Pitching to contact is a much-maligned, sometimes misunderstood philosophy. Inducing contact results in a hit 30% of the time while a runner can reach base on a strikeout only on the rare wild pitch or passed ball. The strikeout is a considerably better outcome, but attacking hitters and getting strike one, the philosophy espoused by Dave Duncan, can combine strikeouts, weak contact, and quick outs to form an incredibly effective pitcher. A half-decade after Duncan’s retirement, one of his former pupils, Jaime Garcia, is throwing strikes, getting ground balls, and keeping hitters off balance, potentially resurrecting a career that appeared doomed by injuries.
Garcia, a 22nd-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 2005, made a brief appearance in the majors in 2008 before Tommy John surgery ended that season and cost him 2009 as well. Garcia came back strong in 2010, and in July 2011, he signed a four-year contract extension that included two team options. At the time, he had pitched nearly 300 innings with a 3.06 ERA and 3.46 FIP, but a year later he would suffer another injury, this time in his shoulder. Rehabilitation failed and in early 2013, he underwent surgery, missing the rest of the season and putting his career in doubt. He was not a part of the Cardinals’ plan to pitch in 2014, but he recovered and appeared briefly in 2014 before injuries again took over. This time, Garcia suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome, the same condition ended the career of teammate Chris Carpenter. Again, he had surgery, and again, he was not a part of the Cardinals’ plans.
Garcia almost made the starting rotation out of spring training, but injury setbacks sent Garcia to the disabled list to start the season. Adam Wainwright’s injury cleared the way for a rotation slot should Garcia recover, and he made his season debut on May 21. He pitched well, making seven starts with a 1.69 ERA and 3.06 FIP before making yet another appearance on the disabled list due to a groin injury. Garcia, missed a month and then picked up right where he left off. For the season, Garcia has made 13 starts, pitched 86.2 innings with an average 19% strikeout rate, a good 6.1% walk rate, a fortunate .235 BABIP that has helped lead to a 1.77 ERA, but good enough peripherals for a 3.03 FIP, 19th out of the 136 MLB pitchers with at least 80 innings. He has been remarkably consistent, having a single-game FIP above four in just two starts, pitching a quality start in all but one, and giving up one or zero earned runs in eight of his last eleven starts.
A look at Garcia’s innings totals and his stints on the disabled list will tell you that Garcia is not to be counted on for an extended period. The Cardinals and Garcia have been given a gift with his relative good health this year, and Garcia has taken advantage using five above-average pitches in the strike zone: four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, change, and curve. From Brooks Baseball:
“What makes the sinker better is that I don’t throw it as much,” Jungmann told me before a game against San Francisco. “It makes it that much more effective because they aren’t looking for it. If I threw it every single pitch, my four-seamer would be better.”
Garcia relies on the sinking, two-seam fastball, but mixes in three other pitches with regularity as well as the occasional curve. Any one pitch of Garcia might not be a world-beater, the excellent sinker not withstanding, but Garcia has five pitches that he throws well, keeping a hitter off balance and increasing their effectiveness. If a hitter comes up three times against Garcia and sees an average of four pitches in each plate appearance, Garcia’s pitch mix indicates the hitter will see four two-seamers, three four-seamers, two sliders, two changes, and one curve. The four-seamer and two-seamer are slightly below-average for whiffs with the curve average and the slider and change both above-average. Combining the whiff rates with Garcia’s elite ground-ball tendencies, gives Garcia one of the very best arsenals in baseball, even before this season.
In his last home start against the Giants, Kelby Tomlinson led off the game. Garcia threw a low four-seam fastball, just off the plate on the inside that was called a ball. Garcia followed with a called strike on a four-seamer on the lower half of the outside corner. Then Garcia went with the a two-seamer on the inside corner in the upper half of the zone for another strike. Garcia then froze Tomlinson with this slider on the outside corner.
Matt Duffy watched the Tomlinson at-bat from the on-deck circle. Garcia started Duffy with a four-seamer right down the middle. Then he introduced the change, throwing one in the dirt and one high and away. Then a sinker high and away followed by another four-seamer down the middle to make the count full. Up to this point, Garcia had used four different types of pitches among his nine to the Giants — five for strikes without inducing a single swing. On the 3-2 count, Garcia went back to the change, this time right in the heart of the plate.
Garcia would end the first inning on a first-pitch groundout from Brandon Belt on a sinker right down the middle. Garcia finished that inning on just 11 pitches, a theme for him on the season. Garcia is averaging 6.2 innings pitched per start, 13th among pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. Of the 12 pitchers ahead of Garcia, every one of them averages more than 100 pitches per start, while Garcia is averaging just 92 pitches to get through nearly seven innings. Only 19 pitchers average less than 15 pitches per innings with most players on that list among the best in baseball, and just two are under 14 pitches per inning. Garcia’s 13.8 pitches per inning is first in the majors, just ahead of Mark Buehrle.
