Relievers are weird. For proof, just ask Blake Treinen. One year, Treinen is the best reliever in baseball. The next, he’s below replacement-level and gets non-tendered, though he still landed a relatively lucrative payday after signing with the Dodgers.
The reason teams remained interested in Treinen at all, let alone at a price above his arbitration projection, was because of his stuff. As Ben Clemens chronicled, Treinen’s stuff experienced a hiccup in 2019, but it was so good in 2018 that a $10 million gamble made plenty of sense. In baseball, stuff sells, and if Treinen can prove to still have the 2018 version of his one-seam fastball somewhere in his back pocket, Los Angeles will be quite pleased with the signing.
That brings me to Yimi García. He’s not a household name — you probably know him if you’re a Dodgers fan, or if you happened to sort the leaderboard of 2019 relief pitchers by HR/9 in descending order. (Yikes, Edwin Díaz.) The Dodgers non-tendered García, who had been projected to earn $1.1 million in arbitration. The Marlins picked him up on Thursday, signing him to a one-year, major league deal; his salary is not yet known.
Like Treinen, García has the stuff. He throws a mid-90s fastball with a 98th percentile spin rate. His curveball, too, has 89th percentile spin. His third primary offering, a slider, is also pretty great. Check out how they fare in all expected statistics:
Hitters just couldn’t hit García. Last season, opponents batted just .176 against him, though this may have been fueled at least in part by his .171 BABIP against. He only allowed 40 hits last season; his 0.87 WHIP was the sixth-best among all qualified relievers. But the results — a 3.61 ERA, 5.19 FIP — stand in opposition to García’s seemingly-excellent underlying ability. How to explain such a large disparity? Of García’s 40 hits allowed, 15 (or 37.5%) went for home runs:
The kinds of pitchers on this list vary widely: swingmen who got shelled, and a pair of supposedly dominant relievers who experienced odd luck. If you knew little about his abnormal 2019, Josh Hader being here may surprise you; nearly 60% of 2019 plate appearances against Hader ended in a strikeout, walk, or home run. At the top, though, it’s García, who has struggled to keep the ball in the yard for the entirety of his career.
The comparisons between García and Hader are interesting, however imperfect they may be. Hader is virtually a one-pitch pitcher, and as a result, hitters sit on the fastball, take big uppercuts, and hope the ball will do the rest of the work. Hitters seemingly took a similar approach against García, and, in 2019, those two pitchers ran two of the four highest fly ball rates among qualified relievers. The way to hit either Yimi García or Josh Hader? Put the ball in the air and hope it falls somewhere in the seats.
Despite the home run barrage, Hader remained effective, finishing third in WAR and fifth in RA9-WAR. The home runs were a problem, yes, but Hader was able to deal with them for one main reason: strikeouts. García’s 27% mark was above league-average, but it was nowhere close to Hader’s 48%.
García’s lack of strikeouts clearly isn’t a velocity problem, nor is it one of movement. He has plenty of both, which makes his relatively low whiff rates in comparison a bit puzzling. That’s where command comes in. You wouldn’t be able to tell that from the numbers — his 5.7% walk rate in 2019 looks quite good! But while García exhibits good control, as evidenced by the walk rate, he does not have good command. Of García’s fastballs in the strike zone, nearly 60% were in the heart of the zone. This rate put him in the 87th percentile, meaning that few pitchers poured fastball strikes in the heart of the zone more than he did. In other words, if a hitter saw a strike out of García’s hand, then they knew that there was greater than a one-in-two chance that it would be dead-red in the center of the zone. It wasn’t just a strike; it was a crushable strike more than half the time.
Thus, hitters sat back and waited for the fastball. When García threw his curveball, hitters didn’t swing 64% of the time. Furthermore, opponents didn’t swing 53% of the time versus a García slider. These individual marks don’t stand out against the league, with his curveball Take % ranking in the 66th percentile and his slider Take % ranking in the 59th percentile. However, when we group all non-fastballs together, García’s non-fastball Take% of 59% ranks in the 89th percentile.
While this wouldn’t impact his whiff rates directly — since whiff rates are calculated by dividing total whiffs by total swings — it would still drive them down. Half the battle to generating a whiff is getting the hitter to swing. When hitters choose not to swing at a pitch, it’s at least in part because they don’t like it out of the hand. Hitters only swung against García’s offspeed pitches when they knew they probably wouldn’t be fooled; for example, 80% of swings against García’s curveball came on pitches in the strike zone, tied for the highest rate among all curveballs.
This would makes sense in conjunction with his quality of contact numbers. As noted above, García has an excellent arsenal, which explains why hitters don’t destroy him. While he might throw crushable pitches, his stuff is good enough that he is shielded from actually being crushed. At the same time, hitters occasionally can catch up to his high-spin fastball, and that’s why he gave up more homers than just about anyone.
There’s still so much to like here. The Marlines had one unhittable reliever in 2019 in now-Tampa Bay Ray Nick Anderson. Why not do a bit of tinkering, and make it back-to-back years with García? Relievers are volatile, so there are never any guarantees, but I’ll always like a guy with the velocity and spin of Yimi García.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.