by Tim Muma
The Brewers' issues in drafting and developing even serviceable starting pitching has been an epidemic that is plaguing the franchise year after year. It's no secret the organization has found highly skilled offensive threats the last 6-7 years, but the lack of of quality arms has suffocated the Brewers' efforts.
Of course, they have one hurler who has the tools and mental makeup to at least give the starting rotation a pulse for the next half decade - Yovani Gallardo.
No doubt the 24-year-old right-hander is a talented athlete who commands your attention when he takes the hill, but some believe he is, at best, a number two pitcher and not a true number one. While it may be accurate to hold off the 'ace' label right now, Gallardo has shown me plenty to make me believe he's on the precipice of greatness.
When he's on his game, Gallardo locates his fastball as well as anyone in baseball. Though he'll only sit in the 91-93 MPH range with his heat, Gallardo has some good late life, making the ball appear to get a bump in velocity as it reaches the dish. Thus, when he is commanding the fastball, you will see batters frozen on pitches you can't believe a hitter would take.
Gallardo then mixes in a power curveball that snaps down like a hammer, often relegating the opposition to a defenseless, awkward swing at a pitch in the dirt. He'll throw it for strikes as well, but it is most effective when he's ahead in the count and can make a hitter chase. The problem for Gallardo has been properly spotting the breaking ball, too often landing it way down and out where only a below average batter will go after it.
Therein lies Gallardo's one fatal flaw - whether mental or physical - failing to challenge hitters on a consistent basis.
Too many times the past couple of seasons, Gallardo will jump ahead 0-2 or 1-2 on a hitter and proceed to work into a full count, even walking the batter. Perhaps he's trying to make too good of a pitch instead of trusting in the game plan, believing in his stuff and firing a dart within the bat's reach. Especially this season, Gallardo has hurt himself with deep counts, too many pitches and stressful innings because he simply isn't getting outs early on hitters - via strikeout or otherwise.
Still, the Mexican-born pitcher goes through plenty of stretches of pure dominance where it's a thrill to watch him work. It's the performances like his complete game shutout against the Mets earlier this year or his outings with double-digit strikeouts (four this season, two in five inning stints) that get Milwaukee fans so fired up - and deservedly so.
Sunday against Texas, for instance, was a prime example of how good Gallardo can be, but also why he has some work to do to become a legitimate ace.
Early in the contest, Gallardo was brilliant. He had the look of a pitcher with no-hit talent that afternoon, flashing electric stuff with spot-on command. Though he would walk a couple of batters in the 2nd (again getting ahead then staying well out of the zone), Gallardo still looked like he had the capability to keep Texas hitless as he worked through three innings.
Then in the 4th something changed. He appeared to shy away from his fastball, especially early in the count. Gallardo fell behind Michael Young who banged a double to right-center. The next batter, Josh Hamilton, fell behind 1-2 on a changeup that caused him to toss his bat into the seats. Instead of going right after him with a fastball (which would have looked like 99 MPH after how badly Hamilton was fooled on the change), Gallardo threw a curve for a ball, then tried to throw another changeup, left it up and Hamilton deposited over the fence for a 2-1 Texas lead.
A decently placed fastball on 2-2 would have put Hamilton in a defensive position, most likely without a swing or a weak one at best. However, Yo threw a changeup above the knees down the middle of the plate and Hamilton, whose bat was at an 'off-speed pace,' didn't miss it.
A similar occurrence came up in the 6th with the bases loaded, two outs and the pitcher Colby Lewis up. Sure Lewis fouled off a handful of fastballs, but he wasn't going to put one in play. Gallardo out-guessed himself and tried to put him away with a couple of curves. Unfortunately, the ball stayed up, Lewis smacked the ball down the line and the Brewers' chances for victory were all but gone.
Time and again it seems Gallardo isn't sure what his strengths are and how to maximize his pitches. One hopes this comes with experience, as he is still young in terms of becoming an ace. So many people want pitchers to be dominant from day one, citing guys like Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt as examples of hurlers that came out of the gates on fire. The reality is, most pitchers take a few years to actually find their groove and become consistent on an outing-per-outing basis, showing flashes of brilliance with pockets of disappointment.
Gallardo is getting close to becoming a must-see pitcher, but he has a little ways to go. His career looks similar to that of Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies. Both have terrific poise and high-quality physical ability, but each have struggled in keeping everything together for long periods of time.
This season, Jimenez has taken the next step, going 12-1 with a 1.16 ERA, 0.971 WHIP and an opponents' OPS of just .537 (.266 OBP). Jimenez has made 96 starts in the Big Leagues with a 3.39 ERA for his young career. The one big key the last 2 seasons for Jimenez has been limiting his walks. In 2007 and 2008, Jimenez walked 4.1 and 4.7 batters per 9 innings. This season, Jimenez is giving up just 3.3 free passes per 9.
Compare that to Gallardo the last 2 seasons after missing nearly all of 2007 with an injury. Gallardo's BB/9 in '09 was 4.6 and this year rests at 4.1 - eerily similar to Jimenez in '07 and '08. His SO/9 is a full 1.00 higher than Jimenez in the past couple of years, but Gallardo hasn't been able to go as deep into games because of the walks and unnecessary pitches thrown when he doesn't challenge hitters.
Still, Gallardo's career ERA is at 3.38, one-hundredth of a point better than Jimenez (though Ubaldo pitches at Coors half the time). Really, in my mind, the only thing holding back Gallardo is a little bit of uncertainty and trust in his pitches - especially his fastball.
If Gallardo can learn to believe in his ability to get hitters out with pitches in the zone - even when ahead in the count - he will lower his walk rate, throw fewer pitches per inning, go deeper into the games, and become one of the top 5-7 pitchers in the game.
Whether it's in his head or in the game plan, the sooner Gallardo goes after guys with confidence, the sooner the Brewers' will have their legitimate Ace.
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