The title of this article is not very surprising. Cardinals fans who have watched Giovanny Gallegos pitch know that he is clearly an elite reliever, and he has been since 2019. He has filled a variety of roles for the St. Louis Cardinals, but he has stepped into the closer role during the win streak, and he has helped secure game after game for the team.
In 2021, Gallegos has compiled 2.2 fWAR in 78 1⁄3 innings. This makes him the fifth most valuable reliever this season, in terms of fWAR. He is also just one of nine relievers with 2.0 fWAR or more. It is uncommon for the Cardinals to have such a valuable reliever. The team had one reliever worth 2.0 fWAR or more in each season from 2013 through 2016; however, prior to that, the Redbirds had not had such a reliever since Jason Isringhausen in 2002.
Gallegos’ ability to pitch in high leverage spots, pitch often, and throw multiple innings when necessary has allowed him to be a weapon out of Mike Shildt’s bullpen. The 30-year-old currently ranks second in the majors in innings pitched by a reliever with 78 1/3, and with the way the Cardinals are playing right now, he may get the opportunity to push ahead of Chad Green (80 2⁄3 innings pitched).
Gallegos has not just been one of the best relievers in baseball this season. Since 2019, Gallegos has been the fourth most valuable reliever in the majors with 4.3 fWAR. This places him behind only Liam Hendricks (7.6 fWAR), Josh Hader (4.9 fWAR), and Ryan Pressly (4.6 fWAR). This more than justifies trading Luke Voit in order to acquire him. In the same time frame, Voit has been worth 4.0 fWAR. This excludes his 2018 season when he was worth 1.9 fWAR in just 39 games with the Yankees after being traded. Part of the reason that Voit has been less valuable in terms of fWAR is injury. However, he has made almost 1000 plate appearances since 2019, while Gallegos has thrown 167 1⁄3 innings. That is less than one full year for a starting pitcher, or close to it, while 1000 plate appearances is just over a year and a half for a regular and healthy starting first baseman.
The fact that the Cardinals had a productive Matt Carpenter in front of Voit and then acquired Paul Goldschmidt later also makes this trade more acceptable. The Cardinals traded from a position of strength (or a position that would become strong) in order to acquire one of the best relievers in baseball for the past three seasons.
Gallegos has proven his value to the team this year as he was one of the lone bright spots in the pitching staff for much of this season, and he was the best reliever on a team that had just three reliable relievers for much of the year.
Gallegos has dominated in a slightly different way this season - by throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone. Just 46.5% of the right-hander’s pitches have been in the strike zone. This is below the league average of 48.5%, and it is also below his 49.2% rate in 2019 and 49.8% rate in 2020. Despite this, he has actually walked batters as a lesser rate than he did in 2020, and his 6.6% rate is not much higher than his 5.7% rate in 2019. Gallegos can get away with throwing so few pitches in the zone because he generates a chase rate of 34.2%, which is well above the league average of 28.3%.
For reference, Genesis Cabrera, who has had a good season in his own right, has thrown 49.9% (3.4% higher than Gallegos) of his pitches in the zone this season, yet he has a walk rate of 11.4% (4.8% higher than Gallegos). This is because Cabrera has a chase rate of just 23.8%. He can also suffer from bouts of inconsistency in which he struggles to find the strike zone, or he continuously misses off the edge of the zone. Another cause is his low first pitch strike rate (53.3%).
When compared with Cabrera, Gallegos is remarkable. He has been able to throw much more pitches outside the zone, yet he does not walk nearly as many batters. This is because he is not only consistent, but he is deceptive, and he does a good job of getting ahead in the count. 110 plate appearances against Gallegos have ended with the pitcher ahead in the count, while just 80 plate appearances have ended with the hitter ahead in the count. Again for reference, 96 plate appearances against Genesis Cabrera have ended with the pitcher ahead in the count and 107 plate appearances have ended with the hitter ahead in the count.
The way that Gallegos is able to stay ahead in the count without giving the hitter anything to hit is impressive, and it has allowed him to be one of the best relievers in baseball since 2019. The main benefit of this approach is that he has been able to generate a 96th percentile wOBA (.237) and 88th percentile xwOBA (.268). He also generates a high whiff rate (35%, 10.4% above league average of 24.6%) since pitches outside the strike zone are much more difficult to make contact with.
Gallegos is one of just five pitchers who rank in the 95th percentile or better in both chase rate and whiff rate. The other four are Jacob DeGrom, Corbin Burnes, Liam Hendricks, and and Raisel Iglesias. That is the pitcher with the most fWAR in the league (Burnes), the pitcher with the lowest FIP (minimum 90 IP) (DeGrom), The best reliever since 2019 (Hendricks), and the 11th most valuable reliever this season (Iglesias). That is fantastic company, and it demonstrates how truly dominant Gallegos has been out of the ‘pen.
Despite his sucess this year, and since 2019, he has never been named to an All-Star team. He probably should have made the All-Star game this season given his 2.79 FIP through the first half of the season, but he was overlooked. The same is true of the 2019 season when he had a 2.62 FIP at the break.
Even though Gallegos may not receive as much recognition as the other elite relievers in baseball, he has certainly solidified his place among them. Another elite season next year may earn him the elusive All-Star game bid, but for now, he is playing a key role in a bullpen that has needed every ounce of production it has gotten from him.