A funny thing happened a few years ago. The St. Louis Cardinals, in consecutive drafts, selected the middle infield of the University of Hawaii.
One of the two players was a big deal in college. And one of the two players was a big deal in the minor leagues, after being a big deal in the draft. Kolten Wong was taken in the first round in 2011, signed quickly, jumped right into full-season ball in the Midwest League, and kept right on a-raking. He essentially didn't miss a beat between the Pac-12 and Low A ball, seemingly proving right the scouting reports that touted him as a polished hitter ready for pro ball.
RB Edit: Hawaii is in the Mountain West Conference, not the Pac 12. No idea what I was thinking; funny thing is, I even stopped while writing this to try and remember if the Pac 12 was still the Pac 10 in 2011, so convinced was I that I had the correct conference in mind. Apologies, and concerns about a possible aneurysm.
Wong moved up to Double A in his first full season in the professional ranks, and continued to hit pretty well. I say pretty well because the 111 wRC+ he put up at Springfield was good for a 21 year old, and good for a middle infielder, but didn't have the kind of eye-popping ridiculousness we've seen from other left-handed swinging prospects playing in Hammons Field. (Daniel Descalso, I'm looking at you.) Still, even if the numbers weren't crazy awesome, this was a player just one year out of college playing well in Double A, and heading off to the Arizona Fall League that autumn of '12. He kept his head above water in the AFL, playing against the best the prospect world has to offer -- not to mention plenty of players with significantly more experience than he -- but showed some cracks in the foundation. He didn't walk, the pop in his bat seemingly evaporated, things like that. Again, though, playing in the AFL his first full season in the minors was a big deal, even if it showed some areas where he needed to shore up his game more than anything.
Kolten began 2013 in Triple A, and played very well. Much better than he had at Double A, in fact; the plate discipline was even better, the power showed up move (those two things are not necessarily unrelated, either), and he racked up plenty of value on the basepaths, swiping 20 bags while being thrown out only once. (He had stolen 21 in Double A, but had been caught eleven times.) This was exactly the sort of well-rounded, mature player the Cardinals had hoped they were getting when they drafted him. He came up to the majors at the end of 2013, struggled, had a bad day in the World Series, and that's all we need to say about that.
Over these last three years, Kolten Wong has been more or less the starting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. And up until this season, he's been more or less pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. The walk rate has always been lower than you would like to see, certainly, and the power has only shown up in strange bursts of dingers that blow up like thunderstorms here on the plains, and then blow out just as quickly. He's shown a proclivity to chase pitches, especially up and out of the zone. However, the defense has been just fine at a premium position, he's been a very good baserunner, and that little-bit-of-everything hitting profile has led to him being just slightly less than a league-average hitter. Which, for a second baseman, isn't bad at all.
Then came 2016, and Wong has been terrible. But that's only relevant to this discussion in the sense that his awful season has opened some doors in ways we wouldn't have expected prior to this year.
The other player who made up that U of Hawaii middle infield is actually the player I'm interested in talking about. While Kolten Wong was moving from center field to second base for the Rainbow Warriors, Greg Garcia was holding down shortstop, and doing so in a way that basically made him absolutely no one's idea of a premium prospect. I hope that doesn't sound negative, because I don't mean it to be. It's just that Greg Garcia at Hawaii was exactly the sort of college middle infielder with virtually no chance at making an impact in pro ball, simply because the tools just aren't at that impact level. There's a whole demographic of these guys; smart, heady players with great skills and usually plenty of intangibles, too, but who lack the tools to ascend the ladder to the top. Tommy Edman, the Stanford shortstop the Cardinals took in the sixth round of this year's draft, falls squarely into this category of player. (That's Tommy Edman who currently sports a nifty 21:12 BB:K ratio and .442 OBP for State College right now, while doing things like this in the field.)
In college, Garcia was a solid defender at short, and had a knack for getting on base. His junior season at Hawaii, the year he was drafted, he put forth his best performance, hitting .358/.438/.505, with 31 walks and 30 strikeouts in 270 plate appearances. He only hit three home runs (partly because Les Murakami Stadium, where the Rainbow Warriors play their home games, is an absolutely brutal hitting environment), but smacked thirteen doubles and five triples. So there was patience, good contact ability, a little extra-base pop, and the ability to play the middle infield. It sounds like a pretty good package of qualities, until you realise there are dozens of middle infielders in college every year who more or less fit something approaching that general outline.
Kolten Wong jumped out to fast start in pro ball. Greg Garcia had to go it a bit slower. Where Wong jumped straight to full-season ball and then leapfrogged High A entirely, Garcia headed off to Johnson City after being drafted, the lower of the two short-season clubs the Cardinals field. To his credit, he hit well there, to the tune of a 122 wRC+.
