ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Upon his return to Texas, where Orioles right-hander Yovani Gallardo pitched last year, he insists that he's the same pitcher now as he was then.
His new manager, Buck Showalter, agrees, noting he has already learned that Gallardo "is not a guy that changes a whole lot."
The reality for Gallardo, however, is that he has changed over the course of his career. And if the drop in velocity and arm strength he has shown through his first two starts are permanent, Gallardo and the Orioles will rely on an approach that has developed over the years to accommodate that.
"For me, it's just a matter of you just have got to go out there and make pitches, make pitches no matter what the situation is," Gallardo said. "I was able to do that last year, and I think this year, it's helped me out."
Without the top-end velocity of his youth, Gallardo instead tries to solicit weak contact and locate better.
Whether he truly still is a pitcher willing to attack hitters and get hit in hopes that his defense will pick him up for the sake of efficiency, and whether he's able to succeed as that pitcher, hasn't yet been established.
He has made two starts so far, finding success in only one. Gallardo allowed a run on two hits with three walks and four strikeouts in his debut on April 6, but was tagged for five earned runs on seven hits in five innings Monday in Boston.
Still, Showalter said Gallardo is the pitcher the Orioles expected him to be when they sacrificed a first-round draft pick to ink him to a two-year deal.
"He's been as advertised, what we thought he was going to be," Showalter said. "We needed a guy who was consistent and could compete and give us a chance to win when he pitches."
Gallardo's fastball velocity was used as an indicator of his diminished arsenal soon after the Orioles became connected to him. That was never his calling card, though. He had his hardest average fastball in 2011 at 93 mph.
His strikeout rate dropped steadily after that, from nine per nine innings in 2012 to 5.9 per nine in 2015 with the Rangers. That was with a fastball that averaged 90.5 mph most of the year.
This year, he's averaging 88.3 mph on his fastball. Gallardo dispels the notion that he's attacking hitters any differently or pitching backward.
"That's the whole thing that they say, 'Well, he's throwing 80 percent sliders,' but they're really cut fastballs and that sort of thing," he said. "... If I'm able to get a guy out in two or three pitches, I'm up for it. That's going to make it easier on me, that sort of thing, instead of throwing six or seven pitches every single time and not being able to command it, not being around the zone. That's the most important — location over velocity. That's what I've learned throughout my career. It's helped me. It's helped me quite a bit."
Indeed, Gallardo is throwing fewer pitches per plate appearance over the past few years than when he was at his peak. In 2011, when he finished seventh in the National League Cy Young Award voting with a 17-10 record and a 3.52 ERA, he threw 4.0 pitches per batter faced. That was down to 3.92 in 2013 and 2014 before climbing to 4.04 last season. This year, through two starts, he has seen that spike a bit to 4.3 pitches per batter.
"If you have the mentality of getting a hitter out in two or three pitches every time, it's going to keep that pitch count down and give you the opportunity to get deeper into ballgames," Gallardo said. "You've got to understand, you might have some innings where you have to work a little bit harder. That's just the way the game is. If it comes down to that, it's just a matter of limiting damage and getting out of the inning."
Because of this approach — pitching to contact with what amounts to below-average major league velocity — every one of Gallardo's starts becomes a referendum on what he can bring to an Orioles team that has been plagued by five-inning starts all year, and can't afford the same from the veteran right-hander.
Saturday's game carries greater intrigue because of the familiarity of the opponent, which doesn't need to go too far into the scouting video archives to know what Gallardo will try and do —and vice versa.
"You've seen him — he knows what he's got to do, and he doesn't give in," Showalter said. "He's not giving in. They know what he's going to try to do. It makes for something fun to watch."