Jaime Garcia is awesome. I always knew he was awesome, since way back when a somewhat-prominent local writer presented him with a "Best Athlete's Butt" award in the RFT, and a completely unrelated, also somewhat-prominent internet scribe coined the nickname Hotme Hotcia for him. The point is, I've been in on Jaime Garcia for a long, long time.
I have to admit, though, I didn't believe in him this year. Not that I didn't believe he could be good; I was capable of conceiving a world in which Jaime Garcia remained a very talented, remarkably skilled pitcher. But there was basically no chance, in my mind, he was going to anywhere near healthy enough this season to make any kind of meaningful contribution to the Cardinals of 2015.
If the playoffs started tomorrow, Jaime Garcia would be my Game One starter. Actually, that's not true; if the playoffs started like three days from now, Jaime Garcia would be my Game One starter. Starting him tomorrow on one day's rest seems like a recipe for disaster. So, if they playoffs started tomorrow, someone other than Jaime Garcia would be my Game One starter, and the column I'm currently writing would be a diatribe against the abject, monstrous stupidity of Mike Matheny for starting his best pitcher two days before the playoffs started, and then against the front office that so foolishly entrusted the keys of the franchise to the man who started his best pitcher two days before a Game One when he didn't have to.
Luckily, the playoffs don't start tomorrow, and so we can simply sit back and marvel at the fact that Jaime Garcia has essentially cemented himself at this point as the staff ace (lower case a on that ace, but an ace nonetheless), of the best pitching staff in baseball, and the pitcher I think would be the best choice to turn to in order to try and get a playoff series off to the kind of start you would want to see. And all this in a season in which he certainly looked like that football Lucy holds every autumn for Charlie Brown to come running at in a vain attempt to finally kick a field goal. And yes, I'm aware I've used that metaphor at some point in the past already; I happen to like both the metaphor and Peanuts in general, so you should really consider filing your complaints with some other department.
At this moment, Jaime has thrown exactly one hundred innings this season, which is remarkably convenient for someone looking to extrapolate his numbers. For instance, that 100 innings is easy to double, giving us 200 innings, which is as good a proxy number for a full season as any.
By that measure, of the ~200 inning season, we can look at Jaime's WAR over at FanGraphs, and turn his current 2.3 WAR into a 4.6, which would put him in extremely similar territory to Cole Hamels's best seasons -- to wit, in 2011 Hamels was worth 4.9 WAR in 216.0 innings.
It's funny, really, to think of Jaime in terms of how he sort-of relates to Cole Hamels. The phormer Philly lefthander has long been known as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and was dealt this year at the trade deadline for a very substantial package (tee-hee), of prospects from the Texas Rangers; said package is a huge part of why Philadelphia now has one of the better pharm systems in the game, after years of it laying phallow. (Hmm. Not sure about the Philly-centric spelling of 'phallow'; it looks suspiciously, uncomfortably similar to phallic. I'm going to leave it, though, so all of you can see and not make the same mistake I have made.)
I say it's funny because Jaime is not, generally speaking, considered to be one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. In fact, if you were to sit someone down at a table and tell them to write a list of the ten best lefthanded starters in the game, I have a feeling you would probably be fairly disappointed at how many of those lists would actually include Jaime at all. And yet, when Jaime has been on the field, he has, in fact, been exactly that.
And there, of course, is the problem. While we're comparing Jaime to Cole Hamels, let's take a look at some career stats, shall we?
Hamels made his major league debut in 2006 with Philadelphia, throwing roughly two-thirds of a season's worth of innings that year after having started in the minors. He accumulated 132.1 innings that year, with a 4.08 ERA and 3.98 FIP, contributing to a 2.6 WAR total.
Jaime, on the other hand, made his major league debut late in the 2008 season, making one start and nine appearances out of the bullpen. He threw only 16 innings that year, and the results were ugly: a 5.63 ERA and 7.04 FIP, making him a rousing -0.4 WAR success. The first big injury hit for Jaime that year, also, as his meteoric rise to the big leagues was halted upon arrival, as he was forced to go under the knife that autumn to have Tommy John surgery.
Jaime made his return to the majors in 2010, and this time the results looked much more like what we expected from the fomerly hyped prospect: a 2.70 ERA and 3.41 FIP in 163.1 innings, good for a 2.7 WAR.
Hamels was outstanding out of the gate, and really just carried forward from there. The relaunched 2010 version of Jaime wasn't all that dissimilar from Hamels, if a bit more dependent on ground balls instead of strikeouts. From there to here, however, their careers has taken drastically different routes.
Cole Hamels, since the day he arrived in the big leagues in 2008, has thrown just under 2000 career regular-season innings (1971.2, to be exact), and in that time has produced 40.2 wins above replacement. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Cole Hamels, if he continues on something resembling this course, could end up in the Hall of Fame. He'll probably end up falling just a bit short, but it's certainly not out of the question.
Jaime, on the other hand, since debuting just about two years after Hamels, has thrown 694.2 innings, and been worth 11.8 wins above replacement. Which isn't a bad career, really, all things considered. After all, he's over halfway to Bob Forsch's career WAR total, in just slightly more than 1/5th the innings pitched. So that's pretty good, right?
But we can see the value of volume, so to speak, when we consider Hamels's and Garcia's relative qualities. For their respective careers, the two men have been peas in a pod as far as performance. Hamels has a 3.31 career ERA, a 3.48 FIP, and 3.37 xFIP. Jaime's marks, meanwhile, are 3.26, 3.35, and 3.39. When two pitchers have xFIP marks two-hundredths of a run apart, it seems fair to me to say they're relatively similar in quality.
And yet there is such a gulf in production, or value, or whatever you want to call it, because of the vastly different tracks Hamels and Garcia have taken in terms of health. Cole Hamels has been a near-paragon of durability en route to his place as One of the Best Pitchers in Baseball, while Jaime Garcia has been, well, not so much en route to being occasionally described as Enigmatic or Infrequent Contributor, as if he was a freelance fiction writer for a monthly journal. Jaime Garcia will most definitely not get to fall just short of the Hall of Fame, sadly.
For now, though, Jaime is healthy, and is the best pitcher on an historically great staff, which may not necessarily earn him a place in the history books, but is more than good enough for me. There is a fragile quality to Jaime's pitching, even when his results look like those of a steamroller, brought about by the rarity of his appearances and nearly singular spectacle he offers; Jaime Garcia in full force is a frosted-over spiderweb on an early November morning, a gossamer masterpiece of physics-defying offerings doomed to disappear as soon as the morning sun fully hits. You can try to remember it, burn it into your memory, or even take a picture, grabbing out your cell phone to snap a shot before heading off to work to leave the web to its ultimate end, but the experience of seeing it, of actually being there when it was an extant thing, will always remain elusive, as impossible to grasp as the smell of the air in the picture you have as a memento. It will never shimmer the same as the real thing, just as the memory of Jaime throwing exactly one hundred innings of shining, silken mastery will never feel quite as marvelous as the morning of a Jaime Day, knowing tonight you will see changeups do things the world says they should not, and hitters will flail at them helplessly, children trying to snatch insects from the air.
And then, just like that, it is entirely possible he will be gone again, and one day gone forever, a victim of an arm incapable of holding up to the magic being channeled through it. A career so often interrupted seems sadly fated to end too early, as well, though perhaps if we all believe hard enough, and clap loud enough, then maybe it won't happen after all.