Bullpen has been Cardinals’ strength, but veteran workhorse struggles to find his fastball

The St. Louis Cardinals have benefited greatly in the season’s early going from stellar performances by Ryan Helsley, Andrew Kittredge and JoJo Romero in the back end of their bullpen.

Praise for all three has been effusive, and entering play Tuesday, Helsley was tied for the major league in saves (9) with Kittredge and Romero tied as league leaders in holds (10).

As those three have risen and asserted their places, though, there’s been a necessary tradeoff.

Giovanny Gallegos has spent most of the last five years vacillating between the team’s closer and its primary setup man, but he now finds himself seemingly outside the bullpen’s inner core of trust, working to regain his own footing.

“It feels good for me that I’ve had this time, because I need to do some adjustments,” Gallegos said Sunday through team Spanish translator and bullpen catcher Kleininger Teran. “It’s good for the club because we’ve got some guys that are doing a good job out of the pen, so everything’s good so far.”

After being acquired in the deadline deal which saw Luke Voit shipped to the New York Yankees in 2018, Gallegos didn’t make his first appearance for the 2019 Cardinals until April 11, the team’s 13th game. Despite that delayed arrival, he finished tied with John Brebbia in appearances that season with 66.

He pitched in 16 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, good for fourth on the team, but then led them in appearances in 2021 (73) and 2022 (57), finishing third last season with 56 outings. He is 11th in all of MLB in appearances by a pitcher without any starts since 2019, and among pitchers who have played for only one team, he’s No. 1.

Put simply, no team in baseball has leaned more heavily on any one reliever than the Cardinals have Gallegos over the last five seasons.

“This guy is a competitor who will take the ball regardless of situation,” manager Oli Marmol said. “He’s been doing some things in his flat ground and mound stuff in between games he hasn’t pitched [in], but it’s led to some uptick in velo. That’s kind of what we were trying to get back to, and it seems like it’s headed in that direction.”

Gallegos, like many other relievers, doesn’t come with many surprises. He throws a fastball in a slider, with one providing deception for the other, and relies on the movement and crispness of those pitches to generate outs.

Fastball velocity, though, has been a concern. Throughout most of his career, the pitch sat right around 94 miles per hour on average over a full season, dipping slightly to 93.7 last year. This year, though, it’s cratered down to a flat 92.0 MPH, including his work in Sunday’s game which saw him closer to his career average.

“That’s one [adjustment] that I’m trying to make, trying to get my velo up a little better,” Gallegos explained. “It’s still early in the season. It’s a long way to go. It’s been good that I haven’t pitched [as much] because I’m making minor adjustments, and when I go back [to the mound], hopefully it can be a little bit better.”

Often, loss of velocity can come from an unsynced delivery. For Gallegos, traditionally a very slow worker who had to adjust last season to the pitch clock, maintaining his mechanics in the new playing environment has been an ongoing battle. For now, though, he doesn’t see a line to be drawn between those mechanics and his search for more zip on his fastball.

“It’s been more strength,” he said. “I’ve been doing some more work in the weight room, getting some different exercises. Hopefully it gives me more strength to get that velo up again.”

The measurables matter for his success on the field and for the team’s confidence that they can use him in difficult spots, but this dip also comes at an inflection point in Gallegos’s career. He signed an extension two years ago which carried him through his arbitration years, but it came with an attached $6.5 million team option for the 2025 season.

The history of relief pitching is brutal in terms of longevity. Part of the reason Gallegos stands out as a workhorse is that very few players in his role are able to withstand the physical rigors for multiple years in a row. With that large dollar decision looming and out of his hands, a strong season will be vital for convincing the Cardinals – or perhaps other teams – that he can still be reliable despite turning 33 this August.

For now, on days when the team’s new big three relievers are all available, Gallegos seems destined to sit and wait for the lower leverage situations to which he has been assigned. Always a popular and affable teammate – and one who takes pride in his willingness to never say no when asked to take the ball – he’s still maintaining his enthusiasm for the bullpen’s success despite his reduced role in it.

“I feel motivated watching them doing what they do,” he said. “It’s good for them to have that success that they’re having right now. That motivates me because I’ve gotta get better. If I can be better, that’s obviously gonna be better for the whole club.”