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Jaime Garcia, Ace in Waiting

Jaime Garcia showed up in Jupiter, Florida last year after throwing a mere 27.2 innings in 2009 due to his undergoing Tommy John Surgery and its subsequent rehab in 2008. Garcia was nothing if not a dark-horse rotation candidate with little in the way of expectations as to what he would provide for the Cardinals in 2010. Many hoped to see the young southpaw re-establish himself post-surgery with a successful season in AAA Memphis. At the time, Kyle McClellan--he of the five-pitch starter's arsenal--was the frontrunner for the fifth starter role. Garcia had other plans. With 20 strikeouts notched in a mere 24 Grapefruit innings pitched, Garcia seized the throat of a rotation spot in a stranglehold that he would not relinquish. Sample size notwithstanding, as the Cardinals broke camp and trucked north for the beginning of the season, the young lefty who had thrown but 159.2 total innings over the previous two seasons combined was Starter Number Five. It was a label that would not last the season.

Brad Penny, the Duncan project du saisonmet and perhaps surpassed the expectations accompanying this designation in the early weeks of the season with a 3.40 FIP, a career-high 52.8 GB%, and a career-low-tying 5.66 strikeout rate. His performance and proveyness placed him firmly in the third starter slot. Garcia quickly leapfrogged perennial overpriced disappointment Kyle Lohse*, if not the resurgent Penny, in the rotational pecking order. The rookie was absolutely lights-out during the early part of the season with a sparkling 1.32 ERA which was backed up by an excellent FIP to boot. The losses of Penny (to a grand slam) and Lohse (to a motocross surgery) within days of one another shone the spotlight on the youngster and forced him into the position of rotation bulwark along with the elite Wainwright and Carpenter. Eventually, La Russa would shuffle his rotation to ensure that Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia started an important three-game series in Cincinnati. It was the red-gloved Garcia who was on the hill when Yadier Molina made his distaste for Brandon Phillips known to Reds' leadoff man, the city of Cincy, and the baseball world.

*I rag on Lohse a lot, so I feel obliged to point out that his early 2010 results were tinged with bad luck. In April, to accompany his 6.55 ERA, Lohse put up a 3.67 FIP; in May, his 3.75 FIP was betrayed by a 5.33 ERA. Lohse's LD% did increase as he neared a DL stint and surgical intervention, but he deserved a better ERA than he was credited with in early 2010. In his late-season return, Lohse posted an absolutely horrendous 6.75 FIP over 13.1 August innings. During the final 31.1 innings he pitched in 2010, Lohse did post a respectable 4.48 FIP. Will Lohe be worth $12,187,500.00 in 2011? Almost certainly not. But, there is hope for a return to serviceability. 

An up-and-down offense and the Disabled List claiming 40 percent of the starting rotation made Garcia's emergence as Ace Number 3 in the St. Louis rotation all the more important to the Cardinals' ability to contend in 2010. With the tragic injury to Adam Wainwright last week, Garcia's continued success is absolutely integral to the hopes and dreams of the franchise and its faithful in this the likely final season of the Pujols era. Per your request, let's take a closer look at Jaime Garcia's 2010 success.

In the weeks following the twin losses of Lohse and Penny, with AAA replacement players filling in for starts and Jeff Suppan using smoke and mirrors to somehow conjure a 4.91 FIP into a 3.84 ERA, Garcia suffered the inevitable fall back to earth after an unsustainable start. In June, Garcia posted a 4.50 ERA which closely approximated his 4.39 FIP. Garcia would rebound with a strong July and August before struggling somewhat in his final starts, although his high 5.94 ERA was far uglier than his underlying 4.22 FIP. The organization shut him down in the season's final weeks, ending what was a tremendous rookie campaign from the lefthander. 

Garcia ended the season with a 2.70 ERA (if you're into that sort of thing) and 3.41 FIP over 163.1 innings. He struck out 7.27 batters per every nine of those innings and had a walk rate of 3.53. Garcia put up a miniscule HR rate of 0.50, which ought to rise a bit. But, his .292 BABIP and LOB% of 75 do not reveal a pitcher bound to fall back to earth. This is why Marcel and Bill James expect Garcia to be able to largely repeat his 2010 performance from a FIP perspective, even if the systems expect his ERA to rise a bit. 

