finest order. And on one particular, crisp October afternoon, his light shone brighter than anyone that has ever donned a Brewer’s uniform. Yovani Gallardo was a unique and special talent. One worthy of respect and admiration earned through eleven years of dedication to a team and to a city that, quite frankly, never loved him back as much as they should have.

Hey Yo…you’ll always be an ace in my book.

[1] Gallardo, like most pitchers at Miller Park suffered from an inflated home run rate due to the small park factor. XFIP (the measure of ERA in relation to a league average home run rate) shows us that Gallardo would have knocked almost an entire half-run off his ERA in most seasons by playing in an average park. Imagine what he might have done with his skill set had he been drafted by the Padres in their cavernous Petco Park.

[2] Several years ago I nicknamed Yovani, “Serial Killer Yovani Gallardo” (another one of my nicknames that have caught on with absolutely nobody else, but I digress) because of the way he slowly walked away from the mound without emotion after each strikeout. My favorite part of the NLDS Game 1 (seen in the video clip above) is when he finally breaks and gives that little emotional clap after striking out the side in the 8th.

[3] One thing I found interesting in my Fangraphs foray was Gallardo’s total abandonment of the change-up. A pitch he used the most during his two best years in ’10 and ’11. When he was really humming he mixed in his changeup effectively. Then he stopped. His fastball got a tick slower. His changeup speed went  a tick higher when he did use it. He then developed cutter and stopped the change all together. He was never as good.