Is Zac Gallen truly having a bad season?
By Jake Oliver
Is Zac Gallen truly having a bad season or are there reasons for it?
Zac Gallen is going through the worst season of his professional career. He’s been injured multiple times, had a massive win-less streak, and his bottom-line stats paint a dismal picture. However, aside from the injuries, is Gallen truly having a bad season? Is he still our future ace?
First, let’s begin with Gallen’s injuries this season. No doubt they have influenced his season. Back in March, before the season, Gallen was taking batting practice and somehow suffered a stress fracture in his right forearm. It sounded rather ominous.
Thankfully, Gallen was back pitching in the MLB on April 13th, only 20 or so days after he got injured. It was rather miraculous that he was able to be back so soon. As a Diamondbacks fan, I was truly worried that Zac might’ve come back too soon.
Those fears were eased as he made every start from April 13th to May 7th. He had put up the pitching numbers that fans had come to expect from the quiet pitcher. In the 5 starts in that span, he had a 1-1 record, 26.2 innings, 9 ERs, 14 walks, and 32 K’s. His ERA was at a great 3.04. All signs were pointing to Gallen being healthy, effective, and the Gallen of old.
Unfortunately, on the day of his next start against the Miami Marlins, Gallen was placed on the 10-Day IL with a minor UCL sprain in his right elbow. That was a scary moment for all fans as it’s easy to assume the worst when you hear of a strain in a pitcher’s elbow. Typically, those words lead into the words “Tommy John Surgery”.
Thankfully, it was found to be quite minor of a strain. Rest and rehab helped heal Gallen’s elbow. He was out for just over a month until June 17th. Diamondbacks fans’ breathed a sigh of relief.
He made every start from June 17th to July 2nd. That was a span of 4 starts and they were brutal. He looked nothing like the pitcher that was dominant in 2019-2020. During these 4 starts, he went 0-3, 14.1 innings (avg of 4.2 innings per start), 10 ERs, 7 walks, 17 K’s, and a miserable 6.28 ERA. It felt that it was clear Gallen was pitching injured. If not injured, then something was wrong with his mechanics due to the elbow strain.
During the July 2nd game, Gallen injured his hamstring while pitching. It was a mild, grade-one hamstring strain that did not affect Gallen for long. Or at least as far we know. He went back onto the 10-Day IL until he returned July 17th.
Since then, he’s made every single start on time. He’s gone 2-6, 44.1 innings (avg of 5.2 innings per start), 16 walks, 53 K’s, and a much better 4.47 ERA. While it’s not up to the standards that he had set from 2019 until May 12th of this season, it’s way better than his 4 starts in between injuries.
Was it just the injuries? Are there stats that back up Zac Gallen’s pitching?
Here’s where it gets much more complicated. Gallen’s pitching is not close to the same that we grew accustomed to. However, it’s not all entirely his fault as to how bad his bottom-line stats are. His ERA+ (100 is league avg) is 98. That’s the lowest in his career by a full 59 points. Additionally, his FIP (a better representative stat of how a pitcher is truly pitching, replaces ERA) is 4.38. Once again, that’s the worst in his career by 0.72 points. His overall ERA for the season is 4.32. This means that he deserves the ERA he currently has.
Or does he? He’s not walking more batters than before. In fact, his walk rate per 9 is 3.9, lower than his rookie year’s 4.1. Neither is his strikeout rate the lowest in his career. In fact, his K/9 rate this year, 10.8, is equal to the highest mark in his career, 2019.
If he’s not walking batters more frequently or striking out fewer batters, what’s making his FIP go up. His hit rate and HR rate per 9 innings are both career worsts. Per 9 innings, he’s giving up an average of 7.9 hits. That’s his highest rate by .9 (2019-7.0). That’s a huge increase. Meanwhile, his HR rate is 1.5, 4 points higher than his next highest in 2020,1.1. That’s a rather large jump and explains why more runs are being scored on him. He’s on track to give up more HRs this year than in his previous two seasons combined.
Is Gallen getting unlucky with players hitting the ball where the defense isn’t? Well, if you include the unearned runs (runs scored due to errors by the defense) with the earned runs Gallen has given up, he has allowed a rate of 4.64 runs per 9 innings. That’s 1.64 runs worse than his previous high of 3.00. Yes, his earned runs are higher but that’s not the only thing affecting his pitching performance.
If we use the runs per 9 innings of defense, or how many runs is the defense taking away per 9 innings, Gallen’s is by far a career-worst. For reference, 0.0 is league average meaning the defense isn’t causing runs to score or doing a good job of preventing them. In 2019, Gallen’s rate was 0.60. That means the Defense was preventing nearly a run a game from scoring. Then, in 2020, it fell to 0.03. While that’s much worst, it’s still above-average. On the other hand, if we look at 2021, the rate is -0.09. That’s not only a career-worst but also decidedly below-average. The Defense is causing Gallen to give up an extra run per 9 innings than he should be.
This is made even more clear when you look at BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) for Zac Gallen. Gallen’s BABIP allowed is a career-high but not by much. It’s very much in the same area as his other years. In 2019, it was .284, 2020- .269, and 2021’s .288. It’s not much higher at all. Therefore, we can’t blame bad luck on where the batters hitting the ball.