There is no question that Cardinal Nation is well aware of the fact that Jaime Garcia had a very good rookie season. But, when placed in context of the rotation as a whole, and specifically as compared to Chris Carpenter, I think it becomes clearer just how well Garcia pitched in 2010. Garcia was an incredible value in the 2010 rotation. His Fangraphs WAR of 3.2 trailed Chris Carpenter by just 0.5 WAR.* But WAR is often a difficult way for us as fans to gauge a pitcher, so let's look at some other indicators of pitching success.

*The fourth-highest starting pitcher WAR total on the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals was Jake Westbrook, who accumulated 1.3 WAR in just 75 IP in The Birds On The Bat. Brad Penny, who accumulated 1.1 WAR in a mere 55.2 IP over 9 starts, was fourth. There is no doubt that Adam Wainwright's likely 6+ WAR will be sorely missed. The 16.2 starting pitching WAR total from 2010 will not be equaled in 2011 without an Cy Young season from Carpenter or Garcia, but a full season of a healthy Westbrook and Lohse could very well produce over 4.0 WAR combined.

Garcia offers a wide repertoire of pitches. Garcia's two- and four-seamer combined to be worth 8.2 runs above average in 2010, posing a nasty combination with his 10.9-run cutter (or slider?). Garcia mixes up his offerings effectively, tossing his four-seamer 29.4% of the time, his two-seamer 27.1%, his curveball 12.8%, changeup 12.8%, and his slider 12.3% of the time. Garcia is not overly reliant on any one pitch. It is this wide selection of offerings at a young age that helped him to essentially turn opposing batters into 2009 Pedro Feliz (but with less power) when facing him. The opposition managed just a .243/.315/.323/.636 line against Garcia. For comparison, opposing batsmen hit .244/.302/.377/.680 against Chris Carpenter last season. That is not a typo; the opposition produced a higher OPS against Carpenter than Garcia.

An important component of Garcia's success is his ability to miss bats, a skill that will often enable a pitcher to wriggle out of jams. Garcia managed a 10.0% swinging strike percentage, placing him 14th in all of baseball, one-tenth of one percentage point behind Danny Haren and one-tenth of one percentage point ahead of AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez.* Not surprisingly, given his swing-and-miss rate, Garcia put up a healthy strikeout rate of 7.27 per nine innings, second on the Cardinals to Wainwright's 8.32 and ahead of Carpenter's 6.86.** 

*Other starters trailing Garcia in swinging strike percentage:  Roy Halladay (9.8%), David Price (9.8%), Roy Oswalt (9.7%), Adam Wainwright (9.5%), CC Sabathia (9.4%), and Justin Verlander (9.3%).

**This rate placed Garcia 42nd in all of baseball, 0.05 behind Cardinal castoff Chris Narveson.

Garcia's talent for imposing swinging strikes on opposing batsmen and for coercing their striking out creates a potent cocktail of pitching effectiveness when combined with the southpaw's groundball-inducing skill. Garcia's 55.9 GB% was second-best on the team behind renowned sinkerballer Jake Westbrook, who saw his GB% soar to the 62% mark with "STL" on his cap under the democratic Cardinals pitching coach. Duncanianly, the Cards ended 2010 with two of MLB's top six groundball inducers in Westbrook (4th) and Garcia (6th). 

Even with Garcia's grounder- and strikeout-inducing ways, we should all pay attention to the lefty's walk rate this season, as his 2010 3.53 BB/9 was eighth on the team trailing Penny, Wainwright, Walters, Carpenter, Westbrook, Suppan, and Lohse. Garcia has a career walk rate of 3.61, so 2010 actually lowered his career figure. Contradictorily, Bill James foresees an uptick in Garcia's walk rate while Marcel sees it inching downward. Another year under the tutelage of Dave Duncan, who preaches throwing strikes as well as inducing groundballs, will hopefully result in a further shrinking of Garcia's walk rate in 2011. Greater improvement in his control could turn Garcia into a truly elite starting pitcher of the Cy Young variety.

Without Wainwright, the aging Chris Carpenter is once again the staff ace. Like Adam Wainwright heading into 2009, Jaime Garcia could very well be an ace in waiting on the verge of competing for a Cy Young Award. The Cardinals' 2011 fortunes will hinge on whether or not Garcia continues to grow as a pitcher and taps into the potential for excellence he flashed so frequently during his rookie campaign.