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Analyzing newest Atlanta Braves starter Jaime Garcia

The newest member of the Braves rotation has an extensive injury history, but a real skill at getting ground balls.

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

There are no men like me. There’s only me.

— Jamie Lannister, A Clash of Kings, Chapter 55

I’m pretty good at getting groundballs, I guess. I don’t know, this is a weird way to start an article, Ivan.

— [not actually] Jamie Garcia


As you may have heard, the Braves have continued overhauling a rotation that was among baseball’s worst in 2016 (second-worst by FIP-WAR, to be exact) with a trade for Jaime Garcia, the erstwhile Cardinals southpaw. Unlike other recent rotation additions R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, Braves fans may be somewhat less familiar with Garcia, given that he’s only faced the Braves eight times in his career (compared to Colon and Dickey, who’ve each faced the Braves 15 times, and many of those have come relatively recently).

Jaime Garcia was born 30 years ago in Reynosa, Mexico, a town directly across the Rio Grande from Hidalgo, Texas. (The other major leaguer from Reynosa: Jorge Cantu.) Garcia attended a Texas high school (Sharyland High in Mission, Texas) and was eligible for the 2004 amateur draft. The Orioles took him in the 30th round, but due to a weird clerical/translation error (read more here), he went un-signed. The scout who advocated signing him, Joe Almaraz, moved on to the Cardinals organization next year, leading to him being drafted in 22nd round and subsequently signed the following year. (Weirdly enough, Garcia was still attending high school in the 2004-2005 school year, but too old to play for his team.)

Garcia started as a 19-year-old in A-ball (2006), and progressed through the rungs of the Cardinals minor league system — he had been in AAA just about three months when the Cardinals called him up to St. Louis in July 2008. He made one start and nine relief appearances without notably good results. What transpired thereafter has been a hallmark of Garcia’s major league career to date: injury struck.

To put a fine point on it, Garcia has not been a paragon of pitcher health during his major league tenure. Here are the injuries and ailments he’s suffered that kept him off the field:

  • 2008-2009: underwent Tommy John Surgery, missing much of 2009 season, in which he didn’t appear in the majors.
  • 2010-2011: fairly healthy, pitching over 160 frames in 2010 and a full season (194 frames) in 2011.
  • 2012: a strain of his throwing shoulder cost him ten weeks over the summer.
  • 2013: the dreaded “shoulder discomfort” had him shut down after just six weeks of pitching.
  • 2014: started on the season on the DL with shoulder inflammation/bursitis and missed six weeks, came back to make seven starts, and the missed the rest of the season following surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
  • 2015: recovery from surgery lasted through May, and then a groin strain cost him much of July.
  • 2016: finally, a rare healthy season!

To put an even finer point on it, here are Garcia’s ranks for innings pitched among his peers:

  • Since his full time debut in 2010, there are 69 other pitchers that have thrown more innings than him. Note that this includes some guys like Tim Hudson or Cliff Lee that are no longer pitching.
  • Over the last three seasons, 105 pitchers have completed more innings than him (or about 3.5 per team).
  • In 2016, despite not hitting the Disabled List, he was only 63rd in innings pitched. He did make 30 starts, but didn’t last as long in them as some of his teammates.

So, that’s really the “bad” with Garcia: he has trouble staying on the mound, and isn’t the best exemplar of an innings-eater even when healthy. However, he’s far from a worthless commodity: after all, the Cardinals picked up a fairly expensive ($12 million) option on him for 2016, and unlike many other arms that are jointly hampered by injury and ineffectiveness, Garcia has been a pretty good pitcher when he’s been hale (not David Hale) enough to take the mound.


Below, I’ve put together a bunch of boring tables about Garcia’s performance relative to his peers. In each table, I note his value for each statistic or metric, the corresponding league-average value (for both National League starters and all MLB starters), and his percentile rank across MLB starters. Where the percentile rank is concerned, I try to express and color code it such that greener is always more positive and orange-r (not a word) is always more negative, though for some of the metrics (like o-contact% it’s a little iffy). The percentiles are done against all MLB starters, but as you can see, MLB and NL averages for pitching statistics are generally pretty close, anyway.