We can say that hitters are squaring the ball up more. This is most likely due to Gallen leaving pitches in the middle of the zone and him having to pitch more to get the “fourth” out in the inning. Hitters are slugging .418 against Gallen. Whereas in 2019 and 2020, the slugging was .355 and .336 respectively.
All of this can definitely contribute to Gallen’s rising ERA and FIP. Gallen’s having to pitch longer innings and have a larger chance of a mistake pitch. Also, that means he can’t pitch deeper into games since he’s using more energy and pitches per inning.
Zac Gallen’s throwing fewer strikes and fewer swinging strikes than ever before. His strike % is 61.9%. The lowest in his career by .9%. He’s inducing the fewest swings and misses by 3% (17.8% to 20.8%). That can definitely explain why batters are making more contact. He’s not tricking them.
He’s not tricking them because he’s not getting the first-pitch strike like he used to. In 2019, he threw a first-pitch strike 67.2% of the time. Then in 2020, he threw it 64.7% of the time. Now, in 2021, it’s only 59.6% of the time! That’s close to an 8% decrease. He’s falling behind in the counts which means the hitter can sit on the fastball down the middle he has to throw to get back into the count. No wonder batters are making contact on a career-worst 74.8% of his pitches in the strike zone. For reference, that’s 5% more than 2020.
Since Zac’s been falling behind in counts and hitters can sit for their pitch, his hard-hit percentage has gone way up. In 2020, it was 33.1%. Meanwhile, this season so far has produced a 40.7% hard-hit rate. Louder and harder contact can help explain why his HR rate is so bad compared to his career.
Is Zac Gallen even unluckier than his defense costing him runs and Gallen not making the pitches he needs to?
As we have seen, Zac’s been a product of his own struggles and his defense. He’s having to pitch more per inning but not more innings. He’s only averaging 5.0 innings per start. That’s the worst of his career. In 2019, it was 5.3. Last year was 6.0. Yet, it’s not like he’s throwing fewer pitches per game. The average pitch count per start in 2019 was 92, 2020 was 93, and this year is 87. He’s throwing fewer pitches per game this year barely. Or is he?
If we take out the two games of the season that Zac’s been unable to pitch into the 4th inning or later, his average pitches per game rise to 91.2 pitches per game. That’s really close to where he was for the past two seasons. Those two games that were taken out were his first game back the elbow strain and the game he hurt his hamstring in. Additionally, 13/17 of his starts has ended What with his pitch count above 80.
So his stamina is fine. Yet, since he’s pitching fewer innings, more strain has been added to a deplorable bullpen. Instead of them needing to only pitch 2-3 innings during a Zac Gallen start, they are having to pitch 3-4. That’s a risky proposition for a bullpen that ranks near the bottom of the MLB in nearly every category.
In 17 starts by Zac Gallen, 8 of them have resulted in a no-decision for him. This means that Zac left the game when the team was ahead, tied, or losing but at some point after he departed the game, the score was tied. So, let’s dig deeper.
He’s only been fortunate to win a game once due to the offense bailing out Zac’s start. Yet, the offense is scoring more per his start than ever before (3.9 in 2021 to 2.8 in 2020). Thus, what gives? Well, the bullpen gives. They have cost Zac Gallen a whopping 5 wins. Zac had departed the game with him in a position to win the game. All the bullpen had to do was finish the game and not give up the tie or win. Instead, the bullpen gave up the win/lead 5 times. Those 5 times are more than his entire career with the Diamondbacks (in 2 years-4 times). The season isn’t even over yet for Gallen.
On the other hand, the bullpen has only saved a loss once for the Milkman. This helps explain why Gallen has 8 no-decisions and only 2 wins. He should have 7 wins instead of the 2 he has currently. In total, the team is 4-13 in games that Zac pitches in. That’s atrocious.
What to expect from Zac Gallen moving forward?
I still have faith in Gallen and you should too. If we were to take away his atrocious month of games in-between injuries, Gallen’s stat line is 4-9 (team record), 2-4 (Gallen’s record), 71 IP,31 ERs, 30 BB, 85K’s, 3.75 ERA, .269 BABIP, .207 BAA, and a .353 SLG percentage. The slugging percentage is a bit high. Yet, those stats are so much better. They reside rather well when compared to his 2019 and 2020 seasons.
If we take the stat-line of the combined 2019-20 season- 6-8, 152 IP, 47 ERs, 61 BB, 178 K, 2.78 ERA, .277 BABIP, .211 BAA, and .346 SLG%. The two lines aren’t horribly different. Obviously, if you take into account the difference in start numbers, 27 in 2019-20, 17 in 2021, you can understand why not all the numbers are in the same area.
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This gives a lot of confidence to my belief that Zac Gallen will get back to pitching exactly how we expect of him. He’s an ACE pitcher. He’s struggled with injuries this year as have countless other players. This doesn’t mean that he will continue to struggle. He just needs to finish the season continuing to pitch the way he is currently and stay healthy.
That way he can have a healthy and proper offseason. Then, he can go into Spring Training ready and rearing to have the best year yet. Have faith in Zac. I fully believe we haven’t seen the best of him yet. Special thanks to Baseball-Reference for the help with the statistics.
May the Force be with You…