Sunday Notes: Ralph Garza Jr. Looks Back at His Non-stereotypical Debut

Ralph Garza Jr.’s MLB debut was both forgettable and impossible to forget. The 27-year-old right-hander took the mound for the Houston Astros in a May 29 home game against the San Diego Padres, and the circumstances were anything but ordinary. Rookies rarely get their feet wet with games hanging in the balance, and Garza entered in the 12th inning with the score knotted at eight runs apiece. Moreover, the Friars — their eventual free fall still far in the future — had won 14 of their last 16 games. A hornet’s nest awaited.

“It wasn’t your stereotypical debut,” acknowledged Garza, who two months later was designated for assignment and claimed off waivers by the Minnesota Twins. “But it’s funny, because as a reliever you’re told to always prepare for the worst. And it was something, especially against that lineup at that time. They were hot. Basically, I was being thrown into the fire. It was extras, last guy available, ‘There you go.’”

When the bullpen phone rang, he knew that his debut was nigh. It was a moment where Garza needed to remind himself to “stay calm and remember what you do, and how to do it.” Easier said than done. As the Edinburg, Texas native aptly put it, keeping one’s emotions in check when climbing a big-league bump for the first time is “like trying to tell water not to be wet.”

Garza entered with a ghost runner on second and promptly issued an intentional walk to Fernando Tatis Jr. A harmless fly-ball out followed, but soon things went south. A few pitches later, Wil Myers launched a mis-located heater into the cheap seats, turning a coming-out party into a nightmare. Garza knew it right away.

“When he hit it, I heard the crack of the bat and then the ball spinning as it passed me,” the rookie recalled. “It was like, ‘He hit that very well.’ Basically, it was the new guy — that being me — missing in the honey hole, and a big-league hitter doing what big-league hitters do.”

What does he remember thinking as Myers rounded the bases?

“Not much,” admitted Garza, who has gone on to make 26 more appearances, 18 of them with the Twins. “Probably just that I had made a bad pitch and needed to keep rolling. It’s baseball, right? You move on and try to get the next batter.”

Garza subsequently caught Victor Caratini looking, thereby closing his inaugural outing with his first career strikeout. As Garza walked off the mound, he observed the would-be keepsake being tossed into the hands of an appreciative fan. Any disappointment was relative. Having thrown a gopher that put his team three runs behind, mementos could only mean so much at that particular moment.

Garza does possess tangible objects from the outing. He has the lineup card, as well as a game ball signed by several of his teammates. More importantly, he has the memories of a big-league debut. The script may not have been ideal, but Ralph Garza Jr. — a former 26th-round pick out of the University of Oklahoma — had achieved a dream by having his name etched into MLB’s annals. That he did so in non-stereotypical fashion is one part of the story.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Ryan Freel went 6 for 7 against Jake Westbrook.

Roger Freed went 6 for 13 against Jim Kaat.

Freddie Freeman went 11 for 23 against R.A. Dickey.

David Freese went 16 for 38 against Mike Leake.

Gene Freese went 22 for 54 against Johnny Antonelli.

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Kevin Plawecki has provided solid production off of the Boston bench over the past two seasons. Backing up Christian Vazquez, the 30-year-old catcher has slashed a better-than-expected .305/.364/.414 in 262 plate appearances. Since debuting with the New York Mets in 2015, the 35th-overall pick in the 2012 draft had put up a .636 OPS over parts of five big-league seasons.

I recently asked Plawecki what was behind his offensive uptick.

“There have been some mechanical changes where I’m getting in a better spot,” Plawecki told me. “I’m clearing my front side, my hips, to be able to hit the inside pitch and also stay on the away pitch. Before, I was kind of closed off and out of the zone really fast, so I was clipping balls. I would foul them off instead of being able to drive them. Now I’m in the zone longer with my stride. What we’ve done mechanically has allowed me to be on plane more, see the ball better, and have better contact.”