The tables focus on three overlapping time horizons. These are not mutually exclusive windows of time, by design. The left column highlights how well Garcia has performed, relative to his peers, over his full career (aside from that short stint in 2008). The middle column is more of a “recent history” estimate, while the right column is just about 2016.

There’s a reason why I aligned them this way, rather than 2010-2013, 2014-2015, and 2016, and it has to do with the fact that 2016, as you will see, was not really Garcia’s best season. For prognosticating (or pontificating) on his performance, there’s a bit of a question about whether “the real Garcia” is best exemplified by his career, by recent history (which for him is weighted more heavily by his poor 2016 performance than for other pitchers, given that he missed much of 2014), or by his most recent efforts. I think that’s a bit of an open question, and I tend to lean towards the middle column myself, but feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Basic Peripherals

You can see that, over his career, Garcia has been pretty generic at getting strikeouts, but paired that with an above-average walk rate (as in, better than average) and good homer suppression. That’s helped him amass an fWAR/200 of right at 3.0 for his career, making him an above-average starter on a rate basis.

Nothing worked out awesomely for him in 2016, including these peripherals. The big blow was his homer rate exploding upward, but the uptick in walk rate didn’t help either. (Side note: the percentiles are lower than 50th for some places where he meets with league average because he had some relief appearances in 2016, which are not factored into his percentile ranks against other starters.) More on that later.

ERA and Estimators

For his career, Jaime Garcia has been a good-to-really good pitcher. In 2016, he was not. As seen from the tables above, the homer rate is largely to blame, which is why the xFIP doesn’t ding him much for it. SIERA is very interesting for Garcia because it is meant to handle pitchers with interesting skillsets, and it wasn’t very negative on him in 2016. No matter how you slice it, though, Garcia had a tough 2016. Is it aging? Injuries finally catching up with him? Random variation? It’s hard to tell just from this, and how you feel about Garcia’s possible performance going forward probably depends in large part of how much a leash you’re willing to give one bad season. By the left column, he looks good-to-great; by the middle, he’s okay-to-good, and by the right column, there may be storm clouds on the horizon, though the better ERA prognosticators (xFIP, SIERA) aren’t that worried.

Batted Balls

This is where Garcia butters his bread, and makes his living, and other semi-appropriate metaphors. Leaving the BABIP column aside, you can see that, well, everything is on the ground. Garcia is pretty much among the best at generating grounders, and also at preventing line drives. On the flip side, and necessarily, there are very few fly balls or pop flies that result from his pitches. Importantly, his groundball tendencies weren’t harmed at all in 2016, though he did get a (tiny bit) worse at preventing line drives.

The real spike for him was in HR/FB%. Again, is that random variation? Perhaps. What’s interesting here is that you’d expect a groundball pitcher to potentially have a higher HR/FB% than an average pitcher or a flyball pitcher, because his homers are more likely to come on mistake pitches, and he has a smaller denominators of fly balls overall. That wasn’t really previously the case with Garcia, but that ratio still ballooned in 2016.

The BABIP thing with him is simultaneously weird and not-that-weird. You’d expect him to run a higher BABIP than other pitchers because grounders go for hits more often than flies, though you’d think his line drive mitigation would play into that. On the flip side the really low BABIPs in 2014 and 2015 are kind of weird in that regard. Everything is still pretty in line in general, and perhaps there were issues with the St. Louis defense playing a role here too. That actually raises a key point: Garcia will thrive better with a solid infield defense behind him. It’s unclear how the Braves infield defense will play out in 2017, but if they want to bolster his numbers for a midseason trade, they’d be well-advised to put out a great defensive infield when he pitches.

More Stuff on Batted Balls

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jaime Garcia gets guys to pull the ball. By extension, they don’t hit it the other way. He’s a pulled groundball generator, so in keeping with my previous sentence and the fact that teams will likely try to deploy righties against him, having a solid defensive third baseman (assuming Dansby Swanson is entrenched at shortstop) is a must for his starts in 2017.

The “contact quality” stats are interesting, in that you largely see that the league has shifted in an appreciable degree to giving up more hard contact at the expense of medium contact over time. Therefore, while Garcia has also given up more hard contact lately, it’s mitigated by that being a league-wide trend. His issue, in terms of 2016, was getting considerably less soft contact than he was previously generating. (Research project: use the new Fangraphs splits tool to see how his breakdown of soft/medium/hard liners/flies/grounders has changed over his career.)

