His Name is Gio and the Ball flies from his hand

One of the things I find to be missing from MLB compared to European sports, and even the KBO & NPB, is the lack of chants about the players coming from the stands. The word play involved in these chants have not come from Nobel laureates but generally bring a smile to my face. The title of the piece is ham-fisted attempt at a chant for a new favourite of mine, the St Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos. Full chant is at the end.

If are not a Cardinals fan, or a close follower of the NL Central, you probably not have heard Gallegos. But even if you don’t know him you probably know of the trade that landed him in St Louis. The Cardinals acquired Gallegos, as well as reliever Chasen Shreve, from the Yankees in July last year in exchange for first baseman Luke Voit.

The deal was roundly criticized in the months that followed because of Voit’s immediate success when given an opportunity in New York. But so far in 2019, Voit (416 PA) and Gallegos (57.1 IP) have the same fWAR at 1.6. Meaning the question of who did best has out of the trade has reared its head once again.

It is very hard for a reliever to get that much WAR in a full season let alone in just 75% of it. To put it in to context, for this season he has the 3rd highest fWAR for NL relievers behind only Kirby Yates (3.0) and Felipe Vazquez (1.8), and 7th overall in the MLB. Last year only 20 relievers picked up as much fWAR across the full season.

At the time of writing he has a 2.04 ERA and a 2.42 FIP which shows that although he is getting a bit of luck, his underlying numbers are solid. He has strikeout rate of 36.6% (11th best) and walk rate of 5.6% (22nd best) which gives him a KK-B rate of 31% which is 7th best.

He is striking people out and not giving up free passes, which is exactly what you want from a reliever. If we were to look at his wOBA, to include the outcomes of batted balls, he has the lowest of any pitcher with 100+ plate appearances.

Depending on your metric of choice, Gallegos has been either the best or one of the best relievers this season. Which is not what many people were expecting based on the few innings we saw from him in 2017 and 2018.

Gallegos is a basically a right handed two pitch reliever, slider and 4-seam. With a changeup as a 3rd pitch that he rarely throws.

He throws both of these over vast swathes on and off the plate, but his four seamer generally sites high and in to a right handed batter, while the slider is down and away. This two pitch combo has helped him generate a swing strike rate of 17.1%, 9th best in MLB. Topping that list is Josh Hader with 22.9%.

Statistically speaking, in 2019, Gallegos has looked a bit like a right handed version of Hader who throws his slider slightly more often, Hader only throws is 16% of the time. Below is there Statcast rankings for 2019 with Gallegos on the left and Hader on the right.

If you ignore fastball spin these match up very closely, they are both generating lots of strikeouts but when the batter hits the ball they are giving up hard hits. Gallegos’ hard hit profile isn’t as bad as Hader but it is below average. What is interesting is that it isn’t showing up numbers on batted balls for Gallegos the way it is for Hader.

Gallegos’ expected wOBA on contact is .368 and Hader’s is .441 but their actual wOBAs are .294 and .486 respectively. The league average is .374 xwOBA and .388 wOBA. One of the differences here is Hader is taking a lot of damage on the first pitch.

On the first pitch of an at bat, Gallegos throws it down the heart of the plate 26.4% (55 times so far) of the time and Hader 27.4% (60 times). Against those pitches batters facing Hader swung 72% of the time and against just Gallegos 46%. Hader generates a higher number of whiffs (25% to 2%) but they both have had 9 balls put in play on these pitches, Gallegos has given up 2 doubles but Hader has given up 4 home runs and a single.

Gallegos had been able to pound the strike zone with the first pitch like Hader but had managed not to give up the same type of contact as Hader. The reason for that being 95% of Hader’s pitches were fastballs and for Gallegos it was 53%. His almost 50/50 mix of his slider has kept the hitters off balance and not allowed the all or nothing approach the hitters are applying to Hader.

This approach to the first pitch has meant that Gio has gotten a first pitch strike 68.5% of the time and has rode that to great success. 48% of his battles end on pitchers count and 22% end on a hitters count. These are the highest and lowest values for any relief pitch who has faced 100+ batters.

The Cardinals have been smart with Gallegos as well. In the first half of the season he was pitching in low leverage scenarios (0.56 pLI, where 1 is average), he was the 6th lowest out 7 qualified Cardinals relievers for average leverage. In the second half he has been pitching in much higher leverage moments, 1.36 pLI, which is only below Andrew Miller and Carlos Martinez for the Cardinals in the second half.

He did give up a run in his last performance on but that was only 9th time in 48 games he has done so. Based of his continued great performance I could see the Cardinals pushing him into even higher leverage moments and maybe even the closer role.

Gio is getting a bit of luck, you can see that in the difference in his ERA and FIP as well as wOBA and xwOBA, but even without he is one of the best relievers this season. Unless teams can stop him getting ahead in the count they are going to struggle against him.

All that is left if for me to ask, Cardinals fans can you please starting singing the following to the chorus of Rio by Duran Duran.

His name is Gio and the ball flies from his hand
He’s thrown a slider, you don’t know where it will land
You’re thinking fastball, so you swing as hard you can
Oh Gio, Gio struck you out cos he’s the man.

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