Nearly Perfect: Jaime Garcia’s 2011 Season

Going into this season, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. During the auction draft in my ottoneu league, I got distracted and ended up putting in the highest bid for a pitcher I hadn’t heard about much: Jaime Garcia. I knew enough about him to know he’d had a great 2010 season  (2.70 ERA, 3.41 FIP) and was still quite young, but due to being a Rays fan, I’m not as well versed on the National League. The more I looked into him after the draft, I saw analysts spelling doom for Garcia everywhere. He outperformed his peripherals. He struggled against righties. He got an artificial boost from Busch Stadium. He increased his innings total by around 120 IP from 2009 to 2010. The popular consensus seemed to be, “Don’t touch this guy!”, so I just added the incident to my long list of  “Reasons I Don’t Write About Fantasy Baseball” and moved on.

After his near perfect game on Friday night, though, it’s time someone pointed this out: Jaime Garcia has been darn good so far this season. And when I say good, I mean 1.99 ERA / 2.36 FIP good.

As I just mentioned, on Friday night Jaime Garcia came within five outs of a perfect game. He dominated the Brewers for the first seven innings, striking out eight batters while generating 14 swinging strikes (19%), but then tired over the last few innings and allowed a walk and two hits. In a weekend full of dominating pitching performances, Garcia’s start has already been overshadowed by Justin Verlander‘s no-hitter, Cliff Lee‘s 16-strikeout performance, and Anibal Sanchez‘s near no-hitter, but it’s still ranked by ESPN’s Game Score as one of the top-six pitching performances this season. While I wouldn’t put much stock in Game Score — how do you objectively quantify what’s “the best” pitching performance? — it at least shows that hey, that was an alright game.

It’s worth remembering that near perfect games aren’t especially rareArmando Galarraga famously had one last season, and Mike Mussina came close multiple times during his career — but Garcia’s start is worth highlighting due to his success this season. The 24-year-old out-pitched his peripherals last season, posting a 2.70 ERA with a mediocre 2.0 K/BB ratio, but this season he’s brought those peripherals up in line with his performance. Garcia has increased his strikeouts to 8.7 per nine (and yes, the sample size is large enough to suggest there’s something to this change) while decreasing his walks to just over two per nine. He’s getting more swinging strikes (13% whiff rate, up from 10% last season), and he’s still inducing a large amount of ground balls (55%). So far this season, he’s looked like the ace that his ERA suggested he was last season.

And I don’t think this is solely a hot streak; it looks as though Garcia has improved his talent level this season. Last season, Garcia’s struggles mainly came against right-handed batters. As a left-handed pitcher, he had an impressive 10.0 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 against lefties, but those marks dropped to 6.6 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9 against righties. Garcia also allowed more home runs against righties, and his ERA and FIP were consequently much worse with right-handed batters at the plate. This season, though, Garcia has changed his pitch selection against right-handed batters, throwing his change-up 27% of the time (up from 16% last season). Changeups have reverse platoon splits, meaning it’s more effective against opposite-handed batters, so this pitch has allowed Garcia to improve his strikeout and walk numbers against right-handed batters (8.5 K/9, 2.1 BB/9).

Will Garcia continue to be this dominant? As much as I want to say “yes” after watching him plow through the Brewers on Friday, there’s no way that he continues to post an ERA below two. His .263 BABIP is rather low and bound to increase at some point, and it’s likely that his strikeout and walk numbers will regress some as the season progresses. Even with the moderate improvements forecast by ZiPS, though, Garcia looks like a 3.19 FIP pitcher — in other words, ace material. There’s still the concern about Garcia’s large workload last season, but if that somehow doesn’t become a problem, it looks like the Cardinals won’t be missing Adam Wainwright as much as they thought they would.

Jaime Garcia is making all us saberists look like fools. “He’s not the ace his ERA suggests!” “Be careful about his workload!” On Friday night, we didn’t just see a near perfect game: we watched a reminder that forecasting young pitchers is one of the most difficult things to do in baseball analysis. I could sell high on Garcia right now, but I think I’ll pass; I much prefer following the path of this young star on the rise.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

34 Responses to “Nearly Perfect: Jaime Garcia’s 2011 Season”

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  1. Old randy says:

    Fantastic article

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  2. Paul says:

    Seconded. I essentially traded Josh Johnson for him based on peripherals that I believed refuted the calls for extreme regression, and what I saw of him on game clips. Had never seen him pitch a full game before this season, but I’ve been blown away by his stuff. It’s not just his off-speed stuff that is video game level, he’s running, cutting, and sinking at least two different FB’s and just making good hitters look silly. Credit LaRussa with limiting his pitches so far. Chris Carpenter says he has the best stuff on the staff, and from what I know about Carpenter, he doesn’t just pop off and say something like that unless he means it.

    I really wish analyses here on FG that rely on projections would include MLB video because I think it can make a big difference, and the users of this site are more than capable of taking what they see into account.

