Jaime Garcia Is the New Adam Wainwright

When the news hit that Adam Wainwright would be lost for the season, it was tough to imagine the St. Louis Cardinals overcoming that loss to win the NL Central. The Cards had already fallen short to Cincinnati last year. They’d also made few major off-season changes, while the hitting-loaded Brewers picked up two top-shelf pitchers in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. A third-place finish was a perfectly reasonable projection.

Perfectly reasonable until we realize that Jaime Garcia is the new Adam Wainwright.

As Garcia climbed the minor league ranks, he seemed to have some potential. Writing for Baseball America in 2007, Derrick Goold tabbed Garcia as the Cardinals’ second-best prospect:

Garcia fools hitters with a wicked downward-breaking curveball he lands for strikes. His fastball features natural sinking life, consistently reaches the low 90s and tops out at 94. He operates with a clean, easy arm action and repeats his delivery, allowing him to fill the zone with strikes. He shows an advanced touch with his changeup.

Goold surmised that Garcia could crack the big league rotation by 2008. That prediction proved correct when Garcia made his first start that season. But after missing the second half of the 2007 season due to elbow soreness, the joint gave out in early ’08. Garcia would make just that one MLB start in 2008, as Tommy John Surgery knocked him out for most of ’08 and ’09.

Garcia’s stock predictably dropped, as he failed to crack the organization’s 2009 top 10 list. In 2010, he reclaimed the #2 spot, his 38 minor league innings the previous year apparently enough to reassert the team’s confidence in him. Goold had a different take this time:

Garcia commands a biting 12-to-6 curveball that’s a genuine swing-and-miss pitch. He sets it up with an 88-92 mph fastball that has late, downward movement. He used his rehab to add a pitch that’s a cross between a cutter and slider. His minor league playoff performance validated his reputation for being unflappable.

Emphasis mine. Messing around during his long rehab, Garcia found that little hybrid pitch. After that, everything started to change.

The velocity projections put forth early in Garcia’s career haven’t materialized, with the lefty averaging a tick under 90 mph on his four-seam fastball. But with the help of Cardinals pitching guru Dave Duncan, that slider/cutter has evolved into a full-on cutter, one of the most devastating cutters thrown by any pitcher in the game (only Roy Halladay and Jon Lester generated more value with their cutters than Garcia did last year). With hitters perhaps more aware of the cutter this year, Garcia is finding a lot more success with his four-seamer and change-up.

Steve Slowinski recently addressed the concerns that swirled around Garcia coming into this year. Chief among them was the huge bump in workload from 2009 to 2010. In a March Rotographs post, Jason Catania labeled Garcia one of “Five NL Starters You Shouldn’t Draft.”

Another innings increaser. Except in Garcia’s case, the hike alone—125 and 2/3 innings!—should scare the bejesus out of you. Paired with the fact that the Cardinals can’t afford to limit the 24-year-old’s innings like they did at times last season—losing Adam Wainwright‘s 230 will do that—and things get even more frightening.

The Verducci Rule, The Shandler Thesis, or whatever the hell you want to call concerns over a pitcher seeing a big workload jump from one year to the next, does have some merit. But these are broad strokes. Not all pitchers who see a big workload increase will automatically fail. Far from it. In Garcia’s case (and in fairness to Jason!), Catania noted the lefty’s healthy groundball rate (52.4% this year, 18th in MLB; 55.9% last year, 6th in MLB), and came up with a pretty strong hedge, naming Anibal Sanchez and Jorge de la Rosa as strong alternatives (ideally you own all three). Garcia also benefits from a pitcher-friendly home park and pitching in front of the 9th-best defense in baseball.

Most encouragingly, whatever concerns we may have had about Garcia’s good-but-not-great strikeout potential in the minors should be cast aside at this point. The effectiveness of Garcia’s cutter, combined with his newfound durability, have made him a much better pitcher.

In fact, Garcia is putting up the kind of K/BB numbers this year that rival Wainwright’s best. Garcia’s 4.1 strikeout-to-walk rate so far this season tops Wainwright 3.8 K/BB in his top season, 2010. Though we’re only seven weeks into the season, we probably shouldn’t call Garcia better-than-average strikeout rate a fluke anymore, iffy velocity or not. His Swinging Strike rate of 11.8% is tied for 4th-best in MLB; last year’s 10% mark ranked a strong 14th out of 92 qualified starting pitchers.

