22 January 2016

Jason Garcia Finished Strong In 2015

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For the fourth time in five years, the Orioles selected a player in the Rule 5 Draft. Joey Rickard will join the roster in 2016, along with previous selections Ryan Flaherty, T.J. McFarland, and Jason Garcia. Rickard has hit pretty well in the minors, but overall he doesn't seem like much. No matter what happens in the future, he almost certainly won't make the big-league club better this season.

This continues what has been, for now, a wholly underwhelming Rule 5 return for Baltimore. Flaherty has averaged 0.8 fWAR per 600 plate appearances in his career, while McFarland has amassed 0.8 fWAR across 173.2 innings of mostly relief. Both players, in other words, have played closer to replacement level than we'd like — and with horrid showings in 2015, both have trended in the wrong direction as of late.

Garcia, though, may have some potential. Although his 2015 results — sub-replacement level marks in both fWAR and rWAR — don't look that appealing, they bely the improvements that he made as the year progressed. In Year 2 as an Oriole (or, in all likelihood, as a Tide), he may build upon these further and take the next step in his development.

Before Garcia was good, he was bad. In his first eight games of the season, from April 8th against the Rays to May 10th against the Yankees, he gave free passes to 17.5 percent of the batters he faced and punched out 12.5 percent. That ugly combination, along with a 38.1 percent ground ball rate, left him with a 5.93 ERA and 7.67 FIP in 13.2 innings. Had he sustained those figures for much longer, he likely would have returned to the Red Sox on the waiver wire.

In a mixed blessing, Garcia went on the 15-Day Disabled List on May 13th with shoulder tendinitis. A month later, the Orioles transferred him to the 60-Day DL, to make way for Mychal Givens. His recuperation took three months, allowing him to reappear on August 7th against the Angels.

From there, things went surprisingly well. Over 13 appearances and 16.0 innings in the season's final two months, Garcia put up solid strikeout and walk rates of 20.3 and 8.7 percent, respectively. Along with an uptick in grounders, to a respectable 49.0 percent, this granted him a 2.81 ERA and 2.51 FIP. Garcia came back from his injury a completely different pitcher, to a degree that renews hope for his future.

This progress was no fluke: Across the board, Garcia's peripheral statistics got better in the second half. He threw more strikes (62.3 percent, up from 55.8 percent), while accumulating more called strikes (19.0 percent, up from 17.8 percent) and swinging strikes (9.3 percent, up from 8.7 percent) as well. Interestingly, his zone rate actually declined, from 48.8 percent to 44.9 percent. However, because hitters chased 29.4 percent of the time in his second stint — compared to just 17.6 percent of the time in his first — he managed to net those gains in strikes.

Of Garcia's three primary pitches — a sinker, a four-seam fastball, and a slider — the latter two stood apart after his return. Both offerings saw their strike rates jump, and each made gains in one of the two strikeout pitches:

Half  FF Strike%   FF Look%   SL Strike%   SL Whiff% 
First 51.5% 15.2% 62.9% 14.5%
 Second  63.8% 18.8% 69.1% 20.6%

Since a decline in walk rate helped Garcia's case the most, it would seem likely that he improved his command. Indeed, that looks like the case for his four-seamer...

...and for his slider:

Garcia consistently placed both pitches differently in his later appearances. The four-seamer went to the lower part of the strike zone, and the slider began to avoid the zone entirely. Heaters typically work the best when they attack batters, whereas off-speed offerings will generally succeed from deception, so this strategy — stay in the zone with the four-seamer and goad opponents with the slider — makes sense. Garcia has always struggled with command, meaning he may have trouble sticking to this approach. With that said, the fact that he accomplished it here means he could do it again.

Command didn't act alone, though — Garcia also bettered the movement on his pitches, especially the slider:

Note how the slider starts to separate from the harder pitches toward the end of the season. When everything a pitcher throws moves similarly, hitters will become accustomed to it and tee off. Even though Garcia's velocity didn't change much from the first half to the second, the more distinct movement helped keep the opposition on their toes.

Clearly, Garcia has room for further growth. These two pitches fared well in 2015, but the third, his sinker, floundered endlessly. During August and September, it saw fewer strikes, fewer looks, and fewer whiffs than it had in April and May. This probably explains why Garcia was merely average, rather than exceptional, during the former period: He only had two competent arrows in his quiver.

There's also the matter of Garcia's platoon split. In both halves of 2015, he performed horribly against left-handed batters, who posted an overall 24.5 percent walk rate and 10.2 percent strikeout rate against him (somehow, those are not typos). Unless he improves upon that, he'll never become anything more than a ROOGY; to get better, he'll have to refine his changeup, which he implemented sparingly last season and which hasn't shown much potential to date.

Garcia clearly has a limited ceiling — if he didn't, Boston wouldn't have let him leave. Still, the pieces are here for a solid relief arm. Unless injuries ravage the Baltimore bullpen, Garcia will spend most of 2016 in the minors, where he'll hone his pitches, make sure the command sticks around, and get some work in against southpaws. At this point, the book on Flaherty and McFarland has probably closed, Garcia's tale has just begun.


Anonymous said...

Also, Garcia is younger than both of the others so he has more time to improve. Last year, I thought the word was that his arm was more "live" than McFarland's.

Philip said...

Would be interesting to Compare Flaherty to other "25th men."
Despite his low WAR, he sure seems to have been helpful in his time with Baltimore.

Meanwhile, what's the beef with Rickard?
He has no power, but he has speed, a discerning eye and good walk rate, all traits that should reasonably be expected to translate to MLB. No?
And the Tampa folks were certainly unhappy to lose him.
What do you see as his problem?

Jon Shepherd said...

Power is a major issue when you translate performance to the majors. It changes how teams approach batters and typically, there are exceptions, those peripherals crash. It really was one of those first lessons about diving too deep with minor league equivalences in the early 2000s.