Luis García Cuts the K’s

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

When Luis García first debuted back in 2020, he was the youngest player in the majors at just 20 years old. He’s split the past two seasons between Triple-A and the big leagues, and turned 23 just yesterday. Players who make it to the show at such a young age are almost exclusively highly regarded prospects; García was ranked 87th overall on our 2020 top prospect list. Of the 12 players who’ve made it to the majors at age 20 or younger over the last decade, García’s -0.5 WAR in his debut season was the second-worst mark and his total WAR ranks dead last. Despite getting called up at such a young age, he’s really struggled to make an impact at the highest level. But after playing in over 200 games in the majors, it finally looks like he’s taken a step forward in his development.

As a prospect, the biggest knock against García was his extremely aggressive approach at the plate. He has excellent bat-to-ball skills, but he would chase bad pitches so often that when he wasn’t swinging and missing, he was making really poor contact. During his first three years in the league, he ran a 20.4% strikeout rate with a minuscule 3.5% walk rate, the lowest in the majors during that period. After posting identical wRC+ marks of 79 during his first two years in the big leagues, he improved to a 93 last year, driven almost entirely by better results when putting the ball in play.

This year, his overall production is right in line with what he was doing last year, but the difference in approach is stark. Among batters who had at least 350 plate appearances last year and at least 100 this year, the player who has improved his strikeout rate the most is none other than García; it’s fallen nearly 13 points, all the way down to 9.7%. Over the last decade, that’s one of the largest improvements in a single season. It’s easy to see where the difference is coming from when you check in on his plate discipline metrics:

Luis García, Plate Discipline
Year Swing% O-Swing% Contact% Z-Contact% SwStr%
2020 49.7% 31.2% 72.5% 80.1% 13.7%
2021 52.2% 34.5% 77.8% 89.3% 11.5%
2022 53.3% 39.9% 74.8% 83.3% 13.4%
2023 47.9% 24.7% 86.7% 90.1% 6.2%

García has cut down on his overall swing rate — usually a good step for hitters in general and particularly for ones who are as aggressive as García has been. More importantly, all of those missing swings are on pitches located outside the strike zone; his chase rate has fallen by more than 15 points, while his in-zone swing rate has risen by nearly seven points. All of a sudden, he’s spitting on pitches he shouldn’t be swinging at while simultaneously getting more aggressive on pitches inside the strike zone. That newfound passivity on pitches out of the zone has helped him improve his walk rate to 6.7%, a career high and within the normal range of a big leaguer.

The benefits of his refined approach have shown up in his contact rates too. His contact rate is up to 86.7% and he’s putting his bat on the ball over 90% of the time he swings at a pitch in the zone. Unsurprisingly, his swinging strike rate has fallen to just 6.2%, the single largest improvement in that metric over the last decade. After running middling contact rates through his first three seasons in the majors, his contact rate is now the 12th best in baseball among qualified batters. García has addressed all the concerns with his aggressive approach and — shockingly — has turned his plate discipline into an elite skill.

If we break down his plate discipline metrics by pitch type, we can gain an even greater appreciation for the improvements he’s made:

Luis García, Plate Discipline by Pitch Type
Year Swing% O-Swing% Contact% SwStr% Hard Hit% xwOBA
2020 50.4% 30.7% 82.4% 8.8% 32.8% .307
2021 53.7% 38.8% 86.3% 7.4% 36.4% .351
2022 52.9% 38.9% 83.8% 8.6% 44.3% .363
2023 50.9% 29.2% 88.1% 6.0% 46.7% .386
Year Swing% O-Swing% Contact% SwStr% Hard Hit% xwOBA
2020 51.6% 33.0% 60.0% 20.6% 38.5% .310
2021 50.9% 30.1% 66.7% 17.0% 26.7% .205
2022 50.8% 36.9% 63.1% 18.7% 37.3% .285
2023 50.3% 26.0% 81.5% 9.3% 33.3% .329
Year Swing% O-Swing% Contact% SwStr% Hard Hit% xwOBA
2020 46.1% 26.7% 56.1% 20.2% 0.0% .228
2021 54.0% 34.2% 58.8% 22.2% 13.0% .154
2022 59.1% 48.9% 69.1% 18.2% 23.7% .237
2023 40.0% 16.9% 80.4% 7.8% 9.5% .223

García has always hit fastballs well and that hasn’t changed at all this year. He’s aggressive against the hard stuff and regularly puts those pitches in play with authority. Against breaking balls, he’s cut his swinging strike rate in half, the result of a lower chase rate and a higher contact rate on those pitches. His expected wOBA against breaking pitches now sits in the 70th percentile. While his expected results against offspeed pitches aren’t as impressive, he’s simply stopped aggressively going after those pitches. Last year, he swung at nearly 60% of the offspeed pitches he saw and his chase rate approached 50%. That’s an ugly combination. He’s cut his chase rate against changeups all the way down to 16.9% and has seen a corresponding drop in swinging strike rate against that pitch type.

García’s astounding plate discipline transformation is only part of the equation. What happens when he puts the ball in play is a bit of a mixed bag. Last year, he saw a significant jump in hard-hit rate, which helped bolster his batted ball results. Those improvements likely stemmed from a refined swing. Here’s an example swing from his rookie season back in 2020:

His front leg is turned in towards the catcher and he’s holding his hands high near his ears. From this stance, he really has to work hard to lower his hands into a position where they can be on plane through his swing.

Now here’s an example from last year:

García’s stance is a bit more closed, his front leg is planted firmly on the ground and his hands are now much lower. The result is a much more efficient hand path through his swing, which helped him increase the amount of hard contact he was able to make.

Many of his batted ball peripherals look similar this year, but he still hasn’t figured out how to maximize all the additional contact he’s making:

Luis García, Batted Ball Peripherals
Year EV FB+LD EV Barrel% Hard Hit% GB% ISO wRC+
2020 83.5 90.6 4.8% 29.5% 60.6% 0.090 79
2021 86.8 91.9 5.2% 30.6% 56.5% 0.169 79
2022 87.3 94.2 7.5% 36.7% 51.3% 0.133 93
2023 88.9 92.4 5.6% 35.7% 56.0% 0.117 90

García’s biggest problem is the amount of contact he’s putting on the ground. He doesn’t have the profile of a high-contact speedster, but his career groundball rate is just under 55% and it hasn’t gotten any better this year. He has some pop in his bat when he’s able to elevate his batted balls; his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is above league average and García’s max exit velocity sat in the top 8% of the league last year. The average launch angle for his hard-hit batted balls last year was 13.2 degrees; that mark has fallen to 8.0 degrees this year. His inability to make the most of his increased contact rate has been holding him back from truly breaking out this season.

One of the other developments this year has been a sizable drop in his pull rate. García had pulled around 40% of his contact during his first three seasons in the majors; that’s dropped to just 30% this year. More worryingly, just 23.5% of his pulled contact has been elevated, a nearly 15 point drop from last season. García isn’t pulling the ball as often and when he does hit it to right field, it’s on the ground more often than not. That’s not a great combination to generate positive results on his balls in play.

As a prospect, García’s hit tool was his carrying tool and he’s done an astounding amount of work to hit his ceiling when it comes to putting his bat on the ball. Unfortunately, all that additional contact hasn’t come with better batted ball results. He has some promising underlying metrics that indicate an ability to lift the ball with authority, but he’s been unable to do that with any regularity. Still, the fact that he was able to improve his plate discipline to the degree that he did now provides him with a solid foundation to continue developing. And because he’s only 23 years old, he has plenty of time to figure out his next step forward.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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kick me in the GO NATSmember
9 months ago

cool! thanks