In 2014 and 2015, it looks like he was able to keep his soft contact similar, but medium-hit balls were coming hard-hit balls to a greater degree. 2016 is when his soft contact ability began to erode a bit. Again, a temporary glitch or an ominous issue for the future? Hard to say just based on this, but something to think about.

Plate Discipline

The rubber hits the road a fair bit here. (I need to stop with the blanket metaphors.)

Garcia’s ability to get hitters to chase outside the zone has eroded over time. That’s bad. But, in 2016, hitters chose to be more patient against him and swing less against pitches in the zone, which is kind of weird, but not really a bad thing or a problem (called strikes are nice). Overall, hitters have become more willing to watch his pitches go over time (even though his zone% suggests he’s still throwing the same relative proportion of strikes), which is both good (more called strikes) and bad (fewer early outs via weakly hit grounders, and more guys waiting for mistake pitches more often).

Across the league, hitters are making less and less contact on pitches outside the zone over time, and this trend is fairly dramatic. However, Garcia’s pitches are actually getting less whiff-inducing in this regard. Still, hitters miss his non-strikes more than they do in general, it’s just eroded a bit over time. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether this is really an issue, as it is very possible that Garcia may actually want more contact on his non-strikes to get easy grounder outs rather than deepening the count.

On the flip side, his ability to induce whiffs on pitches in the zone has substantially fallen, which reduces his margin for error. A loss of effectiveness here could dovetail nicely with the HR/FB% spike, if hitters missed fewer hittable pitches than they did previously. The problem is that it’s hard to tell whether this suggests a newfound lack of deception or just a blip on the radar. Suffice to say, Garcia has gone from missing more bats to missing fewer bats over time.

Lastly, and this is just idiosyncratically weird, is that Garcia is not a big “Strike One” guy. It’s interesting in that Strike One is commonly thought to be important for pitcher success, but Garcia either breaks the mold or has managed to turn that trend to his advantage, perhaps by getting early-count outs by pitching outside the zone.


Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards (who is also managing editor of the great SBN Cardinals site Viva El Birdos) wrote an article shortly after the Garcia acquisition. In it, he notes three possible explanations for the spike in HR/FB rate that made Garcia’s 2016 a bit of a dud:

  1. He was hurt (and Garcia is no stranger to injury);
  2. He was tired (he had thrown as many innings in 2016 as he had in 2014 and 2015 combined, and his HR/FB% climbed over time; he also last cleared 130 frames all the way back in 2011); or
  3. He had a really bad run of luck (which does happen sometimes, and may be the only viable explanation if everything else can be ruled out).

At this point, and using the tables above, it’s hard to directly attribute any of the above to Garcia’s loss of effectiveness in 2016. But, there are things that can be done using Statcast data to maybe explore some of these, and I hope to do that in the coming days and weeks. But, if you have ideas on who the “real” Jaime Garcia is, and whether there’s any indication as to why his HR/FB spiked, I think that could be a great discussion.


Forecast

Without getting any deeper into the potential causes for his backslide in 2016, here’s what I think Garcia will do in 2017:

I’m most partial to the middle column of the tables above, but concerned that certain parts of his game seem to be losing effectiveness over time. There’s also another factor to consider in that while projecting a rate basis for him seems to be a safer bet than a lump-sum WAR total, the reality is that he’s a bigger injury risk than many pitchers, and as such, his total production may be substantially hampered by an inability to stay on the field.

Given all those things, I think a good central estimate is that he stays on the field to complete 130 innings and puts up about 1.6 fWAR. For those keeping score at home, that’s about a 3.85 FIP (and ERA, since I’m prognosticating, and he weirdly hasn’t really outpitched his FIP much historically) to date. Note that if he manages to pitch a full season of 200 innings with that run prevention line, he’ll end up somewhere in the 2.5 fWAR range. Will that be enough to get a nice return at the deadline, assuming he ends up somewhere around there? I guess we’ll see.


Lastly, a fun anecdote about Jaime Garcia: his self-professed childhood hero is Fernando Valenzuela, another lefty starter who became the first Mexican-born pitcher to start a World Series game in 1981. The second such Mexican-born pitcher? Jaime Garcia, thirty years later, in 2011.

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