Five starts into his 2015 season, Jaime Garcia has been a terrific contributor to the starting rotation of the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, given the well-documented medical history of his throwing arm, how long will this contribution last? Unfortunately, no one has a definitive answer to that, but it is a topic Ben and I briefly discussed on VEB's latest podcast (in case you need something to listen to today). With significant injuries to the starting staff (Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and essentially Marco Gonzales), Garcia's performance thus far has been nothing short of necessary. Tyler Lyons could have filled in as he already has on occasion, and Tim Cooney could have bounced back as he gained experience and calmed his nerves, but it would not have been fair to expect either to perform at Garcia's current level. Just how good has Garcia been?
If you are looking solely at his win-loss record, you will be unimpressed as he is currently 2-3. Then again, having decisions in all five starts is a testament to Garcia going deep into games (averaging 7.0 innings per start), an approach welcomed by a tired bullpen. Plus, the offense has averaged a whopping 2.0 runs scored during his starts and has been shut out in three of them. Moving past W-L (which I don't include in pitchers' stats tables for a reason), Garcia's rate statistics are particularly impressive. His propensity to induce ground balls (65.3%), along with his ability to curtail walks (3.9 BB%, zero BBs since his first start of the season), transforms a below league-average strikeout rate (18.8%) into an above-average weapon (14.8 K-BB%, league average is 12.6%). Will he be able to maintain his current walk and ground ball rates? Probably not, but they are still definitely worth recognition at this point.
Fourseamer and Sinker Velocity and Movement
Something I have noticed during Garcia's starts is that his fourseamer and sinker seem to have more "life" in them than they have had in the past. The way I see it, there are two main components to the "life" of a pitch: 1) movement and 2) velocity. Movement is great, and some crafty pitchers (often relievers) have been able to make careers out of it, but without at least some velocity supporting movement, the world's best hitters will eventually adjust.
We hear a variation of the following phrase during nearly every start: "Garcia has never had trouble with pitch movement." As shown by the graph above, it appears that he has so far experienced an uptick in fastball velocity as well—throwing harder than he ever has in his career. What is especially promising is that this increase in velocity has not been detrimental to the horizontal movement of his fourseamer or sinker, either, as these two pitches are actually moving more than they ever have as well:
"[Insert name of pitcher here] is at his best when he is living down in the zone." Admittedly, this is an obvious statement for most pitchers, but for a pitcher with fastballs that average in the low 90s, it is even more critical. Garcia has been notoriously good at pitching low in the zone throughout his career, but through five starts in 2015, he has somehow been even better. Below, you will find a side-by-side location/zone profile of Garcia's fourseamers, sinkers, and changeups thrown, 2008 through 2014 on the left and 2015 on the right:
I apologize for the graphs being small and tough to read (especially on a mobile device), but from 2008 through 2014, Garcia threw his fourseamer, sinker, and changeup in the bottom two rows of the zone (boxed in yellow) 52.72% of the time. So far in 2015, this rate has significantly increased to 61.21%, or roughly 16% higher than where it had been in the past. By throwing more pitches down in the zone, it is expected to have an increased ground ball rate, and this is exactly what we have seen thus far. Below, you will find a chart breaking down the percentage of ground balls per ball in play (GB/BIP) by pitch this season:
There is pretty fun Beta feature on BrooksBaseball that includes a basic description of each pitch in a given pitcher's repertoire. Taking all of the PITCHf/x data available on the pitch into consideration, here is how Garcia's 2015 slider is described:
"His slider is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' sliders, is much harder than usual and has some two-plane movement."
To Conclude, a "For What It's Worth" Exercise
Jaime threw 96 pitches against the Royals on Friday. Since I was unable to watch closely due to studying for exams, I rewatched each one of his pitches last night. By my count, Garcia hit Yadier Molina's preset target on 48 occasions, or 50% of the time. I understand that "hitting Yadi's target" can be variable based on who is watching the pitch, but let me do my best to explain my process. If Yadi tilts or pivots his mitt, while keeping his wrist locked, I consider the pitch a "hit" of the target. Now, if Yadi has to move or extend his wrist, and even if it still goes for a strike according to the umpire, I deem it a "miss." Understandably, we enter a grey area when there are two strikes in the count and Yadi calls for the pitch in the dirt. In these scenarios, I usually err on considering it a "hit" target as long it is not egregiously off target (i.e. a 58 footer in front of the plate).
Of note, I have completed this exercise before, mainly when looking at Carlos Martinez (and some Giants' pitchers in the 2014 playoffs), and each of their rates of hitting the target was usually in the 35-45% range. Thus, with this very limited data set available, Dan McLaughlin was indeed accurate in saying "Garcia is sharp here tonight" on the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast.
Credit to BrooksBaseball.net for the data used in this post.