Jaime Garcia has had Tommy John surgery, rotator-cuff surgery, and thoracic-outlet surgery. Despite those setbacks — or perhaps to spite them — yesterday Garcia pitched the game of his life, throwing harder than he ever has during his career. Garcia’s afternoon was nearly perfect: a wild pitch on a strikeout, a walk that was erased by a double play, and one hard-hit single were the only blemishes on a 13-strikeout performance. Garcia’s performance was made possible by continuing to keep the Brewers hitters off balance.
Garcia’s opposition on the day often seemed dumbfounded by his arsenal, unable to figure out which pitch was coming and frequently finding themselves frozen. Twenty-six of Garcia’s pitches were taken for strikes, and these weren’t just get-ahead fastballs. Eight of the 13 Garcia strikeouts came looking. Given that so many pitches were taken, it’s probably necessary to check the strike zone and make sure Garcia was not benefiting from an expanded zone. Here was the zone against left-handers, from the catcher’s point of view.
It looks like Milwaukee might have an argument on a couple of their pitches, but there are no called strikes for Garcia out of the traditional zone, and there is even one ball. Now, for the right-handers:
Same situation here: Milwaukee pitchers could have gotten a few more strikes, but Garcia was not the beneficiary of a larger-than-normal strike zone. What is noticeable, particularly in the right-handed plot, is how willing Garcia is to pitch throughout the strike zone. Garcia gets such great movement on his pitches and keeps hitters off balance, it doesn’t particularly matter where a pitch is located. This is not a new phenomenon for Garcia. When I wrote about his resurrection last season, I contrasted his heat map with fellow ground-ball pitchers, noting that Garcia used all of the strike zone, as illustrated by the heat map below.
Garcia throws five pitches, and he gets good results from all of them, although he only threw one curve in the game against Milwaukee. Last season, all five pitches — four-seam, two-seam, slider, change, curve — featured run values at least two runs above average and among the top 35 for each pitch. This was despite the fact that Garcia recorded just 129 innings, throwing only his two-seam more than 22% of the time and throwing his curve just 6% of the time. The only other pitchers in baseball last season to record at least two runs above average on five different pitches were Matt Harvey, Sonny Gray, and Jake Arrieta.
Garcia’s mix works in the absence of high velocity because the pitches all work differently with different movement and speed — and all of them possess very good movement. To give a basic idea of how the pitches work together, the chart below depicts the horizontal and vertical movement on Garcia’s pitches from yesterday’s game (once again, from the catcher’s perspective).
The four-seam and the two-seam are thrown at roughly the same speed, but they move differently, with the two-seamer moving further away from right-handers. Now compare the two-seam with the change. The movement of the two pitches is nearly identical, but with an 8-mph velocity difference, the deceptively similar pitches will be difficult to hit.
Let’s watch it in action. Ryan Braun was the third batter of the game. He saw two four-seam fastballs that he fouled off, the second one at 93.9 mph, per Brooks Baseball, which is nearly the fastest pitch Garcia has ever thrown in the majors. Garcia does not waste pitches and, while a thigh-high 0-2 pitch on the inner half of the plate does not seem like a good idea, the change fools Braun.
If he throws the four-seam like that, the pitch is probably inside based on the graph above, but the movement on the change keeps the ball over the plate and the drop in speed is deceptive. That was one of five strikeouts Garcia would get on three pitches. Here is another to Jonathan Lucroy. Garcia started Lucroy off with a sinker in the bottom of the zone for strike one. He then gets Lucroy to chase a change down out of the zone but across the plate. Then he throws a slider.
From where Garcia stands on the rubber, that pitch might have looked to Lucroy like it was going high and outside. It would have been outside if he had thrown the four-seamer, two-seamer, or change — the pitch that he just whiffed on — but it was the slider, and that pitch moved back across the plate and stayed in the strike zone.
It would not be fair to say the Brewers gave up at any point, but Garcia certainly left them with little hope throughout the day. In the sixth inning, Scooter Gennett came to the plate and took a two-seamer, then whiffed on a slider. Perhaps thinking slider again, Gennett seemed ill-prepared for another two-seamer on the outer half of the plate.
It might be time to add the caveat that Garcia did this against the Brewers, a team few expect to finish anywhere near the playoff race this season. However, the Brewers are not the Padres on offense. Milwaukee will be really bad this year because of the pitching. Their team projected wOBA of .315 comes in tied for eighth in the National League, and their projected runs scored is ninth, just 1/100th of a run away from the Marlins. Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucory and Domingo Santana are all projected well-above average as hitters with Gennett coming close to average. Keon Broxton, Yadiel Rivera, Martin Maldonado, and Aaron Hill all project poorly, but the lineup is not completely helpless.
While the number of strikeouts on three pitches are a signal of Garcia’s efficiency, he kept that efficiency throughout the game. He never threw more than 14 pitches in any inning, and he got through the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings on just 29 pitches total. He could not quite complete Clayton Kershaw (104 pitches in 2015), Madison Bumgarner (103 pitches in 2014), and Greg Maddux (102 pitches in 1998), per a search on Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. Coincidentally, those games were all one-hitters, as well.
Using the first Game Score method from Bill James, Garcia’s outing receives a 97, tied for highest of the season with Vincent Valasquez. Using the newer version now available on FanGraphs, Garcia scores a 101, just two points behind Valasquez’s gem. There were only six games last year with a higher score and three were authored by Max Scherzer. While nominally the Cardinals’ fourth starter, that status is due only to health concerns tied to Garcia’s past. Garcia’s 2.85 FIP (74 FIP-) over the last calendar year in 144.2 innings is eighth in baseball, just behind Chris Sale and David Price, and just ahead of Dallas Keuchel and Max Scherzer. When Garcia, still just 29 years old, is healthy and pitching, there are few that can match what he brings to the mound. Enjoy it while you can.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.