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Greg Garcia has developed a problem against breaking balls

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A closer look at someone who could see more regular time the next couple of weeks

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On the heels of losing Trevor Rosenthal to Tommy John Surgery, the Cardinals suffered the loss of another player on Saturday. Jedd Gyorko hit the disabled list for a right hamstring strain yesterday after coming out of Saturday’s game. While he’s been stuck in a slump for about two and a half months now, this is still an unwelcoming development.

While Aledmys Diaz has been getting some work in at third and second, the Cardinals opted not to bring him back to the major league club in Jedd’s absence. When he was demoted he seemed lost at the plate, with deteriorating plate discipline and contact abilities. He’s yet to turn things around in Memphis.

Diaz road the struggle bus to a 78 wRC+ over 288 plate appearances before his demotion, meaning he performed 22% worse than the average big league hitter. His walk and power numbers were down, and his strikeouts were up. In triple-A he’s been even worse as he’s posted just a 72 wRC+ in 153 plate appearances, meaning he’s been 28% worse than the average Triple-A hitter. Is this listlessness a function of him working on things? Maybe, but if so, it’s fair to say he hasn’t figured out what he needs to yet.

First baseman Luke Voit was called up to replace Gyorko on the 25-man roster. While he’s already achieved some national notoriety for his offense and Matt Carpenter could shift over to play the position he played most of the previous three years, Voit isn’t expected to replace Gyorko in the lineup. Going forward that will likely fall to Greg Garcia, who started at third yesterday.

Garcia started out the year buried on the bench. Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko were to battle it out for the starting third-baseman’s job, and it was assumed the loser would be the primary back-up infielder. Carpenter’s positional flexibility meant that Matt Adams could function as a utility infielder by proxy as well.

With an awful start to the year, Peralta ceded the starting job to Gyorko. Continued awfulness prompted his release. Then Matt Adams was traded. Kolten Wong also took two trips to the disabled list and as mentioned, Diaz struggled mightily. All this together meant that even with the ascension of Voit and Paul DeJong, Garcia was able to find some decent playing time. Now with the injury to Gyorko, he could be starter for most of the next couple weeks.

Last year, Garcia was a bit of a favorite of mine. He posted an impressive 14.8% walk rate while striking out at a below average rate. He showed little power, and his results on-contact were propped up by a .346 BABIP. That was never likely to continue, but he also sported an approach geared towards hits on balls in play, so maybe he would regress a little less than most in that category. The end result was a wRC+ of 111.

Even if he regressed back to league average, that’s a useful package for a backup infielder making the minimum that can at least conceivably make spot starts at short (I make no claims of being a scout, but by my untrained eye I saw someone who was at least better than Diaz at the most important non-battery position).

He currently sits at a 97 wRC+ on the year. His BABIP regressed, but only to .336, still a well-above average mark. The problem is his strikeout rate is up a couple of percentage points and his walk rate has dropped 1 12 percentage points. 13.3% is still a well-above average walk rate, but it makes the total package a little less impressive when accompanied with average strikeout rates and an ISO reminiscent of Jon Jay.

A quick look at the plate discipline section of his stats on Fangraphs.com reveals the problem: He’s seen a drop in contact rate, going from 85.8% to 80.6%. This is substantial. For some context, among 250 players with at least 200 plate appearances in both 2016 and 2017, it’s the 13th biggest drop. That’s just outside the bottom 2%.

At the same time, pitchers have absolutely no fear of challenging Garcia. Again going with the 200 plate appearance threshold, he has the second highest Zone% of 316 players (50.7%). Second place Taylor Motter of the Mariners beat him out by a single tenth of a percent. With a middling 43.5% in 2016, the gain is the biggest of those 250 players with 200 plate appearances in both years.

This seems to represent a pretty substantial adjustment that pitchers have made towards Garcia. One of his best skills is his ability to lay off out of the zone pitches. He held the 8th lowest O-Swing% in 2016, and is thus far 5th in 2017. Since he shows little power, why not just pound the zone against him? With the newfound contact problems, this strategy is an even better idea.