The Cardinals figure to face stiff competition from the Reds (and very possibly the Brewers) all year long. They’re holding their breath after Lance Berkman (wrist) and Matt Holliday (quad) both exited Wednesday’s game (and missed Thursday’s game) with injuries, potentially threatening baseball’s high-scoring offense. But Garcia, along with Duncan reclamation project Kyle Lohse, have helped the Cardinals stay right in the thick of the race.

If St. Louis does part company with Chris Carpenter ($15 million club option for 2012), or Wainwright struggles to make it back, they can still remain contenders. Having a new ace helps make that possible.



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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


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Andy Brandt
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Andy Brandt
5 years 4 months ago

“9th-best defense in baseball.” That’s a shocker!

GT in NYC
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GT in NYC
5 years 4 months ago

I was going to comment about this too. If you ever needed an argument that UZR data is worthless in small samples, this is it.

If the Cardinals are the 9th best defense in baseball, then the Padres have the best offense. No way.

JohnnyComeLately
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JohnnyComeLately
5 years 4 months ago

They have been playing Lance Berkman in the OF

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
5 years 4 months ago

Let’s see.

C – Yadier Molina. Having a down year (to my eyes) but still regarded as one of the best defensive catchers around.

1B – Pujols. Very good defender.

2B – It’s been a mix-and-match, but mainly Nick Punto (who is EXCELLENT at 2B), with some innings from Tyler Greene (average-to-good), Skip Schumaker (bad) and Daniel Descalso (good).

SS – Theriot, mostly. And he’s been AWFUL this year.

3B – David Freese started the year. He’s good. Daniel Descalso has taken most of the starts recently, and he looks truly excellent at the position (so far, like, Rolen/Beltre good, in a SSS, both to my eyes and to UZR).

LF – Matt Holliday. Plus defender in LF, by UZR and to my eye.

CF – Colby Rasmus. To my eye he’s average, UZR has him as a slight plus.

RF – Berkman. OK, he’s going to be very bad going forward.

The 4th OF is Jon Jay, who is an excellent fielder (and who has played quite a lot so far this year due mainly to injuries).

So, we’re looking at one awful position (RF), one bad one (SS), two average-to-slightly above (CF & LF), two good (1B & 2B), two very good (C & 3B). It doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that that defense is somewhere in the top half, even the top third, in baseball.

And, if I interpret it correctly, I’d say the likelihood is that UZR should be a pretty good descriptor of what’s happened (i.e. the Cardinals defense has been good) over the first month+20days of the season, as that equates (over 8 positions) to a little over two full seasons’ worth of data for an individual player (and I’ve heard 3 seasons mooted as the possible point at which UZR is getting close to normalising, in terms of its sampling error). That doesn’t mean they’ll be any good going forwards, especially if Theriot and Berkman continue at SS and RF every day, but I’d say that, overall, that defense is at least average on paper.

BVHeck
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BVHeck
5 years 4 months ago

good analysis Felonius

chuckb
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chuckb
5 years 4 months ago

“9th best defense” is misleading. The Cards have played Freese, who is at least average, or Punto (above average) much of the year. Skip Schumaker (awful) hasn’t played all that much due to injury. 2 of the plus defenders are in the outfield and, as the article noted, Garcia’s a ground ball pitcher.

Pujols has been adequate this year. Theriot’s awful but 3rd base and, to some degree, 2nd base have been a pleasant surprise. Garcia’s not hurt too badly by Berkman’s horrid defensive play.

Samuel
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Samuel
5 years 4 months ago

Garcia has really been a pleasure to watch this season. He’s got a great mind for pitching and mixes all of his weapons very well, and he has a lot of weapons.

Joseph
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Joseph
5 years 4 months ago

is this supposed to be a comparison to wainwright? this was a just an article praising (justly) garcia, not comparing/contrasting the two and their developments. I figured there would be more detail in to that.

cpebbles
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cpebbles
5 years 4 months ago

Didn’t the loss of Wainwright only cut their projected margin of victory in the NL Central in half by PECOTA?

Nat Haniel
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Nat Haniel
5 years 4 months ago

UZR data over 45 games means anything??

It’s no wonder that defensive data is met with much skepticism when almost everyone who applies it, applies it incorrectly. I don’t buy WAR for this reason either. UZR data for a given year is also useless.

cpebbles
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cpebbles
5 years 4 months ago

UZR data for 45 games for an entire team should be roughly as telling as 2 seasons’ worth for a single player, right?

