Since being acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals in July, Luis Garcia and TJ McFarland have stabilized the bullpen and become two of Mike Shildt’s preferred relief options. This is an unlikely scenario for the duo who was cast aside by the Yankees and the Nationals, respectively. The success of each pitcher is tied to their individual arsenal adjustments they made this season, which has seen each of them pitch in a way that they had not pitched previously.
Of the two, Luis Garcia has been the more impressive, and that is nothing against McFarland. Garcia has posted a 3.45 ERA and a 1.39 FIP with the Redbirds this season. He has also compiled a career high 27.9% strikeout rate and a microscopic walk rate of just 1.6%. These are incredible numbers for someone who was granted his release by the Yankees at the beginning of July.
These are the best numbers of Garcia’s career, and even though there is the danger of a small sample size, there are clear reasons for it.
To begin with, Garcia’s slider is just plain nasty this season. The pitch has allowed just a .177 wOBA while generating a 60.5% whiff rate. That whiff rate is the fifth highest whiff rate on a single pitch among all pitchers in baseball with a minimum of ten plate appearances. He has only thrown 69 of them, but those 69 pitches have been practically unhittable.
Garcia has always had a nasty slider, though. The problem is that he started throwing it less and less following the 2018 season. That year, the slider was Garcia’s primary pitch, and he threw it just over 39% of the time. In 2019, his usage of the pitch dropped to 34.2%, and in 2020 , it dropped to just 25%. A pitch that good needs to be thrown more often, and Garcia has increased his usage of the pitch to over 35% this season. With how dominant it has been, though, he could stand to increase the usage even more.
While the increased slider usage is important, the biggest change that he has made to his arsenal has been settling on one fastball. In previous years, Garcia threw a four-seamer and a sinker. His usage typically favored the sinker, but he still threw plenty of four-seamers. This season, Garcia has almost exclusively thrown sinkers. In fact, he has thrown just six four-seamers all year. This has proven to be a good choice, as he has allowed just a .203 wOBA on the sinker.
Even though Garcia has plenty of velocity, his four-seamer is not a pitch that profiles particularly well. It does not have a great spin rate and it gets below average ‘rise’. He has also not had great success with the pitch throughout his career. This is partially because he has consistently located it at the top of the zone, and with the profile of the pitch that is not a great choice. Whether he did this by choice or was instructed to do this by the coaching staffs around him, it did not work well.
Until now, though, he has been unwilling to abandon the pitch. His willingness to do so this season has allowed his sinker to thrive. The right-hander throws the pitch well at the bottom of the zone and gets above-average drop which makes his high velocity even more difficult to handle.
Since dropping his four-seamer, Garcia has been able to focus on his two best pitches - a high velocity sinker and a nasty slider. The increased usage of his slider means that he is throwing a very good pitch more often. This presents a problem for hitters as they can no longer sit on his fastball or they will have no chance against his slider.
Another pitcher who has benefited from a good sinker is TJ McFarland. He throws the pitch 68.5% of the time and has allowed just a .204 wOBA against the offering. The sinker has always been his go-to pitch, but until this season, the left-hander favored a slider as his primary offspeed pitch. This slider was never very good though, and when a pitcher’s primary offspeed pitch does not make a hitter worry, then the hitter is able to crush fastballs while knowing that he can adjust to the slider if it is thrown.
McFarland’s slider had a couple of solid seasons, but it has not been a good offering since 2018 and it was hammered in 2020, which was the first season that the velocity of the pitch fell below 80 miles per hour. As a result, McFarland has adjusted and made the changeup his go-to secondary pitch. He is now throwing the pitch a career high 22% of the time, while his slider usage has dropped to a career low 9.4%.
The changeup has generated a .220 wOBA (.174 xwOBA) and has presented hitters with an offspeed pitch that they have to think about. The movement of the two pitches mirror each other, with the changeup breaking a little more in both directions. This can make it difficult for a hitter to identify which pitch is coming at him, and this allows the seven mile per hour velocity difference to keep him off balance.
Where Garcia has elite velocity which helps his sinker, McFarland has elite movement. The pitch has 8.1 inches of drop more than the average sinker, and it also runs 1.9 inches more than average. With an average velocity of just 88.8 miles per hour, McFarland needs elite movement to make the pitch difficult to barrel and a good offspeed pitch to keep the hitter of balance. He has both of those, and that has allowed his sinker to be a strong offering.
Both Garcia and McFarland have rearranged their pitch arsenals this season, and that has allowed both of them to have success. Finding, and using, a secondary pitch that misses bats (Garcia) or generates weak contact (McFarland) keeps hitters off balance and has allowed each pitcher to have a better fastball. This change has been instrumental in the success of these pitchers and has allowed each one to have a sinker that ranks within the top ten sinkers in baseball (minimum 25 PAs) in terms of wOBA.
Such changes have allowed the Cardinals bullpen to solidify and it has demonstrated that some talent can be acquired via the dumpster diving method.