When breaking things down by pitch, we find two problem areas. here’s some stats from both years concerning Garcia’s production against the slider and curve:

Garcia breaking ball plate discipline

Season Pitch Pitches O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Season Pitch Pitches O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2016 Slider (SL) 148 30.8 % 77.2 % 76.4 % 38.5 % 11.5 %
2017 Slider (SL) 150 29.4 % 51.7 % 63.2 % 38.7 % 14.0 %
2016 Curveball (CU) 103 22.7 % 46.0 % 71.9 % 35.9 % 8.7 %
2017 Curveball (CU) 97 33.3 % 39.5 % 51.4 % 44.3 % 17.5 %

Greg has avoided swinging at out of the zone sliders at a very similar rate to last year. However, his in-zone swing rate has dropped 33%. He seems to want nothing to do with the slider, which makes sense as his contact rate has dropped 17%. Slider usage is up to Garcia from 12.3% to 16.7%

The curve ball also shows a problem. He’s increased the out of zone swings by 50%, while his in zone swings have decreased 14%. His contact rate against the curve has plummeted 29%. It’s sensible to guess that the contact drop is due to swinging at more out of the zone curves and less in zone ones, but his in-zone contact rate has also dropped significantly. Pitchers are unafraid to throw the curve in the zone, as evidenced by the jump in curve zone%.

Let’s look at the specifics. I’m about to show six strike zone heat maps courtesy of BaseballSavant.com, all concerning breaking pitches. The three on the left side will be from 2016. The three on the right are from 2017. The first set will be all breaking balls thrown to Garcia. The second set is all the swings he’s taken against breaking balls. The final set is swings and misses against breaking balls. Maybe that’s too much info for one graphic, but I think it’s easiest to compare and contrast them when they’re all right next to each other. Here goes:

As far as how pitchers attacked Garcia with breaking balls, it’s mostly the same but more dispersed. In 2016, they mostly targeted the low-outside corner, as one would expect for most hitters. That’s still the case this year, but they’re also targeting off-the-plate low and inside more often.

As we saw in table form earlier, swings in the zone against breaking balls has plummeted. Last year Garcia showed good selection in that he put a lot of swings against breaking balls in the middle of the plate. That has evaporated this year..

We also can also see an increase in swings and misses in the zone. In 2016, the biggest concentration of swings and misses came in that low off the plate and inside region. That explains why pitchers have gone there more often this year. Pitchers are still getting swings and misses there this year, but are now getting them low and outside in the zone as well.

Usually when we talk about players having trouble against the breaking ball, they’re power hitters with contact problems. DeJong and Randal Grichuk come to mind. However, Garcia is one data point that shows that those that control the strike zone well, have above-average contact rates, and live more off the line-drive and hard grounder can suffer as well. Greg doesn’t chase those breaking balls too often, he’s just struggling with making contact with them.

As to why Garcia is suffering from this problem, I can’t say. Maybe it’s a change in mechanics that leaves him less likely to adjust to the breaking ball. Maybe he’s lost bat speed and is trying to make up for it by starting his swing earlier, leaving him more vulnerable. But the same thing isn’t occurring on changeups.

I’ll leave that as an exercise for the scouts. Pitchers have noticed something though, as breaking ball usage against him is up, and pitchers are less afraid to leave it in the zone against him.

Even with these deficiencies, Garcia has still impressed me in part-time play. While it’s easy to point to his BABIP and expect regression, his xwOBA (which grades out the quality of his contact based on Statcast data) was 9 points higher than his wOBA going into yesterday’s game. Add on that he’s an above-average runner, and that gives his expectation a few more points of wOBA. Despite worse results, he’s only solidified my opinion that he’s a nice bench piece to have around for the next few years at a meager salary.

Right now, he’s the Cards best option to replace Gyorko’s spot on the field and in the lineup. However, I also worry that Garcia will be exposed in a full-time role. Pitchers have already learned how to more effectively attack Garcia in one way. What other deficiencies will come to light with him in the everyday lineup? For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.