Garcia is pitching aggressively in the zone, but he is not on the extremes. His zone percentage is 51%, in the top fifth of pitchers but not among the extremes of Bartolo Colon or Max Scherzer. His 83% contact percentage is in the top third, but he’s not Mark Buerhle or Phil Hughes. Where Garcia is elite is in getting ground balls. His 65% ground ball rate is second among pitchers with at least 80 innings, just behind Brett Anderson and ahead of Dallas Keuchel and Tyson Ross, the only other pitchers above 60% on the season. As a result of these tendencies, as well as his ability to field his position, Garcia has more assists per nine innings (2.3) than any other pitcher in baseball. Garcia’s profile does not exactly match that of the other extreme ground-ball pitchers, who pitch predominately low in the strike zone, extending their pitches off the outside corner to right-handers.
Compare the following heat maps from Baseball Savant.
First, Brett Anderson:
All three have a big swatch of pitches low and off the zone, where hitters are more likely to hit a ground ball. Keuchel pounds the lower the half of the zone. Compare the above heat maps with Garcia’s:
Garcia uses the entirety of the strike zone with very little outside of it. He can use his four-seam and two-seam fastball in the middle of the zone because hitters are not ready for the four-seam and the two-seam generates so much movement it is difficult to square up. On the first pitch of a plate appearance, Garcia splits his two fastballs pretty evenly 75% of the time, but the two-seam differs in horizontal movement by more than four inches, per Brooks Baseball. With two strikes, he goes to his slider 40% of the time, but uses his other four pitches at least 9% each, keeping hitters off balance.
Taken together, Garcia’s pitches have been extremely effective this season. Using the FanGraphs pitch values alone to determine the effectiveness of a pitch can be misleading, as different pitches interact with each other, potentially helping or hurting their value. For example: a pitcher could have a great slider, but with a poor fastball could cause hitters to lay off the slider and give it a low value. Conversely, a pitcher could have a great change and the fastball could appear to be better than it is due to hitters worried about the change. For Garcia, we can examine all of Garcia’s pitches, not to show how great each one is individually, but to show how good the collection of pitches has been this season.
The chart below shows the raw pitch value and Garcia’s MLB rank among the 140 pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. The next two columns turn the value into a rate stat, per 100 pitches, and show Garcia’s rank among pitchers who throw each pitch at least 10% of the time (5% for the curve).
Despite the innings gap with most of the pitchers, Garcia ranks in the top 20% for all five pitches. Turning the pitch into a rate stat, Garcia ranks first for the four-seam fastball, third for the two-seam fastball behind only Sonny Gray and Johnny Cueto, sixth for the curve and change and 15th for the slider. Of the 14 pitchers who rank ahead of Garcia on the slider, only Zack Greinke also has a good (greater than 1.0/100) four-seam fastball and only Sonny Gray and Dallas Keuchel also have a good two-seamer. None of the 14 pitchers are well above average with all three pitches. Adding in the good change and curve and it is easy to see how Garcia has gotten good results.
Clearly, Garcia’s 1.77 ERA is not likely to remain so low. His .235 BABIP and 83% left-on-base percentage are due for some regression. Garcia, like the rest of the Cardinals’ pitchers this season, has increased his strikeout rate and lowered his BABIP with runners on base. While the increased strikeout rate might provide some indication that the Cardinals pitch differently with runners on as the league as a whole gets worse in those situations, and the Cardinals’ solid defense might be more likely to get outs in general and turn a double play (Garcia has faced 114 batters with runners on base, and turned those plate appearances into an astonishing 107 outs), the BABIP is still unsustainable and double plays are far from guaranteed. As more hits fall, the ERA is due for a rise, but the FIP, the quality and depth of his pitches, and the ground-ball rate indicate Garcia should still be a very good pitcher moving forward if he can stay healthy, the always present disclaimer for the 29-year-old lefty.
The two team options the Cardinals hold on Garcia looked once like an afterthought, but if Garcia is healthy at the end of the season, the $11.5 million option for next season looks like a no-brainer. That is a big if given his track record, but Garcia embodies the Dave Duncan aggressive, strike-zone oriented philosophy that continues in St. Louis even after Dave Duncan passed the torch to current Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Given three major surgeries and multiple seasons lost to the disabled list, Garcia should not be pitching this well, but for as long as his body will allow, he has a good shot at shutting down opposing hitters every time out.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.