Plawecki explained that the adjustments were made following his 2019 season in Cleveland, a year in which he logged a .629 OPS in 174 plate appearances. The backstop worked with veteran hitting coach Kevin Long over the offseason — the two had a relationship from their time together in New York — with Long suggesting that he open up his stride. As Plawecki put it, the resulting efforts were a further step in the “constant dissection of the swing, which kind of put things together that worked for me.”

The Purdue University product had eight professional seasons under his belt at the time. Why were those specific adjustments so long in coming?

“Hitting is a very tedious thing,” reasoned Plawecki. “It’s hard to be in the batter’s box and compete without thinking about your mechanics. It’s about feeling comfortable with what you’re doing in your work and then going into the game and getting results without thinking about what you’re doing. It’s about staying in the game long enough to figure it out. Hitting isn’t always going to be perfect, and I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in the game long enough to start understanding what works for me.”

Plawecki met Red Sox hitting Tim Hyers shortly after signing with Boston as a free agent in January 2020, and explained to him what he’d been working on. Hyers was on board. From there, it was a simple matter of “rolling with the flow.”

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A quiz:

Who was the last player to drive in 100 or more runs in a season while hitting fewer than 10 home runs?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

The Philadelphia Phillies have hired Preston Mattingly as their new Director of Player Development. The 34-year-old son of Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly has spent the last five years with the San Diego Padres, most recently as their Coordinator of Major League Advance Scouting and Game Planning

The Colorado Rockies have named Bill Schmidt their new General Manager. The former scouting director had been serving as the team’s interim GM since Jeff Bridich departed earlier this year.

The Kansas City Royals have promoted Lonnie Goldberg to Vice President/Player Personnel, and Danny Ontiveros to Scouting Director. Goldberg is in his 14th year with the organization, Ontiveros in his 15th.

The Northwoods League’s Fond du Lac Dock Spiders have named Jim Misudek as their new General Manager. Misudek served as Senior Manager, Baseball Communications for the Baltimore Orioles from 2015 until February of this year.

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The answer to the quiz is Paul Molitor. The Hall of Famer had nine home runs and 113 RBIs with the Minnesota Twins in 1996.

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Kris Bubic has an atypical relationship with the Dodgers-Giants rivalry. A San Jose native who attended Stanford University, the Kansas City Royals southpaw was influenced by a pitcher who plays his home games in Los Angeles.

“I have a little funkiness, a little herky-jerky going on, and that came from watching Clayton Kershaw a lot,” explained Bubic, who shared the story behind his changeup here at FanGraphs earlier in the week. “Even though I’m from the Bay Area and was a Giants fan growing up, Kershaw was my favorite pitcher to watch. That’s sort of where the inspiration for my mechanics came from. There’s kind of an irony there, being a Giants fan and trying to emulate a Dodgers pitcher.”

Bubic also enjoyed watching the likes of Tim Lincecum — “He was arguably the best pitcher in the game for a three-to-four-year span” — Madison Bumgarner, and Matt Cain. But again, his favorite wears the uniform of San Francisco’s bitter rival.

“Being left-handed probably influenced it a little bit, and Kershaw is obviously a Hall of Famer,” said Bubic. “Watching him go through the prime of his career was just so mesmerizing. I feel like I’d be a fool not to try to emulate him in some capacity. But yeah, there is some irony in me growing up a Giants fan and maybe rooting for a Dodger as well.”

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FARM REPORT

Austin Martin drew 60 walks and reached base via HBP a total of 24 times in 418 plate appearances on his way to a .414 OBP with a pair of Double-A clubs. The 22-year-old infielder/outfielder — and fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft — was acquired by the Minnesota Twins in this summer’s trade-deadline deal that sent José Berríos to the Toronto Blue Jays. Martin had a .796 OPS and a 128 wRC+.

Michael Stefanic slashed .339/.409/.495 with 17 home runs between Double-A Rocket City and Triple-A Salt Lake. An unranked 25-year-old infielder in the Los Angeles Angels system, Stefanic was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Westmont College in 2018.

