Luck and Skill Converging for Jaime Garcia

If not for Ubaldo Jimenez‘s continued dominance, Jaime Garcia might be the big story of the National League right now. Garcia pitched six shutout innings last night, holding the Padres to just three hits. Yet on the front page of most major baseball outlets you probably saw a picture of Jimenez, and rightly so . He not only took his shutout two innings further than Garcia, but he also did it against the NL’s top offense. That might overshadow Garcia’s performance, but that doesn’t mean Garcia hasn’t been doing amazing things with the baseball this season.

Garcia, a twenty-second round pick in 2005, made his mark during his 2006 debut. That earned him the No. 2 spot on Baseball America’s Top 30 Cardinals prospects, and No. 70 on the overall Top 100 Prospects list. The Cardinals promoted him to AA that year, and he achieved quality results, a 3.75 ERA in 103.1 innings, though his FIP was up around 4.13. His season ended in July when he sprained an elbow ligament, but the injury did not require surgery and Garcia returned healthy for spring training. He had dropped to fourth on the Cardinals prospect list and off the Top 100.

The Cardinals did call him up during the 2008 season, though he started just one game, a five-inning, three-run performance against the Padres. In his other nine performances he pitched in relief, and while he had a few good runs he got rocked in a couple of outings, including his final one on August 26, in which he allowed three runs in an inning of mop-up work. Just a few days later the Cardinals announced that he would undergo Tommy John surgery. That kept him off the Cardinals top prospects list for 2009. That might have been a blessing, though.

During his recovery, Garcia added his top secondary pitch, a slider, or cutter, of sorts that clocks about 5 mph slower than his fastball. He used it successfully in his short rehab stint, which included a six-inning shutout performance in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. Impressed by his arsenal — which also includes a curveball “that’s a genuine swing-and-miss pitch” — Baseball America rated Garcia the Cardinals’ No. 2 prospect in 2010, projecting him as a No. 3 starter. So far, he’s been much more than that.

In their 2007 assessment of Garcia, Baseball America commented that he, “leans on his curveball too much at times and needs to use his changeup more often.” Garcia has made that adjustment in 2010, using his curveball just 11.2 percent of the time, while throwing the changeup 12 percent. The addition of the cutter has helped in this regard as well, as Garcia can use in place of both his curveball and fastball. He has thrown just 51.5 percent four-seamers this year, leaning on his cutter for 25.2 percent of his pitches.

While his 1.14 ERA contains a large amount of luck, Garcia has still shown the makings of a quality starter, perhaps exceeding the No. 3 expectations Baseball America pegged on him. He has struck out 7.32 per nine, a bit above league average, and has kept the ball on the ground for 59.7 percent of balls in play. Only Tim Hudson ranks better among NL starters. He has also done a good job of inducing poor contact, probably an effect of the cutter. Hitters have just a 16.1 percent line drive rate, which has helped keep his BABIP at a low .255. This poor contact tendency has also kept the ball inside the park, as only one of his 35 outfield flies has resulted in a home run.

During his time in professional baseball Garcia has earned a reputation as an unflappable performer. Opponents just don’t shake him. That shows in his numbers this season. NL batters have hit .224/.457/.364 with the count full this season, but Garcia has outperformed that, holding hitters to a .167/.464/.167 line. He also bears down when his opponent puts runners in scoring position. In 59 such situations he has allowed just seven hits, and only one for extra bases. He performs even better when those runners stand in scoring position with two outs, allowing hits in just three of 32 attempts. Opponents are just 4 for 27, with no extra base hits, against him in high leverage spots.

Garcia has yet to face any opponent for the second time, so his luck could take a turn later in the season. Chances are his BABIP won’t stay at its current rate, and once they get a good scouting read on him opponents might make better contact and raise that low line drive rate. Perhaps, too, hitters will stop chasing so many pitches outside the zone. Garcia has thrown 56.4 percent of his pitches outside the zone, but opponents have chased them an above-average 29.7 percent. His strand rate, 87.9 percent, is the third highest in the NL, trailing just Jimenez and a guy whose luck might be running out. Once these numbers come back to earth Garcia’s ERA should look mortal.

If there is one blemish on Garcia’s ledger, it’s his control. He experienced rising walk rates as he ascended through the minor leagues, and this year has walked 24 in 55.1 innings, 3.90 per nine. He has been able to mask this tendency with his strikeouts and groundballs, but as his luck starts to turn he’ll need better control in order to offset the changing results. He also needs better control in order to pitch deeper into games. He has pitched into the seventh just three times this season, and has only finished that inning twice. Then again, that might be more on the offense than on him. The Cardinals haven’t provided league average run support while Garcia is in the game, which forces Tony LaRussa to pinch hit for him. In just two of his nine starts has he thrown 100 pitches.

