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mythtaken identity - jaime garcia, stable, steady presence

for too long, sportswriters in search of a narrative have been branding jaime garcia with an unfair label. one article promulgatign the story was written by . . . surprise, surprise . . . joe strauss.

in it, garcia criticizes himself for letting little things get to him, saying: "I'm so (concerned) about what I need to do to get better. I work as hard as I can between starts to the point where my mind gets tired. It's too much, too much, too much."

joe strauss wrote: "General manager John Mozeliak refers to Garcia as 'routine-oriented,' a description not uncommon within a game that establishes a rhythm over six months. However, Mozeliak allowed that Garcia might be fixated by routine 'a little more than most' but stopped short of describing it as compulsive."

unpack that alarmist paragraph, ominous in its tone. What Mozeliak was quoted as saying was that Jaime was "routine oriented" and relied on routine "a little more than most." It's the unsaid elements added by the author that turn a fairly benign description of a starter who likes a routine into a call for psychiatric aid. "stopped short of describing it as compulsive"? well, yes, in the sense that mozeliak apparently did not call him compulsive.

another article carefully scrutinizing garcia's mental makeup came from derrick goold, relying extensively on statements from dave duncan. duncan claimed that jaime would get upset from missing a cab, and claimed that garcia fared much better at home than on the road.

but was this ever, in fact, "a thing"?

no, it was not ever a thing. at least not from what anyone can tell.

i am not saying that jaime garcia didn't wait for cabs and get upset, nor that he doesn't worry about things. but if he does, it doesn't seem to actually affect his pitching. at any rate, the high-pitched expressions of fear that a kicked groundball behind him will shake him up and cause him to blow the game wide open are far, far too overblown.

let's start with the hypothesis expounded by goold and dave duncan. did jaime garcia suffer on the road in 2011?

in 2011, jaime garcia had some terrible, superficial stats in his home/road split. he had a 2.55/4.61 ERA split. okay, that's pretty terrible. but does it mean he is unstable or does it mean that he had some bad luck or some unfortunate performances on the road unrelated to mental makeup?

adam wainwright had a 2.63/4.05 home/road split in 2009 and nobody's pushing for him to be put on paxil.

busch stadium is a pitcher's park. jaime garcia SHOULD have a home/road split. not 2 ER per nine, but start with that fact.

in 2011, jaime struck out batters MORE frequently on the road than at home (7.63 K/9 on the road v. 6.91 K/9 at home). his walk rate was basically indistinguishable (2.26 at home, 2.36 on the road). his xFIP was virtually identical - 3.34 xFIP at home v. 3.29 xFIP away. yes, by xFIP, jaime pitched BETTER (okay, only a little bit) on the road.

the big issue was our old suspect BABIP. jaime had a .265 BABIP at home, and a .369 BABIP on the road. and there's not nearly enough batted ball difference to explain this discrepancy - the difference between a 16.5% LD rate at home and a 20.1% LD rate on the road does NOT explain a 100-point difference.

note also that jaime's home run rate was higher on the road, just as you'd expect - 7.4% HR/FB at home, 10.2% on the road. that also has a big impact on outcomes like ERA.

so, how is it that a pitcher who is so shook up mentally somehow actually strikes more guys out while he's on the road?

you can't trust narratives. from the strauss article, jaime was quoted as saying, "Last year I wasn't thinking about mechanics at all, just worrying about giving us a chance. This year the expectations changed. I've probably tried to do too much." yet, by his peripherals, there was a REAL home-road split in 2010, even when it disappeared in 2011. at home in 2010, jaime had a 1.74 ERA/2.89 FIP/3.13 xFIP. on the road in 2010, he had a 3.82 ERA/4.02 FIP/4.20 xFIP.

so, if his mental stress level rose in 2011, why did his home-road split actually become better?

to address the larger question of whether jaime actually functions worse in high stress situations, i've run the splits for him and, as control subjects, two similar pitchers, mat latos and david price, in various leverage scenarios.

Jaime Garcia
David Price
Mat Latos
OPS Against
as you can see, jaime actually has his best OPS against in HIGH leverage scenarios, exactly the opposite of what you would expect from a pitcher who wilts under pressure.
you see similarly unpersuasive trends based on clutchness scenarios.
2 outs, RISP
Late & Close
Tie Game
Within 1R
Within 2R
Within 3R
Within 4R
> 4R

while there are some suggestive numbers - garcia's results with 2 outs and RISP - there are some going in the exact opposite direction - his late and close numbers. and given the small sample size we're dealing with for such scenarios, those kinds of anomalies are not suspicious. david price has the reverse issue - a low "2 outs, RISP" OPS against, but a high late and close number. and latos has a substantial split between when he's pitching from behind, versus with a lead.

i can't tell you with absolute certainty that garcia has no issues with his mental makeup. but the statistics tend to show that garcia's 2011 home/road split had much more to do with batted ball luck than anything garcia was doing. and nothing about his in-game performance - by leverage or clutch scenarios - indicates any kind of problem based on the in-game situation.

for what it's worth, his 2012 home/road split after 2 starts at home and 3 on the road is pretty good - 2.57 ERA/2.54 FIP/ 3.70 xFIP at home versus 2.95 ERA/2.42 FIP/ 3.61 xFIP on the road. it's too early to declare that any kind of a trend, but i hope it continues.

derrick goold's original scoop would have been hard to pass up for a sports journalist. here was the pitching coach explaining in excruciating detail his theory about a point of mental fragility for one of his starters. goold prefaced it by saying the likely explanation was happenstance and that he'd likely regress to more stable performance. he followed his caveat with "Except, maybe not." and then the long, lurid quote from duncan begins.

if i'm annoyed at anybody in this mess, it's probably dave duncan. i'm not sure why a pitching coach would go talking to the media in great specificity about personal foibles that have a great tendency to embarass and to diminish the confidence of a very important starting pitcher. while duncan rarely rivaled la russa in cantankerousness, he was periodically prone to comments to the media that made me scratch my head. why would you want to convince the public, other teams, and your own pitcher that he was unstable?

this further illustrates the importance of coaching staff not overreacting to narrative and false theories of why a particular player is underperforming in a particular small sample size.

strauss's article seems like a me-too effort, following goold's lead, to cobble together something inflammatory from some fairly generic comments indicating that garcia needs to focus better and not grind so much or worry about past mistakes.

one thing you could say fairly is that garcia, while not unstable, may be prone to minor mental lapses; last week's failure to advance on a sac fly is one example. the strauss article mentions that garcia failed to back up bases on three different plays in one game in august. but those kinds of mental lapses are a far cry from a pitcher prone to melt down at inopportune times.

jaime should not be judged on innuendo, the inflation of isolated incidents to larger trends, and overreliance on weak, conventional statistics like ERA in drawing major conclusions about his mental makeup.

jaime garcia is an excellent pitcher, and the cardinals are lucky to have him.