What is Wrong with Jaime Garcia ?


There is nothing at all wrong with Jaime Garcia. If there is any problem, it is in our unrealistic expectations for the young hurler.

For some background, in case this article is found in 2038 as the Baseball Writers Association are researching Garcia’s Hall of Fame credentials, Garcia made his major league debut in July 2008 with two solid innings of relief against the Pittsburgh Pirates.   He followed that up with a start against San Diego where he pitched 5 innings, allowing 3 runs.   Garcia would appear in nine more games for the Cardinals in 2008, all in relief.  He would be shut down at the end of August with arm troubles that eventually led to Tommy John surgery.   He was supposed to miss the entire 2009 season, but surprised everybody by returning to AAA Memphis in August, posting a 2-0 record in 4 starts and helping the Redbirds win their division of the Pacific Coast League.

The story of Jaime Garcia continues in Spring Training 2010, where he was only in camp to get some additional experience.  Nobody expected the young lefty to make the major league squad.  He was supposed to go back to Memphis to get a full year of pitching to condition his surgically repaired arm so that he would be ready in 2011.  Garcia was impressive from his first appearance and eventually made the rotation as the #5 starter behind Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse – although fans that had followed his progress had him somewhat higher in their mental depth charts.

The start to his 2010 rookie season was impressive.  OK, that’s an understatement.  A big understatement – like saying that Albert Pujols is a good hitter.   Bloggers and sports writers have been digging through baseball records trying to find something to compare to the start of Garcia’s career and have been largely unable to find anything beyond Fernando Valenzuela, Johnny Beazley (although the records are incomplete for a real comparison) and Larry Jaster (remember those 5 shutouts against the Los Angeles Dodgers).

It seems that we are in somewhat uncharted territory when analyzing Jaime Garcia’s progress through his rookie year, so I offer up a couple of charts to help breakdown the young hurler.

Pitch count

Without any specific data, I had the impression that manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan had been keeping Garcia’s pitch count artificially low.  There are several good reasons to do this.  Pitch counts are kept down in the minor leagues and frequently rookie starters have a hard time getting deep into games for their first few seasons.  Perhaps they were keeping the count low to save wear and tear on his arm, hoping to avoid a fade in the second half.  Maybe they were taking Garcia out early so that his starts were largely a positive experience.  All of these are plausible explanations.

The charts actually say something else entirely.   Take away the start in Kansas City on June 27, where he exited after just 2 innings, and Garcia has been near the 100 pitch count.   Even with the 3 1/3 inning start against the Dodgers on July 16, Garcia has actually thrown a decent number of pitches.

Too Much Nibbling

When watching Garcia pitch, it seems that he gets the first two outs rather quickly and then has trouble retiring the last batter.  Perhaps some of this is lost in the fine detail in the data, but the graph above shows that his control is amazingly consistent.  I’ll save you the additional line chart on this one, but if you take away the KC and LA starts, Garcia’s strike percentage goes from 58% to 67% as the outliers while most are in the 61-63% range.   Umm, if 58% and 67% are the outliers, that is some amazing consistency.  I have a theory on this, but more data is needed before it makes sense.

Pitch count too high

This is a corollary to the nibbling idea, where Garcia is getting too fine around the plate and throws too many balls.  We’ll get to the walk ratio in a minute, but first lets look at pitchers per inning.

If you throw out the starts against Kansas City and Los Angeles, we see that Garcia is maintaining a pretty good pitch per inning ratio.  While Dave Duncan would probably like to see this closer to 12-13 pitches per inning, Garcia’s range of 16-18 really isn’t too bad.   If I were to annotate that chart with wins and losses, you will see that when Garcia stays below 15 pitches per inning, he wins (or in the case of the 20 inning marathon against the Mets, should have won).  Look at his last start – that was the one where we broke out the vuvuzelas to honk in appreciation of his dominating win over the Phillies (7IP, 4H, 1ER).

Too many walks, too many hits, too many ?????

If we go with the idea that Garcia is nibbling too much, the data should show an increase in either the walk rate or hit rate.  Either he’s staying off the plate or giving into the hitters.  Let’s see.

The line graph is a bit noisy, so let me walk you through what I think I see in the data.  The top line is walks and hits per inning (WHIP) and it is trending upward, generally.  If you take out the starts against the Royals and Dodgers, the graph flattens out nicely and we see a WHIP that stays under 1.5 and occasionally drops below 1.  There are a number of big name (and big salary) major league pitchers that would love to have Garcia’s WHIP on this chart, especially if they were entering the free agent market.   While his WHIP is trending upwards slightly, and I’d expect that as hitters try to get more patient against Garcia, the wild variances at the end show me a pitcher that has amazing stuff and can get anybody in this league out.  Nothing too alarming in this data.  In fact, I feel a lot better after looking at it.

What I do see in the chart that is fascinating is that Garcia’s control is actually improving, and that may be what is causing some of the challenges in his last few starts.   The red line is his walks per inning and it started trending up early in the season, but recently in a sharp decline.  Contrasting that, we can see the hits are going the other way.   While his walks are down, hits are actually going up.  That tells me that Garcia is more afraid of walking a hitter than giving into him – and I think that’s exactly what we’ve seen the last month.

Conclusion

Jaime Garcia continues to impress me with each of his starts.  He’s still a very young pitcher, and to think he’s gotten this far in his rookie season without several meltdowns is amazing.   If you are willing to take a deeper look at Fernando Valenzuela’s amazing rookie season, he started off by winning his first 8 decisions, with five of them being complete game shutouts.  Those are the headlines.  What happens next is important.  He followed the 8th win with two months  (interrupted by the 1981 walk out) of wildly inconsistent performances, giving up as many as 7 earned runs on two different occasions and not throwing another dominating game until the end of August.   If that is the benchmark, then Jaime Garcia is doing extremely well.  And now I’m including the starts against Kansas City and Los Angeles.

What’s wrong with Jaime Garcia ?  Absolutely nothing at all.  I haven’t seen a young pitcher have such command of the four pitches that Garcia does.  The national sports media can continue to drool all over Stephen Strasburg, and it appears there is good reason to do so.  Instead,   I will continue to honk in appreciation of our own rookie phenom, and I look forward to each of his remaining starts this season, and hopefully for many years to come. Jaime Garcia is something special, and I’m glad that he is wearing the birds on the bat.

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