Will The Chief Help The Yanks?

Thirty-six-year old Freddy Garcia signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees and will try to make the starting rotation out of spring training. Garcia is clearly in the twilight of his career. His velocity is declining, his strikeouts are falling, and walks are rising. How much longer can The Chief keep his head above water?

Garcia has had a solid, but injury riddled career. He has 133 career wins, a 4.13 career ERA, and 31.5 career WAR. His most similar pitchers through age 35 are Chris Carpenter and Bartolo Colon. Fittingly, Colon will also be competing for a Yankee rotation spot this spring. Last year with the White Sox, Garcia posted a 4.59 xFIP in 157 innings, good for 1.3 WAR. Nothing spectacular, but not as bad as his 4.64 ERA would suggest.

Like most aging pitchers, Garcia’s velocity is fading. His average fastball speed has dropped by two miles per hour since 2008: 89.6, 88.3, 87.6. While Garcia has never been a pitcher who relied on throwing gas, he has only posted two positive wFB/C scores since 2002, he still has to adapt to his aging skill set in order to survive in the majors.

It appears as if Garcia realized his fastball is gone. Last season, only 30 percent of Garcia’s pitches were fastballs, the least amount in his career. Even two years ago, Garcia threw 43 percent fastballs. He is changing his approach and relying more on changing speeds and breaking pitches. Garcia’s change-up percent went from 13 percent in 2009 to 23 percent last year. He also had an uptick in use of his curveball and split-fingered fastball in 2010.

While it looks like Garcia has accepted that his fastball is gone, the strategy change has a major problem. He’s not fooling anyone. Batters are swinging at about 45 percent of Garcia’s pitches, which is directly in line with his career average. However, batters made contact 83 percent of the time, the highest percentage of Garcia’s career.

What is even more troubling is how hittable Garcia has become outside of the strike zone. His career average for contact outside the strike zone is 50 percent. Last year, Garcia’s O-contact percentage was an absurd 72 percent. While he threw a lot more off-speed pitches last year, he just was not getting the ball by anyone.

Garcia has proven crafty enough to be above replacement level into his late 30’s. However, his changeup is his last pitch with positive value, and unless he can reverse some troubling trends, it is unlikely that the Yankees will get much value out of Garcia.

Maybe The Chief has a few more tricks up his sleeve. Maybe he can rediscover the slider that brought him some value in 2009, or develop a better curveball. If he does not, Garcia’s career slide will continue, and the odds are that he will produce some replacement-level innings in 2010. That is, when he is not on the disabled list.

Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.

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Just a minor nitpick really, but you say, “Garcia posted a 4.59 xFIP in 157 innings, good for 1.3 WAR. Nothing spectacular, but not as bad as his 4.64 ERA would suggest.”

And actually, that’s pretty much exactly what it suggests. He let up 81 earned runs in 157 innings for his 4.64era, if he let up 80 earned runs over the 157 innings that would give him an era of 4.59, matching his xFIP. So we’re talking about the difference of 1 earned run over an entire season – not enough for me to really think that xFIP paints a picture of him being a victim of poor luck and therefore stands to benefit from positive regression.

Then you add in the fact that is FIP was 4.77, and I really don’t see his ERA misleading anyone into thinking he’s worse than he is.