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Adonis Garcia is (still) who we thought he was

The Braves continue to sally forth with an uninspiring third base option.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Mets
This photo was taken during Garcia’s only double so far this season.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

If you paid any attention to the preseason player projections for the Braves, you know that they have not been particularly kind to the roster. At many positions, the Braves’ crop of position players and pitchers is ranked towards the bottom of the league. However, only one position was projected to be the worst in MLB: that of third base, to be primarily manned by Adonis Garcia.

Garcia has been somewhat of an enigma in his 800-plus plate appearances with the Braves, albeit a fairly uninteresting one, like misplacing your glasses. After defecting from Cuba, he spent three years in the Yankees’ minor league system, topping out with a 127 wRC+ while repeating AAA in 2014. That wasn’t good enough to keep him employed, and the Braves snatched him up and assigned him to Gwinnett after the Yankees cut him in April 2015. The Braves had a travesty of a third-base situation that year, with Chris Johnson, Alberto Callaspo, Pedro Ciriaco, and Phil Gosselin all underwhelming. They got a reprieve for a bit after trading for Juan Uribe, who went on a 150-PA tear, but then dealt him as well, clearing the way for Garcia, who started nearly all of the team’s remaining games at the hot corner.

For those first 200 PAs as a Brave during the 2015 season, Garcia did something kind of weird: he put up a .220 ISO and 10 home runs, despite an ISO below .120 in AAA and just 21 total homers in his entire minor league career. Given that he pretty much never walked in those PAs, his OBP was under .300, but a 112 wRC+ that season was a pleasant surprise, albeit one that didn’t feel particularly sustainable given a HR/FB ratio above 20 percent.

Penciled in as the presumptive starter at third base for the 2016 season, Garcia appeared to be making some changes to make himself more of a lineup mainstay. He tried to walk more, and oriented his spray profile to be more up the middle and opposite field. Unfortunately, those adjustments sapped his power, and he managed just three extra-base hits in 113 PAs through early May before the Braves shuttled him back to Gwinnett. At that time, Garcia’s wRC+ for the season was a measly 67, despite a .325 BABIP and an OBP near .320, thanks to a pitiful .048 ISO. Garcia came back three weeks later and looked more like his 2015 self: he was once again orienting back towards pulling the ball, managed a .150 ISO, and hit for a 95 wRC+. It was very similar to his 2015 efforts, except that his HR/FB fell from over 20 percent to under 14 percent. The 95 wRC+ tells you that without some BABIP or HR/FB luck, that kind of hitting profile, without walks, just doesn’t provide that much value.

Of course, you’re reading this not to be lectured about 2015 and 2016 Adonis Garcia, but probably to accumulate some knowledge about 2017 Adonis Garcia. And, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but what you’ve seen is probably and largely what you’re going to get when it comes to this particular player.

There are two easy ways that this can be demonstrated. The first is to just look at Adonis Garcia’s 2017 stats (through Saturday, April 22):

The walk rate... is currently the same as 2016. The strikeout rate is a little lower, but that’s come with a lack of power. Of course, the big, garish number is the .204 BABIP, which is depressing the overall line and leading to the ugly 44 wRC+. But, consider the following:

  • Garcia has put 54 balls in play so far this season. (66 ABs less two homers and 10 strikeouts.)
  • Of those, 11 have fallen for hits, 11/54 = .204 BABIP.
  • For Garcia to instead have had a normal, .300ish BABIP (his career BABIP is .295), he would need to have five of those balls in play fall in for hits, instead. 11+5 = 16, 16/54 = .296 BABIP.
  • Garcia’s current hits on balls in play have been 10 singles and one double. Let’s assume that the ratio would hold, and make all five “extra” hits singles.
  • His current average is 13 hits in 66 ABs. Changing that to 18 hits in 66 ABs is a .272 average, basically identical to his .273 average from 2016, and his .267 career average.
  • His current OBP is 16 hits+walks in 69 PAs, or .232. Changing that to 21 hits+walks in 69 PAs yields a .304 OBP, a little below his 2016 mark, and right around his .300 career mark.
  • His current slugging percentage is 20 total bases in 66 ABs, or .303. Adding five singles would make it 25/66, or .378. This is substantially below his career average, and his 2016 mark, but that’s to be expected since we’re just adding singles.
  • This gives him a .301 wOBA, slightly below his 2016 mark, which is also similar to his career line.

In sum, Garcia’s not doing anything that different, except maybe hitting for somewhat less power than expected. If his ball in play luck was normal, he’d be the same, not particularly exciting Garcia. As is, his batting line is ugly, but he’s not doing anything all that different.

The other way to look at it is to look at his various component pieces — his plate discipline, his quality of contact, his batted ball profile, and so on. The chart below shows his percentile ranks, for his 2015-2016 seasons, as well as his 2017 small sample size of plate appearances so far, against the universe of all 2016 batters with 200+ PAs.

As you can see, there are some differences, but they’re not systematic. (Of course, the tiny 2017 sample is also at fault here.) As far as big differences go, we have: 1) a cratering of the line drive rate, which may explain the BABIP decline, but should be somewhat counteracted by an increase in groundball rate, which tends to have a higher BABIP than putting non-liner fly balls in play; 2) a decline in going the other way, which is largely rooted in a bunch of balls being hit up the middle; 3) much less soft contact, and more medium and hard contact; and, 4) less contact on pitches in the zone, counteracted by more contact on pitches outside the zone.

There aren’t many clear conclusions to be drawn from the above, but Garcia does not look all that different, and he probably hasn’t changed or evolved much.

With all that, the Braves still have a few questions and quandaries when it comes to Garcia and third base slot, and they mostly have to do with Garcia’s playing time.

Before the season, Steamer and ZiPS (and IWAG) all projected Garcia to be a sub-1.0 WAR player over 600 PAs. Meanwhile, Steamer projected Rio Ruiz to be below replacement level, while ZiPS projected him to be marginally better than Garcia over similar playing time (and IWAG had Ruiz as meaningfully better). Considering that Garcia has a career 129 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers, a career 79 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, and that Ruiz bats left-handed, a platoon situation seems like an obvious play.

But, even if the Braves don’t want to trust Ruiz with the keys to the hot corner as the strong part of a platoon, they also have Jace Peterson on the roster. Peterson can’t hit lefties at all (career 46 wRC+ against them), but has hit righties better than Garcia (86 wRC+ to Garcia’s 79 wRC+), and seems like a decent choice for a platoon without requiring any roster reshuffling.

Through last Saturday, however, Garcia continued to draw the bulk of playing time at third, and was even moved into the lineup’s most important spot (the two-hole) for a couple of games. Garcia is not the worst player in the majors, but he looks very similar to his existing track record so far in 2017, and is essentially a mediocre MLB bench option pressed into starting duty. Until the Braves figure out a better solution for third base, it’ll be hard to take claims that they’re attempting to compete at face value.

Bonus: Using Statcast, I pulled all of Garcia’s balls in play and sorted by catch rate. So far this season, Garcia has done the following:

  • Hit two singles that are usually outs (hit probability of 5% or less, based on their distance, exit velocity, and launch angle);
  • Hit a home run that only goes for a hit a third of the time;
  • Hit a couple of liners and grounders that go for a hit two-thirds of the time that were converted into outs; and
  • Never had a very likely hit (hit probability of 75% or more) taken away by the defense.

This suggests that perhaps the BABIP analysis above was wrong, and that Garcia really isn’t hitting the ball well enough to get back to a normal BABIP right now. Either way, the conclusion is kind of depressing, and the sooner the Braves move on to other options, the better.

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