In one way, Jaime Garcia’s season should be considered a success. He’s pitched 164 2⁄3 innings this year, second only to 2011, when his 3.23 FIP and above average ground-ball rate replaced Adam Wainwright's production. So many Cardinals pundits and fans have said the same thing over and over about Jaime: "If only he could stay healthy, who knows what he could do!"
You would have thought if Jaime stayed healthy the whole year that he’d be one of the more valuable pitchers in the game. Well, baseball is weird. Garcia has stayed healthy in 2016. Instead of putting together the amazing season Cardinals fans always hoped for, Jaime has posted his worst marks in ERA and FIP since his 2008 rookie season. That year he started one game and appeared in nine others, for a total of 16 innings. His lack of results has caused Mike Matheny to pull Garcia out of the rotation, in favor of Alex Reyes.
Traditional fans are worried about his rising ERA, while the stat-savvy crowd has worried about his rising FIP. The stats crowd has also noticed, however, that his xFIP is much lower than those two marks. Here’s a 5-start rolling average for Jaime in all three of those stats:
His ERA has shot sky high recently. The same can be said of his FIP, though not to the same degree. His xFIP however, at the moment sits about right at his average over the last three years. As you probably know, FIP is based on strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and homers. That is, the things a pitcher directly controls, without any input from the defense. xFIP replaces homers with the amount of homers a pitcher would give up if he had a league average HR/FB rate. Knowing that, you could probably reason that Garcia has given up a lot of homers lately, but he’s striking out and walking hitters at about the same rate. You would be right:
As the above links will tell you, generally, homer rate fluctuates wildly for pitchers over short samples. While a pitcher exercises control over his home run rate, it’s not near as representative of his talent level in the short term as are strikeouts and walks. The hitter is more responsible for quality of contact than the pitcher. Also note that this doesn’t appear to be due to any loss in Jaime’s trademark ability to induce grounders:
I changed the time frame on this one to from 2010 on, as 2015 was Jaime's best year in GB%, and it didn't seem fair to compare 2016 to his best year. This year is down from 2015, but it's still his third best year overall in GB%, and hes also been around average in most of his recent starts.
That may really be all there has to be the say about it: Jaime has some homeritis, but he’s still walking and striking out guys at about the same rate he usually does. It’ll probably smooth over. However, let’s make sure. Let’s look at what pitches hitters are teeing off on. Let’s look at some ball in play stats by pitch from Brooksbaseball.net’s page. We’ll compare his stats from 2015 through July of this season to August and on:
From 2015 to the end of July, he threw his fourseamer and sinker a combined 2261 times, and yielded just 12 homers off those pitches. From August to now, he has thrown those pitches 369 times, giving up 10 homers. You can also see the consequential increases in Isolated slugging percentage (ISO).
First, I wanted to see if his pitch mix has changed. Here’s his pitch mix over the same time frames:
Looks pretty similar to me. He’s throwing the change more often and the slider less, but that doesn’t seem all that different. It’s something we’ll keep in mind though. Let’s look at the velocity he gets on those pitches, again provided by Brooksbaseball.net:
Outside of the weird rise and fall in curveball velocity, everything looks normal. For all we know, Brooks may just have classified some Jaime sliders as curves. Again, like the changeup thing, we’ll keep it in mind, but it’s probably nothing. I could post the vertical and horizontal movement graphs as well, but again, they don’t indicate much. I will link them in case you want a look for yourself.
So if he’s still throwing mostly the same pitch mix, and he’s also still getting the same velocity and movement as usual, maybe he’s locating differently. So let’s jump over to BaseballSavant.com, and their cool pitch location heatmaps. First, let’s see if Garcia’s command of his fourseamer has changed from the 2015 to July 2016 time frame (left) to the beginning of August 2016 to now (right):
One thing that jumps out to me is how bad both of the these heatmaps look. Jaime seems to just challenge hitters, and let his incredibly movement keep hitters from squaring the ball up. Now let’s look at the pitch that Brooksbaseball.net calls a sinker, and Baseballsavant.com calls a two-seamer:
The location is a little more up from August 5th to now, but not by much at all. Such a small change should be easily correctable, and shouldn't lead to the extreme change we've seen anyway. Finally, let’s look at the change-up. The change-up hasn’t been getting bad results, but it plays off his fastballs and the fastballs play off it. If something was going on with the change-up, it could allow hitters to square up the four-seamer and sinker better.