In his first nine starts Jaime Garcia has done more than the Cardinals could have possibly expected. He won’t maintain his 1.14 ERA throughout the season, but if he makes a few more adjustments he can keep it under control as hitters get a better read off him. But as long as he keeps the ball on the ground and keeps striking out hitters at an above-average clip, he should be a mainstay in the Cardinals rotation for years to come.




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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.


21 Responses to “Luck and Skill Converging for Jaime Garcia”

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  1. Cardinals645 says:

    Garcia was not a second round pick; he was a TWENTY second (22nd) round pick.

    Makes his performance all the more impressive, right?

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    • M says:

      Woah.

      Do you know who else was also a 22nd round pick in 2005? Tommy Hanson. In fact, Tommy Hanson and Jaime Garcia were THREE PICKS away, with Hanson taken at #677 and Garcia taken at #680.

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  2. chongo says:

    He will be limited in innings anyway, right? The most he ever threw was in 08 and it was like 122 IP.

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    • Ray says:

      I think that’s a bigger reason why he doesn’t go deep into games…it’s going to be hard to shut him down when the Cards are going to be in the World Series Race through September. Seems to be a deliberate attempt to keep him under 100 pitchers/game

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      • Shaun says:

        I know its just a typo, but I have a fun time thinking about how TLR would have to make a deliberate attempt to keep his team under 100 pitchers/game.

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  3. dustin says:

    Holy crap! If you’re going to have flash ads, please don’t have them at max volume. My ears are ringing.

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  4. TedWilson says:

    Remember when the stats community thought BABIP was .300 no matter what? HA!

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    • Toffer Peak says:

      It has long been accepted that different pitchers can have varying levels of control over their BABIP. In fact, Voros McCracken himself noted that knuckeballers have lower BABIPs than others. It’s simply that the ability to control BABIP is weak and its affect on run scoring is substantially less in comparison to the divergence in skill to control BBs, Ks and HRs.

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  5. frank says:

    If you look at WAR and FIP or xFIP… Halladay is the obvious Cy Young so far and will get Neyer’s vote… heck Jiminez is 4th in FIP in the NL (Halladay, Wainwright, Lincecum) and on XFIP he’s way down the list, he’s also 2nd to WAR to Halladay.

    While the SABR stats are useful for predicting future performance, there is a growing need to assign luck or external factors (defense behind you) to using these stats as a measurement of actual past performance.

    A model like FIP (and make no mistake it is a model) is useful and powerful for predicting future performance/trends… a model that is solely based on K’s, BB’s and HR’s should not be used as a substitute for actual performance though.

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    • frank says:

      To be clear – I have no issue with this article which is forward looking and a question of whether Garcia will keep it up, just a misuse of statistics to re-evaluate past performance when looking at things like Cy Young

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    • jessef says:

      The idea behind FIP is that a pitcher can’t control whether his defence plays well or poorly behind him and it’s unfair to penalize a guy because of that.

      If you’re ready to include luck and “external factors” (defence, aside from the pitcher’s personal contribution, IS luck) into your discussion for the Cy Young Award, you might as well include Wins. An NL pitcher probably has as much control over his run-support as he does his defence.

      FIP, xFIP, tRA, etc. are not simply models for predicting future performance, but also gauges for evaluating past performance. Should we give extra credit to batters who accrue RBI because “external factors” (having a good lineup around them) dictate that they will bat with men in scoring position more than other players?

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      • frank says:

        I understand the theory behind it… and why it is important for predictive purpose, but the theory has lots of holes in it when using it to measure actual performance. If you want to evaluate the defense behind the pitcher instead of choosing to ignore singles, doubles and triples, how about using the defensive metrics of the players?

        A pitcher that gives up 4 runs via RBI singles and doubles is not more successful than a pitcher that gives up 1 solo HR…but if strikeouts and walks are similar the pitcher that gives up 4 runs will be considered better in context of FIP. Now you can say the pitcher that doesn’t give up HR’s is more likely to be successful in the future, but in terms of ACTUAL performance to ignore runs not scored via the HR is to ignore the actual game.

        So we are to believe Jiminez ERA being 2.5X better than say Halladay is a luck thing because Halladay’s FIP is better? Or is JIminez’ defense behind him really that much better than Halladay (or Wainwright or Linceucm who also have better FIPs than Jiminez) and that is the reason behind giving up fewer runs?