His first full season, 2011, Garcia started off in the Midwest League, where his former Hawaiian teammate would debut after being drafted. He was solid for Quad Cities, putting together a walk- and contact-driven 110 wRC+. The power was sorely lacking, however, as he posted just an .080 ISO. At midseason he was promoted to Palm Beach, and surprisingly got better. He put up a 133 wRC+ in the hitter's nightmare that is the Florida State League, with a 12.1% walk rate and .129 ISO. That isolated slugging number probably doesn't look all that impressive, but in the context of the FSL, it's not bad at all. This was probably the first moment the prospect mavens among us noticed Garcia.
Garcia headed off to Double A Springfield in 2012, where he was reunited with Wong in the middle infield for the S-Cards. Wong played second, Garcia manned shortstop, and while Wong was certainly the headliner as mentioned before, it's hard to argue Garcia didn't significantly outplay him. Garcia was an on-base machine in Springfield, posting a 15.9% walk rate (against just a 16.5% K rate, by the way), and actually improving the .400 OBP he put up in Palm Beach to a .408 mark. The BABIP was more or less minor league normal, at .338. The only downside was still-modest power numbers, evinced by 10 home runs in over 500 trips to the plate (and remember, this is Hammons Field, so lefties typically clean up there), and a .136 ISO. Still, you can live with modest power when a guy gets on base 40% of the time, and that's exactly what Garcia did.
The fact Garcia was a year older than Wong when both were playing at the same Double A level goes a long way toward explaining why Wong was ranked in the top 5-10 in that great Cardinal prospect class of 2013, while Garcia was relegated to the 15-20 range. The draft pedigree holdover effect was a big part of it, too; Wong was a First-Rounder, while Garcia was the 229th overall pick a couple years before.
Moving to Triple A in 2013, Garcia basically continued his trajectory from Double A, but looked as if the level of competition was catching up to him in a hurry. He still walked a lot (11.6% BB rate), and replicated his strikeout rate from the year before, but the power took a dip (.113 ISO), and his overall production fell to a 108 wRC+. Which, you know, is still quite good for a guy playing in the middle of the diamond, but that's also the trajectory of a player who gets to the majors and just gets the bat knocked out of his hands.
The concern, following 2013, was this: Garcia's biggest quality is his patience at the plate. He has an ability to get on base without needing to hit his way on, which is a huge stabilising factor in a player's offensive production. The problem, though, is that without a certain baseline of power, major league pitchers are just going to attack a guy inside the strike zone with absolutely no fear, and that vaunted patience is going to become useless. Think of Mike O'Neill, the outfield prospect of a couple years ago. O'Neill put up monster OBP numbers in the low minors, because he never chased anything and had a magnificent batting eye. Low-level pitchers prone to missing the zone couldn't get him out. As he moved up, though, the pitchers became better at throwing strikes, and while he still had wonderful command over the zone, he lacked the thump in his bat to force pitchers to be careful with him. Being patient and not swinging at balls has limited efficacy when every pitch you see is a strike. The same outcome was the downside for Garcia.
The 2014 season seemed to confirm some of those concerns, as Garcia saw his walk rate dip below 10% and his strikeout rate rise to over 20% on his return to Triple A. He hit for the same amount of power as the previous season, but the downgrade in his plate discipline number dragged his wRC+ below 100 for the first time in his professional career, to 96. Again, that's still pretty good for a middle infielder, but it suggested this was a guy who might be topping out at AAA or perhaps the mythical Quad-A level. He received his first cup of coffee in the majors late in the 2014 season, pulled 18 plate appearances, and didn't do a whole lot with them.
Which brings us to 2015, which is very nearly the present. Garcia returned, again, to Triple A, and improved his plate discipline markedly. The near-1:1 walk to strikeout ratio was back, and a .351 BABIP helped him get on base at a .391 clip. The power, however, was nonexistent, as he posted an .070 ISO in the Pacific Coast League, typically known as a hitter's league in general. The on-base skills were still exciting, but the other, more problematic aspects of his profile seemed to be in full effect.
And then Garcia came up to the majors again, and here's where things get really interesting. At the MLB level in 2015, Garcia hit for more power than he had in Memphis (.147 ISO), but the plate discipline numbers remained excellent. Small sample size all to hell and back, but in 87 trips to the plate Garcia walked nearly as often as he struck out. A depressed BABIP of .262 kept his batting average low at .240, but he still got on base at a .337 clip and overall was nearly an exactly league-average hitter, with a 101 wRC+.
This year, Garcia has been even better; the plate discipline has been in full effect, as he's walked 17.6% of the time, struck out exactly as often, and has gotten on base to the tune of a .462(!) on-base percentage. Now, that number is being fueled by a .400 batting average on balls in play, but that walk rate is positively Carpenterian.
So here's the thing: we have a middle infielder, with very little hype throughout his career. He has always shown excellent control and understanding of the strike zone, but without enough power to make one think high-level pitchers would have to be cautious pitching to him. And in a major league career that now covers just shy of 200 plate appearances, Greg Garcia has produced a batting line of .272/.395/.401, with a career wRC+ of 124. Whereas Kolten Wong has always been hyped for his physical tools and dynamic game, Garcia has always been ignored, but continues to produce essentially everywhere he goes.
