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What is going on with Jaime Garcia?

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St Louis Cardinals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

We are 26 starts into Jaime Garcia’s 2016 season, and we still have no legitimate grasp on which pitcher will be present on the mound every fifth day. Garcia opened the month of August with a brilliant 11-strikeout, 8-inning start against the Braves but has since allowed at least five earned runs in each of this last three starts — against teams with better offenses in the Athletics, Mets, and Astros. Heck, because of Garcia’s inconsistency and the emergence of alternatives, we have even reached the point where we are not 100% positive he is worthy of a spot on the postseason roster (should the Cardinals make it, of course), considering both that playoff rotations are typically trimmed to four members and that the 30-year-old lefty has not held a bullpen role since his MLB debut season of 2008.

Now, given Garcia’s performance, would you be surprised if I told you that, so far in 2016, each one of his pitches has experienced more horizontal movement than in any other year of his career? Remember, Garcia has always been known for throwing five non-straight pitches. In fact, I believe the narrative has grown to the point where it has been said that he can dial up and dial down movement whenever he feels like it.

Well, upon review of his player card over at BrooksBaseball.net, each one of Garcia’s pitches has indeed possessed more horizontal movement in 2016 than in any season prior. Please note that even though I excluded 2013 and 2014 from the table due to Garcia amassing only a total of 16 starts over the two seasons, this statement still holds true.

Remember: Regarding horizontal movement in left-handed pitchers, a negative value means glove-side movement, whereas a positive value means arm-side movement.

A pitch possessing more horizontal movement is generally regarded as a positive. This is why I continue to rave about Carlos Martinez’s repertoire, and why I simply cannot wait to track the progression of Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver. However, as suggested by PitchF/x guru Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav), there are important factors to consider when such a broad change in horizontal movement occurs. One factor Pavlidis specifically brought up was Garcia’s arm slot. Has that changed in 2016? If it has indeed changed (i.e. dropped down), then boom, there is our explanation for the increase in horizontal movement seen this season. Let’s take a look:

As I have mentioned in previous articles, the scale of the graph (the y-axis starts at 6) makes the decline look more significant than it really is, but at the same time, no one can deny the trend taking shape over the last eight years. Garcia’s vertical release point, on each pitch, is on a steady decline. However, vertical release point data remains an estimate, so let’s, too, take a look at a couple screenshots to see if we can recreate the release point decline seen in the graph above:

On the left is a fastball thrown in a start against the Reds on October 1, 2012 — a season in which Garcia posted 2.8 fWAR in only 121.2 innings pitched. On the right is a fastball thrown in a start, versus, again, the Reds, with this one taking place roughly three weeks ago. First, can we talk about how Hankook is using essentially the same advertisement in 2016 as they used back in 2012, with the only noticeable changes being a bigger tire around more sporty rims? I guess you go with what works, but I found that strange when digging around for screenshots to use for this post.

Second, and more pertinent to the topic at hand, the difference in vertical release point is clear between 2012 (left) and 2016 (right). Garcia tilts his upper body more ferociously on the left, leading to a higher release point, while his release is considerably flatter on the right. If you still aren’t completely convinced, look at the location of Garcia’s left wrist. On the left, you can see home plate on both sides of it, and vertically, it has climbed “above” the plate and is level with Molina left shinguard two-dimensionally. On the right, the wrist appears to be coming around the plate horizontally (you can only see home plate on the right of his wrist), and vertically, while still above the plate, it is not as significant as it was in the 2012 image.

So...what exactly does this all mean?

Exactly, I am not entirely sure. However, it does mean one of two things: 1) Garcia is purposely making an adjustment to his mechanics (for what reason, I do not know) or 2) Garcia is injured.

But, Joe, Garcia’s velocity is right where it has always been, if not even higher than previous seasons, so wouldn’t that indicate he is still healthy? While velocity can absolutely be indicative of arm health, it isn’t the only factor. Before Trevor Rosenthal’s extended disabled list stint this season (he has not pitched since July 24th), he was still able to touch 100 MPH on occasion, so as I was saying, velocity isn’t necessarily a foolproof predictor.

On the other hand, if a pitcher is consistently using different mechanics (as we are seeing with Garcia in 2016), it is not unreasonable to suspect he may be compensating for an injury (and there is a chance he may be doing this unknowingly). Either way, a conclusion can be drawn that Garcia’s vertical release point has dropped and because of it, he is experiencing more horizontal movement.

Collateral damage from a flatter delivery resulting in more horizontal movement can be less vertical movement. While the vertical movement on Garcia’s sinker, changeup, and slider all remain relatively unchanged, his fourseamer and curveball all have experienced less drop than what we have seen in previous seasons. For a ground ball pitcher, this is important, especially considering Garcia is throwing his fourseamer more frequently than ever before.

Another thing to consider regarding a different ball flight is command. Garcia, who tops out in the low 90’s, is at his best when he is able to paint the inside and outside corners. Is this newfound horizontal movement negatively affecting his ability to hit the corners of the strike zone? For example, is Yadi asking for Garcia’s fourseamer on the inside corner to a right-handed hitter only to have the pitch drift over toward the middle of the plate? It is certainly plausible.

Finally, beyond mechanical changes and potential injuries, Garcia could also help himself out by becoming less predictable on the first pitch of at bats. So far in 2016, with the count of 0-0, Garcia has thrown one of his two fastballs to lefties 84% of the time (a career high) and to righties 78% of the time. This predictability has led to a .294/.310/.588 slash line against on the first pitch, and batters have put Garcia’s first pitch into play 91 times (13.9% of all plate appearances) — again, a career high, and we haven’t even reached September yet.