Milwaukee Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo isn’t a household name—not yet anyway.

The young righty and his electric stuff are no stranger to most baseball fans and fantasy baseball owners, and at 25 years old, Gallardo will enter 2011 with over 500 innings under his belt and a career ERA of 3.67.

Given his youth and talent, improvement would seem likely. Still, baseball fans can’t help but feel like they are still waiting for Gallardo to truly breakout.

After bursting onto the scene in 2007, along with fellow rookie Tim Lincecum, Gallardo’s progress was stalled by an injury that wiped out his 2008 season. He came back strong in 2009 with a 204 strikeouts and a 3.73 ERA, and 2010 looked for a while like the breakout year we’ve been waiting for.

Yet Gallardo finished the year with 185 innings and a 3.87 ERA; if anything, it was a step back from his 2007 and 2009 seasons. Gallardo averaged fewer than six innings a start, and despite starting the season with a 2.58 ERA in the first half, struggled down the stretch with an ERA of 5.77.

What should we make of Gallardo? Why has he yet to take the “next step” after four seasons in Major League Baseball?

The answer, as far as I can tell, is that he has. The 2010 season was an improvement over 2009. A bit of bad luck obscured this step forward, but Gallardo’s progress in his age was very real and bodes well for his future success.

The most significant improvement Gallardo made last season was in his ability to limit walks. While his WHIP rose from 1.31 to 1.37, his walk rate declined from 4.56 to 3.65. So Gallardo was throwing more strikes and trading walks for hits, right? Not exactly.

Gallardo actually threw fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2010 than he did in 2009. He struck out as many batters and his walk rate declined. What accounts for this? How can a pitcher who throws fewer strikes also walk fewer batters? This could be dumb luck, but more than likely, this is simply Gallardo learning how better to command the strike zone.

In 2009, he threw a first pitch strike 52.6 percent of the time, which is well bellow league average. This past season that number jumped to 61.8 percent of the time, or three points above the league average.

What this means is that Gallardo was getting ahead in counts more often. While he still threw plenty of pitches outside the strike zone, he distributed these pitches more strategically and limited his walks. Furthermore, batters were swinging at these pitches more often than in previous years.

So if Gallardo was throwing more pitches outside the strike zone, why did he give up more hits? T

o put it simply, he got unlucky. While his strikeout rate and swinging strike rate indicate his stuff is about as good as it’s been in the past, batters made more contact on pitches outside the zone. This led to a few more hits, a few less strikeouts and walks.

The net effect obviously hurt Gallardo. And beyond that, on balls in play, batters hit .340, about 40 points above the league average in 2010. Adjust this number to the league average level of .302, and Gallardo’s 2010 WHIP would have been 11 points lower. Because of this high batting average on balls in play, Gallardo stranded only about 70 percent of the runners he allowed on base, a little low for any pitchers, and especially low for a guy who strikes out 10 per nine innings.

If we look at his 2010 season on the whole, it’s clear that Gallardo improved his command of the strike zone, throwing a significantly higher number of first pitch strikes and walking fewer batters. While the results don’t quite indicate the leap forward that his underlying numbers do, this is easily explained by a poor BABIP—something that should correct itself going forward.

But what about his second half slip up? Why did his ERA rise so significantly in the back of 2010?

Again, this is an issue of luck. Gallardo’s ERA and FIP by month:

While Gallardo’s FIP—a better measure of true pitching ability that filters out luck and defensive noise—fluctuated by only about a run over the course of the season, Gallardo’s ERA skyrocket for a couple of months, ruining his season numbers and leading many to overlook a true breakout year.

Why? Because of an unlucky BABIP. In July, a month in which he posted a 2.64 FIP and 4.78 ERA in three starts, his BABIP was .477. In August, a month in which he posted a 3.52 FIP and 7.75 ERA in six starts, his BABIP was .400.

At 25 and with his stuff, no one is writing off a potential breakout. What people don’t realize is that the first big step has already been taken. Gallardo’s 3.02 FIP last season ranked fifth in the National League, just 0.01 points above that of Roy Halladay, the likely Cy Young winner. Don’t be surprised if, come 2011, Gallardo is contending for that very same award.

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