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Can Zac Gallen’s Strong Start be Trusted?

Now is a great time to be a Gallen Gal.

A core part of the Pitcher List community is the fan clubs for niche pitchers we want to see succeed. Whether that’s (Shane) McClanaFans, (Matthew) Boyd Boys, or (Zac) Gallen Gals, there are strong feelings for these cult heroes.

The hype around Gallen in 2021 failed to come to fruition, leaving many Gallen Gals disappointed with a 4.30 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 121.1 IP. The start of 2022 has been quite the opposite for Gallen, who currently holds a 0.95 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 28.1 IP. He’s cruised through his first five starts and is finally starting to look like the pitcher we thought he could be.

While the sub-1.00 ERA is unlikely to stand throughout the rest of the season, Gallen is doing what it takes to remain a top pitcher across all of 2022. He is slowly ramping up to 100% in front of our eyes and performing well as he does it. His first start was just 4.0 IP and he has gone further into the game in each successive appearance. Last Sunday, Gallen went a strong 7 shutout IP with 0 runs, 0 walks, 5 hits, and 7 strikeouts. The repertoire is looking promising and it seems as if Gallen has arrived.

 

Fastball

 

Gallen’s bread and butter is his four-seam fastball, which is now up a tick from 93.4mph last year to 94.4mph so far this year. While 94.4mph is not an overpowering velocity, he is trying to do everything with the pitch and it is working. His 53.6% fastball usage ranks 20th highest out of qualified starters despite being at a league-average velocity. The biggest change in the fastball is that it’s located better than in previous seasons and Gallen is reaping those rewards.

 

He is staying away from the middle of the plate and showing a strong ability to live on the black. He locates the fastball away to both lefties and righties but occasionally throws inside to righties on two strikes. Even as he moves out of the middle of the zone, the fastball has a similar zone percentage to last year (66.1% and 65.2%, respectively). This is a clear development in command of the pitch, as it’s placed in better parts of the zone while remaining a strike pitch.

The better location means that hitters are going to chase the pitch out of the zone more often as well as see a decrease in the quality of contact. The lack of change in SwStr% indicates that Gallen is not necessarily getting new swings and misses, but rather different swings and misses. Per Baseball Savant, the -6 run value ranks as the 11th best four-seam in all of baseball, an encouraging number for how much Gallen relies on it.

 

Curveball

 

Gallen goes to his curveball and changeup very similarly (as of writing this, he’s thrown 67 curveballs and 67 changeups), but primarily uses the curveball as a two-strike pitch. When it’s working, the curveball is Gallen’s best breaking ball. He’s previously shown the ability to use the curveball as an elite swing-and-miss pitch but has yet to fully develop it in 2022.

In his four years of pitching at the Major League level, the pitch has been all over the place in terms of performance.

Gallen is getting fewer swinging strikes and fewer chases on the curveball so far this year, but that is not entirely a bad thing. The 34.1% O-Swing% ranks 29th among starters’ curveballs this year and can only improve from there. Gallen has also appeared to find a middle ground on throwing it for strikes between 2021 and his first two seasons. He’s throwing the curveball for fewer strikes now than in 2021 but is getting a similar amount of called strikes as he did in 2019/2020.

The success of the curveball can partly be attributed to how effective the fastball has been, as Gallen can now be pickier with how he uses the pitch, especially in two-strike counts. Hitters are struggling to do anything with it when they make contact. The curveball has a .077 AVG against and a 14.3% HardContact% is the 14th best in all of baseball.

 

Changeup

 

Gallen primarily goes to his changeup in one-strike counts as a way to play off of the fastball, but it has yet to fully assume form in his first five starts. The pitch can be lethal when used correctly, like this beautifully executed pitch to Pete Alonso.

