This is Cat Garcia’s final post as part of her FanGraphs residency. She is a freelance baseball writer whose work has appeared at The Athletic, MLB.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, La Vida Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus, among others. She is a Chicago native and previously worked at Wrigley Field before becoming a full-time freelancer. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBaseballGirl.
It’s been a long journey for Jaime García. Over the course of a 10-year career, he has battled back from three major surgeries. The Cardinals sent him to the Braves in the 2017 offseason, and he was traded twice more before the season was done. He signed with the Blue Jays this past February but was designated for assignment at the end of August after putting up a 5.93 ERA and a 5.23 FIP in 74 innings of work. A day later, García signed a minor-league deal with a Chicago Cubs team in the thick of a pennant race.
The question was, what would García’s role be in Chicago? He had lost his job as a starter in Toronto and was sporting a less-than-ideal ERA. But García came with one asset that stood out to the Cubs — a strong slider that looked brilliant out of the bullpen.
“I feel like… being in the bullpen has allowed me to feel pitches a lot better and finish pitches better,” García told me when I spoke to him. “I think that’s had an impact on my slider. You only have to pitch an inning, and even if you’re not feeling 100% or you’re fatigued, you just keep going out there and kind of feel things better, and it’s only for an inning or two.”
Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey was quick to point out the uniqueness of García’s slider.
“The ability to get it under a right-handed hitter not just a left-handed hitter,” Hickey said. “A lot of times, those left-handed relief pitchers that have the breaking ball use it primarily versus the left-handed hitters. But he’s certainly able to get up under the right-handed hitter very well.”
Take a look at how García has employed his slider against hitters on both sides of the plate this season. It proves to be just as effective as Hickey mentioned.
García had an interesting beginning to his career on the North Side. After weather caused a postponement, García made his Cubs debut when he started the first game of a doubleheader in Washington, a game in which he allowed three earned runs and three walks over just a third of an inning.
García went on to explain what he felt went wrong in that start, claiming that he didn’t want to speak to the media about it the day of the game so as not to seem as though he was making excuses.
“There was a lot of stuff,” García said. “I didn’t talk to [the media], but I never make excuses. I was scheduled to pitch in Iowa, and that game got rained out so I hadn’t pitched in, like, two weeks and then I had to drive from Iowa to Milwaukee. Six hours in terrible weather because all the flights were cancelled, and the next day I had to get up early in the morning to throw live BP at the stadium, and from there we went to Washington and I was scheduled to pitch after Jon [Lester], and the night before they said ‘No, you’re pitching the next day.’
“I’m not making excuses, but there was a lot. Physically I wasn’t ready, and I also think I threw a lot in the bullpen trying to prepare for a normal start — which what I had been doing for the last month was warm up, throw a couple, go in the game. I feel like I tried to treat it like a start, so there were a lot of little things… sometimes things are going to happen, they hit a ground ball to first and it was under Rizzo’s glove… one of the best first basemen in the league. So, to make a long story short, I think it’s just baseball, right?”
After that start, García appeared out of the bullpen exclusively. From September 14 to October 1, he recorded a 1.23 ERA and a 3.57 FIP in 7.1 innings pitched. He threw 65% of his pitches for strikes during that period, with batters whiffing on more than 30% of sliders thrown. García did not allow a single hit off the 16 sliders he threw in that time. Eight of his sliders came on two-strike counts, good for a 75% whiff rate. That’s quite effective.
Though the velocity on his slider has dropped from an average of 83 mph in 2014, before he underwent thoracic outlet surgery, to around 80 mph at the end of 2018, García has been able to maintain the velocity of his fastball, giving him enough of a difference in velocity between his pitches to better set up his offspeed offering.
Hickey and García both noted that, when he arrived with the Cubs, García had not seen in-game action since August 20 with Toronto. That will take a toll on any pitcher, not to mention one who is making his debut with a new team.
“After that [break], he was [warming] up or in a game four consecutive games,” Hickey said. “So that was a pretty big test, and he came out of that fine, he felt good. He really enjoys the bullpen, which isn’t always the case with a starter. He’s very comfortable with the transition, he likes it, and I guess it’s not unusual [to transition]. He’s done his time starting, so it’s not like he’s some failed starter or a young kid that you’re moving out to the bullpen.”
García’s humility and desire to pitch well is evident when he speaks.
“I don’t want to say I know a lot,” García said. “But my biggest asset right now is being able to adapt and being able to work with what I have. I adapt to and embrace any situation. I was honest with [the Cubs]. I told them ‘Hey, I’m here. Won’t take me long to warm up. My biggest thing is getting past that certain point, so it doesn’t take me long to warm up, and if you feel like I can get righties and lefties out, that’s great. If you feel like I can only get lefties out, I’m ready. If you need me to get a lefty in the third inning or a lefty in extra innings or ninth inning or close a game or throw two innings, whatever, I’m here.’
“I made myself available… I just have to be honest about how my body responds after certain pitches, after we get to a certain point after things happen. Other than that, do whatever you need to do with me. I didn’t come here to say ‘Hey, I want to pitch past this inning or I want to pitch for more than this [amount] of pitches [or] I only want to face lefties.’ Of course, facing lefties is a little better for me, but I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m making myself available to whatever you need,’ and I think they appreciated that.”
García understands that his journey as a starter is all but behind him and that his career may soon be coming to a close. But as he pointed out, one thing he does have is his ability to adapt. García will hit the free-agent market for the second time in his career this winter; in this case, however, it will be as a reliever who comes equipped with a slider that stops hitters in their tracks on both sides of the plate. There aren’t many of those out there who also come with the wisdom and humility García has.
The Cubs didn’t try to fix García. They simply highlighted what he had left in the tank and utilized it to benefit both him and their ball club. What comes next in the journey, he’ll have to do on his own.
Cat Garcia is a freelance baseball writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Follow her on Twitter — @TheBaseballGirl.