Tonight, the Atlanta Braves will play the Dodgers with their season on the line. Down 2-1 in the NLDS, the Braves have to win tonight just to force a Game 5 — which would match them up against Clayton Kershaw again, so, yeah, this isn’t a great situation — and are turning to Freddy Garcia in this win-or-go-home game. Yes, the Freddy Garcia who turned 37 yesterday, and has had a season that could charitably be described as adventurous.
He went to spring training with the Padres on a minor league deal, but was cut loose after getting bombed on a regular basis in the Cactus League. The Orioles signed him to a minor league contract a few days later and gave him a month in Triple-A before calling him up at the beginning of May. He responded by throwing 50 disastrous innings, including a 5.77 ERA and 6.73 FIP, which got him sent back to Triple-A at the beginning of July. He hung out in the minors for a few months until the Braves picked him up at the end of August and brought him back to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September.
Up to that point, Garcia’s 2013 season was the kind of year that ends careers. It wouldn’t have been hard to see Garcia heading into the off-season looking for work and finding no takers, given his age, injury history, lack of stuff, and the fact that he was lit up like a Christmas tree in his stint with Baltimore. A month ago, Freddy Garcia’s career looked like it may very well be coming to a close.
But in September, the Braves gave Garcia six appearances, three of them starts, and he posted a 1.65 ERA over 27 innings pitched. Now not only is his career still alive, but he’s going to take the ball with Atlanta’s season on the line, looking to shut down a Dodgers offense that, at the moment, looks something like the ’27 Yankees. Is this really the best a 96-win team could muster in their first postseason elimination game?
The answer might very well be yes, with a bit of an asterisk anyways. Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy’s injuries have left the Braves a bit short on starting pitching, so after they moved young lefty Alex Wood to the bullpen for the postseason, their options for the #4 spot in the rotation came down to a choice between Garcia and Paul Maholm. And while Maholm has a pretty solid track record, his results were pretty terrible after a strong start, allowing a .368 wOBA in the second half of the season. His massive platoon splits — righties have a career .349 wOBA against him — are also a pretty poor fit for a start against a team that features guys like Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, so it’s understandable than the Braves didn’t particularly want to give Maholm the ball in this game either.
But, this decision isn’t just about Maholm being recently bad. This decision is about the Braves putting faith in Garcia, and on the surface, that looks like a huge overreaction to 27 innings against some terrible line-ups at the end of the season. 11 of the 27 innings he threw came against the Marlins, so really, he only threw 16 innings against big league hitters with the Braves. Don’t the Braves understand sample size?
Actually, they probably do, and giving Garcia the ball might actually be evidence that the Braves are doing exactly the opposite of what it appears; instead of focusing too heavily on recent results, they might be putting weight on a more predictive larger sample that suggest that Freddy Garcia is actually still a pretty decent big league pitcher.
Here’s Garcia’s line over the last three seasons:
|Freddy Garcia||334||6.8 %||16.3 %||1.40||0.286||75.1 %||104||112||103|
In pieces, Garcia’s last three years can be seen as wild inconsistency, vacillating between greatness and horriblenes. Looked at as one larger entity, however, his performance looks like a big ball of average-ish pitching. His walk and strikeout rates are fine for a big league starter, and despite the fact that he looks like he should be getting pounded with the crap he’s throwing these days, he’s actually allowed a below average rate of hits on balls in play. Basically all of his problems can be tied to the home run ball. When he gives up dingers, he’s bad; when he doesn’t, he’s not.
This is true of every pitcher to an extent, but as a strike-throwing contact guy who gives up a lot of fly balls, it’s especially true of Garcia. His stuff forces him to walk the tight rope of perfect placement, and when he misses by a few inches, the ball goes really far, but he has stretches where he doesn’t miss that often. The Braves just saw one of those stretches in September, as he provided a reminder of the fact that, even with his high ERA for the Yankees last year, he still showed plenty of signs of being an effective big league pitcher.
Garcia’s 104 ERA- since the start of the 2011 season is almost exactly equal to the league average for a starting pitcher during that same time frame. His 103 xFIP- suggests that his results are almost exactly what you’d expect from a pitcher with his statistical profile. He’s not a great pitcher, but whether you’re judging by results or peripherals, Garcia’s performance over the last three years has actually been just fine.
Because he’s older now and his home run problems have been more pronounced of late, Garcia’s current true talent level is probably a little worse than the numbers above suggest. Garcia is probably more slightly-below-average than average, but even for a playoff team, starting a guy with this profile in the postseason isn’t that big of a departure from the norm. In fact, by walks and strikeouts, 2011-2013 Freddy Garcia hasn’t been much different than 2011-2013 Jeremy Hellickson or Jarrod Parker, both of whom are scheduled to start Game 4 for their sabermetrically inclined organizations. Garcia actually has a lower xFIP- than both pitchers over the last three years, in fact.
That isn’t to say Garcia is better. They’re young and have better stuff, and both have posted ERAs below their peripherals, but it’s not that odd for a playoff team to hand the ball to a pitcher of something close to this quality in Game 4 of a playoff game. Garcia is kind of meh, but most teams don’t have four great starting pitchers, so they end up giving one start per series to a guy who is kind of meh.
But that brings us to the asterisk. There’s a decent case to be made that Garcia is the Braves 4th best starting pitcher right now, thanks to the injuries they’ve suffered, and the fact that they felt Alex Wood would be more helpful in a relief role than starting one game per series. However, just because Garcia is the team’s fourth best starting pitcher doesn’t mean that they have to let him stay in the game very long. In fact, when a team has a #4 starter of this quality, their best plan is likely just to treat it as a bullpen game.
I’ve written about the case for skipping the starter in elimination games many times before, and this is the kind of game where an all-hands-on-deck approach is most warranted. Garcia might be their best option to start the game, but there’s no reason to let him try and pitch himself out of impending doom. If the Dodgers start stringing some hits together, get someone up in the bullpen, and be ready to make the move to put out any fires that arise in any inning in order to keep the game close.
The Braves should not let their season end because Garcia gave up a couple of home runs trying to give them five innings. Let him get through the line-up once and then be on red alert. If he gives you three full innings, consider it a job well done and then play the match-ups the rest of the way. Even with Wood and Jordan Walden having thrown a lot of pitches today, they can still mix and match with the other five relievers on the roster, and those relievers are almost certainly more likely to keep the score close than Garcia will be a second or third time through the batting order.
With a home run prone starting pitcher, a good start can turn bad in a hurry, and the Braves margin for error is now zero. They can’t afford to let Garcia dig a hole too large for their offense to overcome, so their best tactic to survive until Game 5 is to lean heavily on their relievers. Craig Kimbrel should be prepared to get six outs tomorrow, and David Carpenter, Luis Avilan, and Luis Ayala should all be ready to pitch multiple innings as well. That’s the Braves best path to Game 5, and the off day on Tuesday would give the bullpen a chance to recover enough to back up Kris Medlen should they get that far.
But starting Freddy Garcia today isn’t a disaster. He’s acceptably mediocre, and if they don’t ask him to do too much, he can give them enough outs to piece the rest of the game together.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.