How real is the plate discipline for Garcia, though? We can use the Pitchf/x plate discipline numbers from Fangraphs to dig a little deeper, and what we find there is even more intriguing than the raw surface numbers.
O-Swing% measures the percentage of pitches a hitter swings at outside the strike zone. In general, the lower the number the better. (There are times a guy has to protect the plate down in the count where borderline swings are more understandable, or times when a ball out of the zone is the right pitch to hit for whatever reason, but in general, don't swing at balls. Right?) Greg Garcia's 2016 O-Swing% is just 19.2%, improved from 21.9% in 2015. For reference, Matt Carpenter's O-Swing% this season is 22.7%, while Kolten Wong's is 30.0%. Just to give some context on what different types of hitters might look like.
Z-Swing% is the other side of the coin; the percentage of pitches inside the zone a hitter swings at. Unlike O-Swing%, though, it's a little less clear which direction you want a player going in. You could say the higher the better, i.e. swinging at more strikes is a good thing, but that doesn't tell us how good the pitches a hitter is swinging at actually are. Some strikes you should swing at, others you should probably let go by. Garcia's 2016 Z-Swing is 58.1%, which actually feels a little low to me, a little too passive, perhaps. However, that's up from 55.8% in 2015, so he's actually being a bit more aggressive inside the zone this year, which is probably a good thing. Again, for reference, Matt Carpenter's 2016 Z-Swing% is 52.6%, so perhaps Garcia's approach is not as passive as it seems. Kolten Wong's is 64.3% in 2016, so again, here is a much more aggressive hitter's numbers for contrast.
An interesting companion stat to the swing percentage is contact percentage, which measures the percent of pitches a hitter swings at in or out of the zone that he actually makes contact with. Greg Garcia's out of zone contact rate for 2016: 66.7%. Carpenter 2016: 65.3%. Kolten Wong 2016: 71.4%. These numbers have much the same problem as in-zone swing rate, in that we don't actually know for certain what the ideal is. Making contact with pitches outside the zone would seem to be a good thing, as you're not swinging and missing, but those could also be pitcher's pitches you're putting in play weakly and thus wasting your at-bat. It's a tough balance to understand.
Z-Contact% is the companion to Z-Swing, measuring contact within the zone. This one is a little more cut-and-dried; you want a player to hit most of the strikes he swings at. There's still some fogginess here, though, since as with Z-Swing%, we have to question whether or not a pitch should be swung at simply because it is a strike. But, in general, I'll say higher is mostly better.
Garcia in 2016: 95.9%, which, you know, holy shit. He's making contact on almost 96% of the strikes he swings at. Pretty good. (I think.) Carpenter 2016: 93.7%. Wong 2016: 91.1%. I'm not trying to pile on Kolten Wong here, I promise; it's just that his approach being so different from these other two players helps illustrate how similar Garcia and Carpenter actually are.
So what does all this tell us? Well, to be honest, that's tough to say. Unfortunately, getting a full picture of how all these factors fit together to form a hitter's overall approach and production is still something analysts are working on. But here's the thing: we know Matt Carpenter is awesome. And Greg Garcia's underlying plate approach numbers are remarkably similar to Carpenter's. To me, that has to be an exciting sign.
I will also say this: Garcia has looked much better defensively to my eye than he did last season. The numbers agree, but are so small at this point as to be essentially useless. Still, though, I've been relatively impressed with what Garcia has done in the field. I don't know that he's a major league shortstop, but I think there's a very good chance he could be a major league second baseman. And hell, who knows? Maybe he's one of those fielders who just gets the job done at short, in spite of never looking amazing doing so.
Garcia is closing in on his 27th birthday, so it isn't as if he's still a young player more or less in the realm of prospectdom. What Greg Garcia is going to be, he probably already is, mostly. If ever there were a time to find out what you might have in a player, 26 years and 11 months is probably that time.
So this is my question to you, Sunday VEB: what do we think of Greg Garcia? Despite being far less hyped than his middle infield companion, he has seemingly gotten better over time, as opposed to Wong, who has really failed to develop and now seems to have gone backward. Do we believe in those numbers that paint Garcia as a lower-powered version of Matt Carpenter's beautiful grind? Or is this just small-sample nonsense, and there's no way the Redbirds could possibly have pulled another on-base machine from the barrel of obscurity?
Here's what I think: I think I want to see an infield of Jhonny Peralta at third base, Matt Carpenter at first, and some combination of Aledmys Diaz and Greg Garcia at short and second, take your pick on arrangements, for a solid three weeks straight, just to see what it looks like. Beyond that, I really have no idea. But the fact is, Greg Garcia, in his exceedingly short major league career, has essentially done what he did in the minors, and just gets on base one way or another. To me, that's worth at least testing out to see if it's real or not, on a more full-time basis.