Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rangers Get Gallardo

Gallardo's not good enough to survive the Texas run environment (Bases Loaded)
The Texas Rangers made their first major offseason move yesterday (seriously, it's about time), sending three players to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Yovani Gallardo. The Brewers also agreed to cover $4 million of the $14 million owed to Gallardo in 2015, the final year of a five-year extension he signed back in 2010.

Gallardo, a former All-Star, has been one of the steadiest starting pitchers in baseball over the past six years. Though walks have often limited his ability to pitch deep into games, he's made at least 30 starts and completed more than 180 innings every year dating back to 2009. Gallardo's compiled a 3.73 ERA (equivalent to his FIP) during that span, putting him in the same neighborhood as Max Scherzer (3.61), James Shields (3.62), and Dan Haren (3.80).

A very promising pitcher at the start of the decade, the hard-throwing righthander never quite became the ace he was supposed to be. He settled down as a good, if occasionally frustrating pitcher; a fine number two or three but not a number one. With 16 fWAR over the last six years, he's been the 31st most valuable starting pitcher in baseball, near the likes of Matt Cain, Ricky Nolasco, and Jake Peavy.

Gallardo, who's going to be 29 this year, will have to adjust to the American League as well as an incredibly tough park for pitchers in Texas. Such a transition would be difficult for any hurler, especially one whose strikeout rate has gone into free-fall. Since peaking at 9.9 K/9 in 2009, Gallardo's whiff rate has fallen every year since then save 2012, when it remained the same as the year before. Once an elite strikeout artist who fanned at least a batter per inning every year from 2009 through 2012, Gallardo is now below average in that department after making a more concerted effort to pitch to contact, which has resulted in his averaging just seven whiffs per nine in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In spite of his waning whiff rate, Gallardo has remained effective by become more of a ground ball pitcher in recent years, as his ground ball rate has steadily risen every year since 2010 (he added a sinker to his repertoire in 2011). Last year, for the first time in his career, more than half of the batted balls he generated were on the ground. That bodes well for him moving to Texas and a new home park that turns long fly balls into homers. He'll benefit from a superior infield defense with the Rangers, who boast Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on the left side of their infield as opposed to Aramis Ramirez and Jean Segura in Milwaukee, but will lose out on Jonathan Lucroy's magnificent pitch-framing capability.

So how will Gallardo fare in his American League debut? Not great, says Steamer. The projection system predicts continued regression in his strikeout rate and an uptick in his walk rate, which was a career-best 2.5 BB/9 last year. These developments, combined with a spike in home run rate, would likely drive his ERA and FIP over four. Steamer expects his ERA to rise to 4.61, more than a full run worse than his 3.51 mark a year ago. That seems a bit excessive to me, but I agree that his ERA is going to exceed his previous career-worst of 4.18 set two years ago.

Gallardo's just not a great pitcher any more, which makes him vulnerable to the hitter's park in Arlington and more formidable American League lineups. He's an average pitcher at best in this stage of his career, which qualifies as an improvement only because of how horrendous the Rangers' rotation was last year. Of the nine pitchers who started eight or more games, only one--Yu Darvish--had an ERA under 4.35. Texas desperately needed pitching help, and Gallardo will provide some, but his ERA probably won't be much better than that and is far more likely to be worse.

As such, Gallardo is a minor upgrade that won't make much difference for a team that lost 95 games last year. Obviously the Rangers need all the help they can get, and every little bit helps, but Gallardo's not going to move the needle much. The Rangers really need another ace to complement Darvish, and could have used a Jon Lester or a James Shields. Instead, they settled for mediocrity and got Gallardo.

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