The problem is that Gallen is still learning how to use the pitch. There is a large variability in the velocity of the pitch and that affects performance. When the changeup is thrown between 81-84mph, it has a .148 AVG against and a .215 wOBA. When it’s thrown between 85-89mph, it has a .211 AVG against and .276 wOBA. The numbers on the changeup have been good because this used to be Gallen’s go-to pitch earlier in his career. It disappeared in 2021 and seemingly has yet to come back in 2022. Although it is a small sample size, the changeup has a .357 AVG against this year and is the only secondary offering to have more than one hit against it.

One of the main causes for the shortcomings of the changeup recently might be the increase in velocity. Despite gaining an inch of drop this year, he’s throwing the pitch a tick harder at 86.3mph compared to 85mph when he debuted in 2019. This indicates that he is having more instances of throwing the changeup harder, as he’s still showing that slower version at 81-84mph this year.

Given time, Gallen will find success once again with the changeup. He’s changed a lot as a pitcher over the last few years with pitch mixes and health while always having the changeup to rely on, but now it is time for him to take that next step with the changeup as he has with his other pitches.

 

Cutter/Slider

 

The cutter has been all over the place through Gallen’s time in the big leagues. While Statcast considered it a cutter, Gallen himself said that it was originally a slider. He’s thrown the pitch all four years in the Majors, but there was a schism and now Gallen splits the pitch into a distinct slider and cutter.

While both were downright awful last year (.492 wOBA against the cutter, .429 wOBA against the slider), Gallen has shown how he can effectively use both pitches. He adjusted the movement on the cutter, making it harder to notice the difference between the two. The cutter went from having 22.8 inches of drop and 3.2 inches of break in 2021 to 26.9 inches of drop and 5.3 inches of break in 2022.

Here’s the flatter 2021 cutter:

And here’s the 2022 cutter:

The extra movement makes it harder to track when it looks similar to the slider, which he throws low while the cutter is used in the zone.

By throwing both of them arm-side, he is able to tunnel them such that hitters will chase the slider in the dirt after seeing the cutter. Gallen almost exclusively uses the slider in 0-2 and 1-2 counts trying to get whiffs. It has an exceptionally low zone rate of 33.3% as it plays off of the cutter, but yields an impressive 41.7% O-Swing%.

Gallen is only throwing these pitches 15% of the time in total, but they are getting massive results. The cutter has a .144 wOBA against and the slider has a .000 wOBA against. This combination is lethal when used hand-in-hand as it’s an entire subcategory to Gallen’s arsenal. Usually, pitchers will throw a cutter/slider combination as their two main pitches, but Gallen is able to intermix the two in advantageous counts.

 

Rest of the Season

 

We all want Gallen to continue to be as good as he’s been, but sadly that’s just unlikely. Regression will eventually come, but Gallen will remain a top arm through it. His 3.63 xFIP and 3.17 SIERA are far from his actual 0.95 ERA, mostly because Gallen has yet to give up a home run. The dead ball is letting Gallen pound the zone and force hitters to do damage against him, which they have yet to show. He has a minuscule 3.7% BB% and his 20.4% K-BB% is a top-25 figure in baseball right now.

He is currently allowing more flyballs than ever with a 43.2% flyball rate. While that flyball rate is concerning, it can be negated by a 10.8% line-drive rate, the 4th best figure in baseball. Gallen has simply improved on getting weak contact and the lackluster batted ball data is not solely luck. The home runs will come eventually, but not in a seriously damaging way.

If he’s able to mitigate the eventual BABIP luck by strengthening his curveball and changeup, Gallen is fully capable of being a top-20 starting pitcher in baseball. There are clear signs of development with all of his pitches and he’s taken a step forward in each of his starts in 2022.

The sky is the limit for Gallen and all of the Gallen Gals should be amped up about his start to the season.

 

Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Nate Schwartz

Nate is currently a senior at George Washington University and is writing for the Going Deep team at Pitcher List. He is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and devil magic supporter despite being from the Chicago area. You can follow him on Twitter @_nateschwartz where he may or may not be tweeting.

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