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Yankees Potential Trade Target: Zac Gallen

The young righty is coming off his worst season as a big leaguer, but his profile fits exactly what the Yankees have been looking for in recent years.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Esteban wrote a great piece on why John Means would be a great fit in New York. Today, I’m coming out of the player target woodworks with a much less sexy but still intriguing young pitcher that the Yankees could target once baseball activity resumes: Zac Gallen.

2021 Statistics: 23 games, 121.1 IP, 4.30 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 3.96 xFIP, 26.7 percent strikeout percentage (10.31 K/9), 9.4 percent walk percentage (3.63 BB/9), 1.5 fWAR

2022 Contract Status: Entering first year of arbitration eligibility. Made $607,500 in 2021. Scheduled to hit free agency in 2026.

Let’s address the elephant in the room right away: yes, the Yankees need a legitimate number two pitcher on the staff, yes, they probably should’ve been more aggressive in recent free agent markets to fill that hole, and no, Zac Gallen would not slot in as a number two. Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s why Zac Gallen intrigues me so much.

In 27 games across the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Gallen pitched to a 2.78 ERA, 3.64 FIP (3.90 xFIP), 28.5 percent strikeout percentage (10.54 K/9), and 9.8 percent walk percentage (3.61 BB/9) in 152 innings. He was good for 3.0 fWAR. That’s really, really good for his age 23 and 24 seasons.

As you can see above, though, things did not go the way Gallen would’ve wanted them to go in 2021. He hit the injured list three times last year — forearm fracture, UCL sprain, and a low grade hamstring strain, respectively — and wasn’t particularly sharp when he was in action. I’m not going to blame injuries for all of his troubles last year, but compare his 2021 MLB percentile rankings according to Statcast ...

Baseball Savant

... with his ratings from 2020 ...

Baseball Savant

... and his ratings from 2019.

Prior to 2021, Gallen looked like an above average pitcher with an excellent fastball and a penchant for getting guys to chase. Last year, however, most of his rates plummeted. What caused it? His secondary stuff, mostly. His four-seamer, which sits at an average of 93.4 mph, was still as effective as ever — he posted a -10 run value with in 2021 — but his change up, curveball, and slider were all average-to-below-average pitches. In his first two seasons, though, his changeup and curveball were both above average.

Digging in a bit deeper, Gallen got hit hard in 2021. So hard, in fact, that his hard hit rate dropped from the 78th percentile in 2020 to the 18th in 2019. Coincidentally, he threw slightly more pitches in the zone than he ever has (47.6 percent in his career; 45.1 percent in 2020), which generated career high marks in zone swing percentage (64.8 percent; 60.3 percent in 2020) and zone contact percentage (84.3 percent; 79.3 in 2020). In terms of his zone percentages, you don’t have to look far to see why there was so much fluctuation — his edge percentage dropped by over five percentage points from 48.5 percent in 2020 to 43.1 percent in 2021, causing his chase percentage to drop from 29.4 percent in 2020 to 25.7 percent in 2021.

To summarize, 2021 Zac Gallen was a guy who relied on an average fastball that he couldn’t locate particularly well (arm injuries will do that) to get guys out, and he was predictably hammered as a result.

So why am I still intrigued by him? One answer: his pitch selection. Here are Gallen’s last three years of pitch selection (with run values added) according to Statcast:

Zac Gallen Pitch Usage

Year Pitch Type Number of Pitches Percentage of Total Pitches Run Value
Year Pitch Type Number of Pitches Percentage of Total Pitches Run Value
2021 4-Seam Fastball 1128 53.7 -10
Changeup 350 16.7 2
Curveball 262 12.5 1
Slider 179 8.5 8
Cutter 175 8.3 -1
Sinker 8 0.4 1
2020 4-Seam Fastball 436 39 -5
Cutter 275 24.6 2
Changeup 212 19 -2
Curveball 180 16.1 -6
Slider 12 1.1 -1
Sinker 2 0.2 0
2019 4-Seam Fastball 660 47.6 -9
Curveball 262 18.9 -2
Changeup 221 15.9 -6
Cutter 214 15.4 2
Sinker 30 2.2 1

As you can see, Gallen decided to take a massive leap with his four-seamer this past year, throwing it well above 50 percent of the time for the first time in his career, as his secondary stuff took a back seat. Was that the best approach, though? From the looks of it, his best performances came when he was mixing his pitches more regularly. Perhaps it comes down to a control thing — a fractured forearm and UCL sprain are certainly not easy injuries to come back from — but I’d be curious to see if a pitch mix that more closely resembles his 2019 and 2020 numbers helps him rebound next season.

Finally, the most attractive thing about Gallen as a trade target is his age and contract status. Gallen will pitch the majority of the season as a 26-year-old, and he’s just now entering his first year of arbitration. Should the Yankees take him on to see if he can rediscover his form, they’d have him under contract until 2026. In today’s market for starting pitching, a status like that is almost as valuable as the stuff itself.

I know we all want the Yankees to make a huge splash with Luis Castillo (or signing Max Scherzer would’ve been a nice alternative, I suppose), but let’s look at the facts: (1) the trade market for front-of-the-rotation arms appears to be wildly out of control, so that would likely mean saying goodbye to Anthony Volpe; (2) the free agent market doesn’t really have any of those guys left; and (3) the front office has shown a reluctance to go all-in on starters not named Gerrit Cole.

Enter Zac Gallen: a young, controllable arm who strikes a lot of people out on a very bad team with a previous track record of success who is coming off his worst season as a big leaguer in which he was hampered by injuries and struggled with his command. If that doesn’t sound like the perfect fit for what the Yankees have looked for in a starter in recent years, I don’t know who else would.

This is purely speculation on my part, but the controllability factor likely drives Gallen’s price up in the market. However, I don’t think that he’s an arm you’d have to give up Volpe to get. He’d be a bit of a reclamation project for sure, and the control issues definitely need to be fixed, but in terms of mid-to-back-of-the-rotation options to explore trading for, his case is certainly intriguing.