        If you use FIP like it is intended, I think the FIP #’s suggest we should expect Linceum/Halladay/Jiminez to be similar in performance going forward, but to take that metric and say they have performed the same because the FIPs are similar is a misuse of that statistic/model. The other major flaw I have with FIP is park factor – look at Lincecum’s road vs home HR’s last year… any chance his home park helps his FIP? (which Neyer chose to ignore when voting for Cy last year)

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      • jessef says:

        “So we are to believe Jiminez ERA being 2.5X better than say Halladay is a luck thing because Halladay’s FIP is better?”

        Isn’t it a much bigger leap of faith to believe that Ubaldo Jimenez has actually displayed the ability to keep 98.2% of flyballs in the park, strand 91.7% of runners and hold hitters to a BABIP of .226?

        “The other major flaw I have with FIP is park factor – look at Lincecum’s road vs home HR’s last year… any chance his home park helps his FIP? (which Neyer chose to ignore when voting for Cy last year)”

        Lincecum FIP
        2010
        home: 2.99; away: 2.26

        2009
        home: 1.69; away: 3.15

        2008
        home: 2.78; away: 2.46

        2007
        home: 3.67; away: 3.59

        2008 was the only season in which Lincecum’s home FIP was lower than his road FIP. The actual reason that his home FIP was so low has nothing to do with park factors, it has to do with the fact that he didn’t give up a single homerun in AT&T Park that season.

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      • n_yount says:

        Defense cannot simply be considered luck when the point of getting ground balls with low pitches is to use your defense. If you are trying to use it and are it is doing what you want, then it cannot be luck.

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    • frank says:

      “Isn’t it a much bigger leap of faith to believe that Ubaldo Jimenez has actually displayed the ability to keep 98.2% of flyballs in the park, strand 91.7% of runners and hold hitters to a BABIP of .226?”

      That’s EXACTLY my point… what you are talking about is what you expect to l happen in the future and that is exactly what these stats/models are intended for, but it doesn’t change what he HAS done. The bottom line is he has stranded those runners, kept the ball in the park and held batters to a low BABIP… call it luck, call it unsustainable (hint – that what these #’s are used for), call it team defense – but bottom line is he has achieved it.

      If you believe FIP can accurately discount defense and luck for past results, Jiminez has actually 3-4X more lucky/defensively enabled (via ERA) then Lincecum/Wainwright/Hallady. FIP suggest all 3 of these pitchers have been better so far this year. I choose to think FIP is suggesting that they will perform similarly going forward, but can’t adequately capture how they have actually performed.

      You don’t use these stats to diminish or discount what he has accomplished, you use these stats to predict what will happen going forward and how sustainable the performance might be (but the Cy Young voting and past performance is not about what should have happened, it’s about what did happen).

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      • jessef says:

        “what you are talking about is what you expect to happen in the future”

        No, it isn’t. It’s what I expect to have actually happened in the past. I think Ubaldo Jimenez is great and I have no problem believing that over a start or two he can be as electric as he seems to have been. However, no, I don’t think he’s done it all himself (and he hasn’t) . . . he’s had considerable help from his team’s defence and from luck with balls in play and stranding runners. I don’t believe in crediting a pitcher for his team’s defence or for benefiting from good luck.

        “The bottom line is he has stranded those runners, kept the ball in the park and held batters to a low BABIP… call it luck, call it unsustainable (hint – that what these #’s are used for), call it team defense – but bottom line is he has achieved it.”

        You have an interesting definition of the word achieve. In my opinion, FIP and xFIP are more accurate gauges of what the pitcher, himself, has achieved. Something like ERA is greatly influenced by a pitcher’s defence and the timing of hits with respect to stranding runners. Has Livan Hernandez also pitched higher quality innings than Roy Halladay because his ERA is a bit lower?

        Though this is oversimplifying a bit, pitchers are generally trying to “achieve” three things when they face batters — either induce a grounder, induce a pop-up or strike a batter out — and are trying to avoid two things — long flyballs or linedrives and walks. The whole point of xFIP, tRA and (to a certain extent) FIP is that they credit a pitcher for his successes (Ks and groundballs) and dock him for his failures (flyballs/liners and BBs).