GT in NYC
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GT in NYC
5 years 4 months ago

No, because the total team UZR is just a sum of the individual players’ UZR, which at this point in the season is completely useless. It’s not like DER, which measures total team defense.

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
5 years 4 months ago

“No, because the total team UZR is just a sum of the individual players’ UZR, which at this point in the season is completely useless.”

Why? What is the reasoning behind this? I’m not saying I necessarily disagree, but I don’t see why 300+ games of data taken across n players should be prone to greater sampling error (or any sort of error, really) than 300+ games of data for one player.

The “errors” should over-rate some defenders, under-rate some others, but I don’t see why they should skew in either direction for a team more so than for an individual over the same number of innings (indeed, I can even see an argument to suggest that they should perhaps be LESS skewed, due to the slight overlaps in defensive ranges in the IF and OF).

joshcohen
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joshcohen
5 years 4 months ago

error analysis. you’re not gaining greater precision summing together a bunch of small n values.

cpebbles
Guest
cpebbles
5 years 4 months ago

Yes you are.

joshcohen
Guest
joshcohen
5 years 4 months ago

No, If you sum random variables that each have their own variance, the sum’s variance is the sum of the individual variances.

In other words, at this point of the year team UZR is not better than individual UZR. It’s in fact much, much worse! This is an important point. Citing team UZR 50 games in is worthless.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you have a team of 8 fielders all with a UZR of 0 +/- 10 (I’m picking 10 out of a hat here). You add them up to get a team UZR of 0 +/- >>>>>>10. You gained nothing in the way of precision summing them!

Young Gung
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Young Gung
5 years 4 months ago

Ya’ll are blasting Jonah, for a small tidbit (UZR) of the post, that really doesn’t have much to do with main point of the post, which is that Garcia is looking like he has taken the next step and the writing may be on the wall that he is an elite pitcher.

I found it interesting that Lester and Halladay’s cutter ranked higher than Rivera’s. Mike Adams, had the 4th best cutter in the league when you include relievers.

Solid article Jonah. This is me being greedy: with all of this platoon split talk in terms of pitch type, it would’ve been nice if you could’ve incorporated Garcia’s newfound cutter in terms of helping him with either LHB or RHB if it applies (and I’m assuming it does).

bender
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bender
5 years 4 months ago

There’s nothing strange about Halladay and Lester’s cutters being better than Rivera’s those two are known for their outstanding cutters

Young Gung
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Young Gung
5 years 4 months ago

TV analyst often try to sell Rivy’s cutter as arguably the best pitch in game. That pitch is magnified considering how much he throws it, so because of that (and no disrespect to Halladay and Lester) the first person that comes to my mind when we’re talking cutters is Rivera.

I wonder how much of Halladay and Lester’s cutter value is based on the fact that they don’t throw it more than 30% of the time and that keeps the hitters more off balance. Rivy throws his roughly 90% of the time, the hitter knows its coming and still has problems with it.

I randomly went back 5 years and checked cutter ranks, min. 200 innings, Rivera ranks first, Halladay is a close second, Haren is a DISTANT 3rd, Lester is a close 4th to Haren.

fredsbank
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fredsbank
5 years 4 months ago

interesting platoon splits so far, 1.5/2.4 L/R FIP, 2.4/2.9 xFIP but massive BABIP difference .333L .245R… how legit it is with the advent of his cutter to have such a large difference?

Sean
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Sean
5 years 4 months ago

You’re dealing with an awfully small sample size when you’re talking about BABIP against lefty hitters.

fredsbank
Guest
fredsbank
5 years 4 months ago

true, only 45 batters this season and completely neutral L/R (.291/.292) BABIP last year (136/559 BF)

Pitchers Hit Eighth
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

According to UZR, the Cardinals have a range-y defense that can’t catch. THAT seems plausible (or even visible), but I’m still not sure I’d call it “above-average”.

jcalton
Guest
jcalton
5 years 4 months ago

Garcia has been unbelievable. I think what he means in terms of “the new Wainwright” is that he’s the #2 that is arguably the team’s de facto ace and best Cy Young candidate.

What makes this defensive sample size seem ludicrous is that last year the Cardinals were 22nd overall with a UZR of -16. NOBODY watching this team believes they’ve improved on defense that much.

Going solely by 2011 UZR, Cardinals are just 6th in the NL–8.5 would be “average.” Meh, I can buy that.

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