Joey Wiemer slashed .295/.403/.556 with 27 home runs and a 155 wRC+ between Low-A Carolina and High-A Wisconsin. The 22-year-old outfielder — a fourth-round pick in 2020 out of the University of Cincinnati — is No. 26 on our updated Milwaukee Brewers top prospects list.

Ryan Murphy went 6-4 with a 2.52 ERA and 164 strikeouts in 107-and-a-third innings between Low-A San Jose and High-A Eugene. A 21-year-old right-hander in the Giants organization, Murphy was selected by San Francisco in the fifth round of the 2020 draft out of Le Moyne College.

Hunter Brown went 5-1 with a 3.88 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 51 innings after being promoted to the Triple-A Sugar Land Skeeters midway through the season. The top pitching prospect in the Houston Astros system — interviewed here at FanGraphs this past spring — turned 22 at the end of August.

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For much of the spring — and even into the summer — a big question was how well players would respond to a full, 162-game season following last year’s truncated 60-game schedule. With the final weekend of the regular season upon us (where does the time go?), I asked Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton for his thoughts on how that transpired across the league.

“I think players responded very well, performance-wise,” replied Shelton. “I mean, we’re seeing guys have some historic years. I think the biggest challenge came soft-tissue injuries. That was the thing we were worried about the most with pitchers — how they would handle it — [and] position players too. Surprisingly, I think we’ve gotten through it in a pretty good spot.”

Following up, I asked the second-year manager about the energy levels he saw as the season wore on.

“In our case, the effort level has never gone away,” said Shelton. “With the energy, or the fatigue levels, yeah, we saw it. We really tried to monitor it in terms of our work, what we did in the weight room, what we did nutritionally and hydration-wise. But I definitely think it was a factor this year.”

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When the FanGraphs 2021 staff predictions were published on April 1, my MVP picks were Shohei Ohtani in the American League and Ronald Acuña Jr. in the National League. (Around that time, I was a panelist on a Baseball By the Book podcast bonus episode, and went with Ohtani and Trea Turner.)

My Ohtani prediction will likely come to fruition, while each of my NL picks will be proven wrong. Acuña’s season-ending injury in early July squelched his chances, while Turner — despite an outstanding year — seems destined to fall a bit short. That said, here is what my ballots would look like if I had votes for this award(s).

A.L: 1. Shohei Ohtani, 2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3. Marcus Semien. 4. Matt Olson, 5. Jose Ramirez.

N.L.: 1. Juan Soto, 2. Bryce Harper, 3. Brandon Crawford, 4. Fernando Tatis Jr., 5. Trea Turner.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The Yakult Swallows head into the final weeks of the season with a one-game lead over the Hanshin Tigers in NPB’s Central League. The Orix Buffaloes are one-and-a-half games in front of the Lotte Marines in the Pacific League.

Masataka Yoshida leads the Pacific League with a .339 batting average. The 27-year-old Orix outfielder has 21 home runs and a .429 OBP.

Seiya Suzuki leads the Central League with a .317 batting average. The 27-year-old Hiroshima Carp outfielder has 32 home runs and a .436 OBP.

Munetaka Murakami recently became the youngest player in NPB history to reach 100 RBI in a season.The 21-year-old Yakult Swallows corner infielder has 38 home runs to go with a .276/.401/.585 slash line.

The Tampere Tigers defeated the Espoo Expos three-games-to-one to win the Finnish Baseball League title.

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Jonathan Schoop played in his 1,000th career game on Thursday night, joining Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons as the only natives of Curaçao to reach that milestone. Asked about the pending accomplishment earlier that afternoon, A.J. Hinch referenced the information age when lauding the 29-year-old infielder.

