The 10 Brewers Critical to 2011 Success: #2, Yovani Gallardo

In the time leading up to the start of spring training, I’ve decided to make a countdown of the 10 Brewers that I believe are most critical to their success in the 2011 season. It continues today with number 2.

If there is one thing that the Milwaukee Brewers know after their unsuccessful campaigns of 2009 and 2010, it is that without great pitching, you will never win a championship. On a night when a championship celebration is happening throughout Wisconsin, the Brewers are quietly hoping that their retooled pitching staff, combined with their high powered offense, can bring championship glory to another Wisconsin team come November. Yovani Gallardo has been a very good pitcher for Milwaukee over the last four years, and many people think he is on the cusp of being a dominant pitcher. If he can do that in 2011, then the Brewers will have a legitimate shot at bringing home a second Wisconsin championship.

In 2010, the Brewers finished fourth out of 16 NL teams in runs scored. They were second in home runs, and finished in the top five in hits, doubles, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. In 2009, they were third in runs and home runs, and again finished in the top 5 in hits, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. Over those two seasons, Milwaukee finished with a record of 157-167, finishing third in the central both years and well out of the wild card race. Compare that to the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who finished outside of the top 5 in the NL in every one of the offensive categories mentioned above.

The difference is obvious – Milwaukee finished 14th out of 16 in team ERA in 2010 and 15th in 2009. The Giants were first. It’s been a thought for awhile that if the Brewers could field even an average pitching staff, they could contend for a title. This offseason, Doug Melvin went after a new pitching staff with shocking aggressiveness, acquiring two top-of-the-rotation starters in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum (while losing essentially all of his top prospects).

We aren’t here to talk about the new guys, though. The one bright spot in the Brewers’ starting rotation since Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia departed after Milwaukee’s 2008 Wild Card berth (which, of course, was achieved almost entirely on the strength of Sabathia’s left arm) has been the young Texan Yovani Gallardo. In fact, I think many of us often forget how young Gallardo really is – he is still just 24 years old, and will turn 25 at the end of this month. He debuted in 2007 at age 21, and went 9-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 17 starts. After missing almost all of 2008 with a freak knee injury, Gallardo came back strong in 2009, going 13-12 with a 3.73 ERA (110 ERA+) and 204 strikeouts (with an outstanding 9.9 K/9 rate). In 2010 he finished 14-7 with a 3.84 ERA and recorded 200 strikeouts, the second year in a row he reached that benchmark. His K rate held fairly steady at 9.7 per 9, and he cut his walk rate from 4.6/9 in 2009 to 3.6 in 2010. His very good peripherals in 2010 lead to a 3.02 FIP, almost a full run below his actual ERA.

Gallardo has shown an ability to be an overpowering strikeout pitcher at times, but it also means he throws a lot of pitches. He has also shown a tendency to walk a lot of batters, as evidenced by the aforementioned walk rates – especially that 4.6 BB/9 in 2009. The extra pitches mean Gallardo doesn’t usually pitch particularly deep into games – he owns just three complete games in 82 career starts. If Gallardo can cut down the walk rate even further, lower his WHIP, which was above 1.3 in each of his two full seasons, and end up pitching through the seventh inning a little more often, we could see a radical jump in Gallardo’s production and value to the team, which could lead to a significant jump in his win total.

Let’s also remember that Gallardo is a fantastic hitter – in fact, the best hitting pitcher in the league, as he was awarded a silver slugger last year. At the plate in 2010, Gallardo had a superb .254/.329/.508 line with four homers and ten runs batted in. I know the sample size is small, but Gallardo’s OPS in 2010 was beaten on the Brewers only by Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Jim Edmonds. Not too shabby for an all-star pitcher.

As far as projections go, Bill James predicts the 2011 version of Gallardo will go 12-9 with a 3.60 ERA, 207 strikeouts (9.8/9), and 3.8 BB/9. Essentially, James doesn’t think that Gallardo is going to get any better. Personally, I think a 25 year old pitcher who will no longer be under the pressure of being the staff ace is due for a jump in production. Perhaps a serious one. If Gallardo can get his BB/9 under 3, and keep his pitch count down, I would have no problems predicting 16-18 wins and an ERA in the 3.10-3.30 range, with another 200 strikeout season highly probable.

The Brewers have, in recent years, been pretty awful at developing major league pitching talent, but Gallardo is a serious exception – one that I believe has the potential to not only bring a Cy Young award to Milwaukee, but maybe a championship to the team that resides a couple hours down U.S. Highway 41 from Green Bay. For now, party on, Wisconsin – and start getting excited. Pitchers and catchers report in less than two weeks.

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