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Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Scary Breakdown Only Halfway Home

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Sunday began so brightly for the Brewers. First they learned they had three National League All-Stars in Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo. Then they sent Gallardo, their ace, to the mound in St. Louis with a chance to win a key four-game series. Then things changed. Gallardo wasn't sharp and was victimized by bad fielding, but worst of all he left in the third inning with a muscle strain in his left side—the kind of injury that can linger for weeks.

So the Brewers passed the season's halfway point eight games under .500 (37-45), well behind Cincinnati and the Cardinals, and fearful of how long their best pitcher might be out. Not a pleasant backdrop for the Observers' confab.

Frank: The team didn’t put Gallardo on the disabled list right away, but he's shut down at least until after next week's All-Star Game—where he'll be a spectator.

Artie: Already a sub-.500 team, and now they're missing their best pitcher? We could be looking at 90 losses now. But hey, Doug Davis is coming back Friday, so they've got it covered.

Frank: Even with Gallardo this team has been a puzzle. They got through that 12-game stretch against winning teams—Texas, Anaheim, Colorado and Minnesota—at 7-5. But in the next two series, against lowly Seattle and Houston, they only went 3-3 at home. And Sunday's loss meant a split in St. Louis, so they're just treading water.

Artie: To play that clinker against Houston last Wednesday and lose that series—really bad. My theory is that the fellas were out too late at Summerfest the night before. They don't seem to have any sense of urgency.

Frank: Who knows if Gallardo's high pitch counts over the season had anything to do with his injury, but he was hurt on his 59th pitch in only 2 2/3 innings.

Artie: He was at about 30 for his last inning, and that's a lot of strain in a short time.

Frank: We were working on this week's chart even before the injury, and it shows that compared to other top guys he throws more pitches per batter and therefore per inning. Through Sunday, Gallardo was second in the league in strikeouts (122) but also third in walks (48). Yeah, he should have been out of that third inning easily, but he also hurt himself by walking the No. 8 hitter with the bases loaded.

Artie: Several times this year Ken Macha has lifted Gallardo when he was still effective because he was up over 100 pitches through six innings. If you're making an "extra" three or four pitches per inning, over a 200-inning season—well, do the math. It's as if you've made several extra starts.

Frank: They say, "Throw strikes," and there's a reason. Do it and you'll throw fewer pitches. Just look at our chart and compare Gallardo and Cliff Lee, whose walks-to-strikeouts ratio is amazing.

Artie: Hey, Lee got one of those "oblique" muscle strains in spring training, ain'a? And he didn't make his first start until April 30. They've gotta be super-cautious with Gallardo. But remember, Doug Davis is coming back.

Frank: I charted Gallardo's pitches in his last two starts at home, the shutout of Minnesota and against Houston. With the Twins he was very efficient—12 strikeouts and no walks, going to three balls on only three batters and having only one inning with as many as 20 pitches. As a result he went nine innings with 122 pitches, or 13.5 per frame. And against Houston he was cruising through four, but then had a 32-pitch fifth.

Artie: Suppan-esque.

Frank: He went to three balls on two batters in that inning, walking one. And mostly because of that inning, he was at 109 pitches through six—18 per inning—and done.

Artie: You can see why they'd be concerned for Gallardo, who's only 24. Everyone knows about Kerry Wood and Mark Prior flaming out with injuries. And there have always been guys who were terrific when they were 23, 24, but within a few years were floundering or out of baseball.

Frank: We geezers are fond of saying, "In the old days guys took the ball every fourth day and pitched till they dropped." And yes, some of them did. But not all of them, by a long shot.

Artie: I'm thinking of guys like Dean Chance, Jim O'Toole, Jim Maloney, Andy Messersmith—they faded after multiple years where they pitched 250, 270, even 300 innings! And Sandy Koufax quit at 31 after throwing six hundred and fifty-eight innings in his last two seasons!

Frank: He left at the top, statistically, because his elbow was a wreck and he wanted to be able to use his left arm for another few decades. You can say that with modern medicine some of those guys would have gotten repaired and returned to top form. But it's better to not have a breakdown in the first place.

Artie: Then there's simply the money they've invested in Gallardo—$30 million over five years. Not quite Suppan-esque, but not chump change.

Frank: This week of home games is make-or-break for the Brewers. They've got to conquer San Francisco's pitching over four games and manhandle the Pirates or it'll be a bleak All-Star break.

Artie: With the prospect that they'll definitely be sellers, not buyers, before the trading deadline at the end of the month. When Corey Hart plays the Giants he could be seeing the uniform he'll be wearing soon. He'll never be a hotter commodity than he is right now. What's his contract status anyway?

Frank: He got $4.8 million for this year in arbitration and he has one more season before free agency. So if he's here next winter it'll be "long-term deal or lame-duck status," just like Prince Fielder.

Artie: But forget the gloom. We can all rest easy ’cause Doug Davis is coming back, ain’a?

Frank: Of course we're glad Davis is free of that infection in his heart lining, but his return to the rotation might be just what they don't need. They sure can't afford anything like the 7.56 ERA he was carrying.

Artie: If he struggles in his first two or three outings, I'll bet they usher him to the Jeff Suppan Memorial Chair in the bullpen.

Bucks Stay Gooden Active

Frank: It's starting to look like the Bucks are gonna have a 20-man roster! And every one of them a useful player.

Artie: The Drew Gooden signing is very, very good. He's an above-average rebounder, plays defense and runs the floor decently. He's a good match with Andrew Bogut.

Frank: Even though the Bucks will be his ninth team in nine seasons?

Artie: That's because he's been that one guy on all these teams who has an affordable contract, by NBA standards. So he's been that movable piece for trading.

Frank: Now he's got a sizable contract—five years, $32 million. And now that they've made a five-year, $40 million deal with John Salmons, plus the $30-some million that Corey Maggette is owed over three years—yikes, does Sen. Kohl have enough money?

Artie: The NBA salary cap is so byzantine that it's hard to tell how much counts under it for any given season. They dropped more than $10 million getting rid of Dan Gadzuric and Charlie Bell, and a year from now they'll be clear of the $18 million they owe Michael Redd for next season.

Frank: Redd, coming off consecutive knee surgeries, is a big question mark. And there's this—in any NBA game there are only 240 minutes of playing time per team. There are gonna be big decisions for Scott Skiles! We'll get into some of that next week.