If anything, Jaime is locating the change-up better the last month and a half. It also bears pointing out that Jaime doesn’t seem to have changed much with the release point:
Just because Matheny almost certainly doesn’t look at pitch f/x results, it doesn't mean he shouldn't know this stuff. That’s because he’s watching every pitch, and we know that because every game the broadcast gives us some variation of this shot about 30 times:
This is Mike Matheny’s "intently interested" face, and he has it on any time a pitch is being thrown. As a former MLB catcher, Mike should be able to identify changes in velocity and movement from the pitchers he sees often. If he can’t, then pitching coach Derek Lilliquist or someone else should be doing it. If the angle from the dugout isn't great, then watch the bullpen sessions or ask Yadi. This, to me, seems like basic player evaluation that should be done regularly by the coaching staff.
And the reason it should be done is exactly for situations like this. Is Jaime just going through a rough patch, or is something wrong going on? Matheny seems to think there's something wrong, but I’m not sure what would lead him to believe that other than looking at his homer rate or ERA. As a former MLB catcher, evaluating whether a pitcher has his usual stuff and command should be a strength for Mike. However, it seems to be a weakness.
Of course, there is information that Mike’s privy too that we're not. Maybe Jaime is hurting, though Mike Matheny claims to have not been informed of such. Maybe he’s just skipping Jaime, but the Cardinals are claiming that he will join the bullpen. From our end though, it sure looks like he's being replaced in the rotation without a reason other than results.
And what about Reyes? Well, Matheny cited Reyes’ performance in relief for Jaime as a reason to give him this opportunity. While Reyes only gave up one hit and no runs in his 4 1⁄3 inning outing, there was reason to worry as he struck out four and walked six. Most the time, when you walk more people than you strike out, the result isn’t going to be pretty. Reyes made it work on Wednesday. That's another point in favor of Mike just going with a results-oriented approach, while managing a game in which the results reveal little going forward.
Alex’s 28 innings have been better than that overall, posting a 2.89 FIP. However, when looking at xFIP it rises to 3.93. From August 5th to now, Jaime has posted a 3.68 xFIP, which is actually up from his year to date xFIP of 3.83. And that’s without counting the fact that 62% of Reyes’ innings have been in relief, where pitchers on average post an xFIP 38 points lower than when they start. Don't get me wrong, Reyes' stuff is electric and makes me very optimistic about his future. It’s just not clear right now that Reyes is a better option than Garcia, and it’s even less clear that the best way to utilize each as an asset is to have Reyes start and Garcia pitch in relief.
From this you might think I support picking up Garcia’s option. However, as I’ve talked about before, if they do so, it would lead to them trading someone. Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake both have no-trade clauses, so that would mean trading one of Garcia, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, or Carlos Martinez. The Cards seem to value Carlos highly. However, the team is torpedoing the trade value of Wacha and Garcia by moving them to the bullpen late in the season.
So, an injury prone starter struggles down the stretch, enough so that his manager pulls him out of the rotation and into the bullpen. That would seem to be all another team needs to see to be very wary of trading for Garcia. However, it really doesn’t look like Garcia is hurt. If the Cardinals pick up Jaime’s option, they’ll have to know ahead of time that they can trade him.
The upcoming free agent market is very weak, so even with how low Jaime’s value is right now, I think he could still fetch the Cardinals something in the off-season. That something would be undoubtedly higher had his manager not pulled him out of the rotation, but still. John Mozeliak undoubtedly has a better idea of the MLB trade market though, and I wouldn't be surprised if his assessment was that it wasn't worth it to pick up Jaime's option and go through the trouble of finding a taker.
As for Wacha, he’s cheaper in the near term and controllable for longer (he enters his first round of arbitration this year so is set to be a free agent after 2019). A team will definitely trade more value for Wacha, but again, it’s unclear how much they’ll be willing to risk when his current team just moved him to the pen.
Maybe Garcia’s hurt, but it sure doesn’t look like it. What it does look like is he gave up a few homers more than average over a short time frame, which is inevitable for pitchers, and doesn’t really mean anything. It also looks like Matheny has over-reacted to those few extra homers, and replaced Jaime with a weaker pitcher in the rotation, while also removing a weapon from the bullpen. I get it, Matheny is feeling pressure to do something. His team is in a playoff race and behind late. But when you do something without actually knowing if you're addressing a problem, it can often be counter-productive. That looks exactly like what is going on in this situation.