Sean Gallagher's Slider: Why Conventional Wisdom Isn't Always Wrong

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Aren’t breaking balls fun?

Sure, the fastball is the most thrown and most important pitch in baseball, but it just isn’t too much fun to watch. Sure, it’s exhilarating to watch Stephen Strasburg or Joel Zumaya throw a heater, but consider that Strasburg’s heat only is about 30% harder than Tim Wakefield’s. The ball gets there in maybe .05 seconds less than an average fastball, which is cool to watch, but it looks possible, at least to me.

When watching Strasburg pitch, though, what really gets me is that huge low-80’s curve he throws. Making a ball move that much doesn’t look possible.

So, it’s pitches that move a tremendous amount that really provide a great watching experience for me. Watching a Strasburg or even a Barry Zito is a treat, just because you know that several times an inning, you’re going to see a baseball move like crazy.

So, I love breaking pitches. Slider, curve, whatever, they’re fun.

Thus, it often annoys me when I read “Prospect X has a slider and a curve, but he’s going to need to pick one to throw.” Luke Hochevar, Phil Hughes, and Rick Porcello are three guys who had two good breaking balls and ultimately had to settle on one, just for some examples.

Why would prospect development guys be so stuck in their ways? My natural inclination was that more pitches are better, because they give a hitter more things to worry about. Take Mike Leake of the Reds, who throws a four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, slider, curve, and changeup. None of them are that great, but they give hitters fits as a whole. Make Leake a fastball-slider-change pitcher and he wouldn’t be as good.

If you read the title of this article, you’re probably wondering by now what the hell Padres righthander Sean Gallagher has to do with this.

(If you’re reading this article on the Chicken Friars homepage, click “Continue Reading” for the rest of the entry).

Well, when I first heard of Gallagher, he was a Low-A pitcher in the Cubs organization. The book on him was that he was overweight and didn’t have much of a fastball, but that his curve was one of the best in the minors.

A year or so later, Gallagher tightened up his body and saw his velocity increase from 86-88 mph to 91-93. The increased velocity gave him a second good pitch, and Gallagher was in the bigs in short order.

In a brief 2007 cameo with the Cubs, Gallagher used the curve 28.1% of the time, which made sense, given how good of a pitch it was. It got hit around, but he was 21, a small sample, and around as effective as his fastball and changeup, so it was easy to just chalk up to a 21-year-old’s MLB growing pains.

The Cubs, looking to get Gallagher a bit more sustained success, taught him a slider the next year. By my “more pitches is better” idea, that would seem to be a good thing.

Gallagher proceeded to throw the slider and curve about equally in 2008, and he’s thrown the slider a bit more than the curve in 2009 and 2010.

Problem is, Gallagher’s slider isn’t any good. It’s been below-average every year he’s been in the majors, and is 1.18 runs below average per 100 pitches for his career. The pitch has okay velocity and horizontal sweep, but it doesn’t have very much vertical depth, so it simply isn’t that good of a pitch. It’s usable, I guess, and 1.18 runs below average per 100 pitches isn’t on the level of Wade LeBlanc’s horrific curveball or anything, but Gallagher simply shouldn’t be throwing the slider 20% of the time.

Gallagher’s curveball hasn’t been great, but it’s been better than the slider, at .43 runs below average per 100 pitches for his career, including an above-average showing in 2008.

In picking up the slider, Gallagher has essentially cut his curveball usage in half, which means he’s throwing his best pitch much less often than he should.

Gallagher’s curveball still has above-average break both horizontally and vertically, so it’s not like the pitch has atrophied. I do wonder if the time spent developing the slider wouldn’t have been better spent refining the curve further, particularly command-wise–a 71-75 mph pitch with that much movement isn’t exactly the easiest thing to command.

Gallagher is a classic counterpoint to the Mike Leake example. Having more pitches means he’s wasting more time throwing poor pitches and less time throwing plus stuff.

So, there you have it. The conventional wisdom of making young pitchers pick one breaking ball certainly has some merit, as, in many cases, the second breaking ball takes away from the development and impact of the first.

Gallagher really should go back to just being a fastball-curve-change pitcher, particularly in relief. The slider’s OK as a chase pitch to righties, maybe thrown 5% of the time, but Gallagher can’t have an inferior pitch leeching his ability to throw the good fastball, curve, and even his changeup, which has been his most effective pitch in the majors.

If a guy has two well-developed breaking pitches entering pro ball, then okay, let him throw both, like Leake. But it’s foolish to take a pitcher with an already plus breaker and add a less effective one.

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