        For the four pitchers you named:
        GB-rate
        Halladay has a very slightly higher GB-rate than Ubaldo. Wainwright’s is a little worse but still very good and Lincecum’s is behind Wainwright but still fine.
        K-rate
        Lincecum is king. His K-rate is by far better than any of the other three’s. Wainwright’s is very good, Ubaldo’s is good and Halladay’s is average.
        Infield Flyball-rate (as a proportion of flyballs)
        Ubaldo is very good. Halladay is good. Lincecum and Wainwright are about average.
        FB/LD-rate
        This is just the inverse of GB-rate . . . Halladay best with Jimenez very close behind and Wainwright and Lincecum trailing by a bit.
        BB-rate
        Halladay’s is amazing. Wainwright’s is very good, Ubaldo’s is good and Lincecum’s is average.

        The point of xFIP and FIP is that they combine all these together to tell you both how frequently the pitcher “succeeded” — that is how frequently he got grounders and strikeouts — and how frequently he has “failed” — that is issued walks and induced either flyballs or linedrives. For our convenience these stats are scaled to our perception of a normal ERA. By FIP, Halladay is first but they’re all very close. By xFIP, Lincecum and Halladay are a bit better than Wainwright and fairly significantly better than Jimenez. By tERA, Jimenez and Wainwright are best with Lincecum slightly behind and Halladay trailing.

        These systems don’t agree with one another on whose been best because they assign different levels of importance to each event, however, they are alike in that they are grading a pitcher based on how frequently he’s been able to do what he’s sought to do, which is why I prefer to use them to something like ERA.

        Sorry for the long post and it’s been fun discussing this.

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      • frank says:

        A pitcher succeeds by not giving up runs… once you account for the defensive quality behind the pitcher, I really don’t care if it’s 10K’s per game or 2K’s per game or a 50% GB rate or a 25% GB rate. Now if I’m a GM and am trying to figure out how much to pay this person going forward then I care a lot about it (which gets back to predictive quality for FIP vs its ability to measure existing performance).

        Jiminez has allowed 7 runs to cross the plate this year… Halladay 19 (I’ll used ER and ignore IP differences)… FIP, if you use it as an indicator of current performance would indicate that Jiminez should have given up more runs than Halladay. Jiminez has just gotten more lucky or been playing behind a much better defense than Halladay (or the inverse – Halladay has gotten unlucky and/or has got less benefit from his defense than Jiminez)

        Having watched these guys pitch (yeah I know the dreaded “eye test”) I don’t believe you can say that difference in runs allowed is luck and the defensive component (it’s not like the Phils are a poor defensive team), and that Jiminez would have given up MORE runs than Halladay (which is what FIP suggests). There is no doubt in my mind that Jiminez has performed significantly better than Halladay while FIP would tell me Halladay has performed marginally better.

        To put a bow on this for this comment, FIP indicates both Josh Johnson and Tom Gorzelanny have performed nearly as well as Jiminez so far this season.and Jeremy Bonderman is not that far behind.

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  6. Circlechange11 says:

    It would be interesting to see WHO Garcia is walking and WHEN. A 2-out pitch around walk is certainly less damaging than say a lead-off walk.

    Walks to set up good matchups for the pitcher are also sometimes a good idea. Been my experience that the timing of the walk is a key factor. We had a stud pitcher a few years ago (D2 All-Wrican in 2010) that had this annoying habit of walking the 8 hitter with 2 outs. But those runners never scored, as oppossed to say walking the 2 hitter to start an inning.

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  7. Circlechange11 says:

    The article states that Garcia could be a mainstay in the rotation for years to come.

    That would be refreshing. StL doesn’t exactly have a good track record with lefty prospects and acquisitions Who was our last lefty mainstay? Joe Magrane?

    The concern with Garcia has always been injuries. I don’t believe he’s even come close to 170 IP in any season.

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  8. Circlechange11 says:

    When you’re inducing that many grounders, you’re making the other team play in a situation where they likely need 3 runners in an inning to score. You’re also likely erasing a walk or hit with a DP a decent amount of time.

    I don’t think it’s luck in how we traditionally use the word. If you’re changing speeds, living down in the zone, and throwing late breaking pitches and get a lot of grounders … That’s not luck, that’s design (As Duncan has continually demonstrated). It’s not as if hitters are choosing to hit grounders instead of lifting the ball for extra bases.

    It’s like saying strikeouts are luck because the pitcher cannot control whether the batters make contact or not. Control? Probably not. Influence?definitely.

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    • jessef says:

      No one said that he’s lucky to get grounders. xFIP greatly values grounders over flyballs. Despite very similar K- and BB-rates, Hiroki Kuroda’s xFIP is 3.52 and Kevin Slowey’s is 4.63.

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