“It hasn’t been talked about, but I’m pretty sure he’s aware of it,” said the Detroit Tigers manager. “Nowadays, players are aware of every single number that they accomplish. But it is a pretty good story. Jonathan is incredible at how he plays every day. He doesn’t want a day off.”

Schoop has played in all but five games for the Tigers this season, and in 2016 he played in all 162 with the Baltimore Orioles. The MLB record is held by Maury Wills, who appeared in 165 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962. Deadlocked at the conclusion of the scheduled 162, the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants played a three-game series to decide the National League pennant. The last of those contests, which were considered part of the regular season, was contested on today’s date. The Giants won.

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Sticking with numbers, Brandon Woodruff has a record of 9-10 to go with a 2.56 ERA and a 2.95 FIP. Remarkably, the right-hander has logged those stats while pitching for a Milwaukee Brewers team that is 95-66. On nine occasions, Woodruff has gotten either a loss or a no-decision despite going at least six inning and allowing two or fewer runs. Good fortune has played no role in his wins. Woodruff has allowed a cumulative six runs to cross the plate in his nine victories.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh wrote about Oakland’s Yusmeiro Petit and the well-hidden power of pitcher deceptions.

At SportTechie, Joe Lemire wrote about how former sinkerballer Zach Day is now spinning data instead of pitches.

FiveThirtyEight polled members of Congress about baseball. Nathaniel Rakich shared the results.

Lindsey Loberg believes that Corbin Burnes should be awarded this year’s National League Cy Young Award, and she stated the right-hander’s case at Brew Crew Ball.

Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser broke down how experimental rule changes affected the minor leagues in 2021.

ESPN’s Joon Lee delved into the mental health crisis being driven by poverty-level pay and poor housing in the minor leagues.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Houston’s Yuli Gurriel leads the American League with a .316 batting average. The 37-year-old, Cuban-born Houston Astros first baseman has a 132 wRC+.

Kansas City’s win on Thursday was the 4,000th in franchise history. An expansion team in 1969, the Royals currently stand 4,001-4,343 all time.

Salvador Perez has 48 home runs and 27 walks. Barry Bonds had 45 home runs and 232 walks in 2004.

Juan Soto has 144 walks, 29 home runs, a .317 batting average, and a 166 wRC+. In 1951, Ted Williams had 144 walks, 30 home runs, a .318 batting average, and a 166 wRC+. (Going by wRC+, 1951 was Williams’s 13th best season.)

Joe Mauer had 6,930 at bats, 2,123 hits, and 1,018 runs scored.
Mike Piazza had 6,911 at bats, 2,127 hits, and 1,048 runs scored.

St. Louis Browns third baseman Ray Jansen went 4-for-5 against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 30, 1910. Twenty-one years old at the time, it was Jansen’s lone big-league game.

Detroit Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich homered off of St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Nelson Briles in Game 2 of the World Series on today’s date in 1968. It was Lolich’s only home run in 1,037 career plate appearances.

Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” was on today’s date in 1951. The call, and video that goes with it, remain priceless.

Players born on today’s date include Jake Eisenhart, who made his lone big-league appearance with the Cincinnati Reds in an 18-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on June 10, 1944. A 21-year-old left-hander, Eisenhard issued a walk, then recorded an out on a pop fly. Joe Nuxhall made his MLB debut at age 15 in the same game.

Also born on today’s date was Mike Goodfellow, a multi-position player who appeared in 68 games for the American Association’s Cleveland Blues in 1888. Per his B-Ref Bullpen entry, Goodfellow was said to have a “piratical cast of countenance, given him by the fierce black moustache he wears.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Josh
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Josh

Just when I thought I couldn’t feel any less optimistic about the Nationals, thanks for the reminder that, with other management, they could have Soto, Harper, and Turner on the roster right now. Instead of investing in pitching, trading all players of any value, and putting one of the most atrociously crap teams on the field for the last 2 months.

Thanks, Rizzo. Please quit.

tz
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Not even 24 months after getting the first WS rings in franchise history??

Okayyyyy………