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    • Bill says:

      You traded Josh Johnson for Jaime Garcia?

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      the kid is good but… josh johnson? dude, bad move. no matter how good garcia proves to be, bad move…

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      • Paul says:

        *essentially*, you’d have to be insane to do that deal straight-up even though it’s a keeper league.

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      • JohnOrpheus says:

        maybe groundball % was one of the categories. also, as a Card’s fan myself, never underestimate this factor. I stopped playing fantasy baseball because half of my team always ended up being Card’s players ’cause I keep finding reasons to draft/trade for them, and I subsequently finished at the bottom of every league I was in.

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      • bauerpauerhauer says:

        ..even if it is only “essentially”..that’s crazy

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  3. John says:

    I had him in a keeper league and cut him, protecting Brett Gardner instead. Oh, and did I mention I’m a Cardinals fan?

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    • BVHeck says:

      you’re not very smrt.

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    • Chris says:

      Funny. I picked him up on free agency before the season started last season and traded him. I got a great deal that included Mariano Rivera and Ricky Nolasco coming to my team.

      But I knew Dave Duncan would make this kid into something special. He is the prototypical Duncan type of pitcher. Same with McClellan, but not to the extent of Jaime.

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  4. Deangelo says:

    Jaime Garcia=indianapolis colts=overrated

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    • Alex says:

      Huh? Are you somehow under the impression that this is a football site?

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    • JohnOrpheus says:

      second year MLB starter + comparsion to once great football team = I don’t follow your logic.

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      • Gary says:

        I bet he won’t be back to own up to it. I also don’t think, being a Colts fan, that the Colts are overrated. The Jets, Patriots and Steelers are usually the talk of the town. Not the Colts.

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  5. LionoftheSenate says:

    Now the question remains, why didn’t the projection systems see this coming? WHY?

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  6. Al Dimond says:

    Not only have Garcia’s “peripherals” like K% and BB% improved, all his “peripheral peripherals” have, too: he’s in the zone more often, getting swings more often, and getting whiffs on more swings, especially out of the zone.

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  7. Tomas says:

    Why r u guys making it sound like j Johnson is sooo good? I would trade that narcistic dirt bag for Garcia anyday.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    Garcia is somewhat of a rarity in that he’s a lefty sinkerballer (or high movement 2-Seamer). He’s a high GB pitcher that doesn’t give up many homers, which is reflected in both his ERA and FIP.

    His total walk and K numbers are decent, given that he doesn’t give up bombs.

    His BABIP could more or less be sustainable as Carp and Wain put up (consistently) lower than average BABIPs despite having Schumaker at 2B and numerous replacement level 3Bs.

    The injury concerns were real due to his minor league injuries. I have no idea if he changed his approach, his mechanics, or both.

    He also might be the only left-handed starter that Duncan has had that used the “Duncan Approach” of pounding the zone with movement, although it could be debated whether he pounds the zone or not.

    When it comes to lefties his age with his same approach, there are probably very few comparables. Most of the talented young lefties are in the Willis/Ankiel mode of being high K and high BB. Youngish lefty starters are not generally successful allowing so many BIP.

    He has been a tremendous, and welcome, surprise.

    When we look at how he might “fail”, it seems unlikely that he’ll stop getting decent amounts of K’s, or drastically increase his walks, or start giving up a bunch of HRs. He could regress some and still match his overall value of 2010, which was good.

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  9. Antonio Bananas says:

    It’s May, let’s see if his arm holds up after the All Star break when he has to be Adam Wainwright for a full season.

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  10. John says:

    LaRussa’s season is being saved in large part by products of a farm system he has generally disparaged and scorned. See Garcia, Rasmus, McClellan and a parade of bullpen arms – Salas/Sanchez/Boggs/Motte.

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  11. BlackSwan says:

    I feel like I actually learned something after reading this article.

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  12. Bob says:

    Bit ‘o trivia: Garcia struck out Ryan Braun three times the other day.

    On nine pitches.

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    • the jewish hammer says:

      braun is also in a slump right now. not that i dont think that is HUGE, but braun could just as easily sent one over the wall

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  13. CircleChange11 says:

    Kyle Lohse is making Wainwright’s absence more tolerable.

    The Cards were counting on Garcia too be good.

    What StL needed was someone other than Carp and Garcia to be good. They needed Lohse to carry his weight (earn his contract).

    The chane and cutter both have reverse splits. I don’t see how a lefty can be dominant without both, unless you’re RJ. Andy Pettitte was a good model.

    Having pitches that move “away from the barrel” to both RHBs and LHBs allows pitchers to pitch to both sides of the plate regarless of hitter handedness.

    The cutter is also the last remaining piece to fill the Charlie Morton puzzle. I know I’ve said it before, and I’m not trying to sound like a guru, but every pitcher 11yo and up should throw a fastball, change and cutter. All three can be thrown for strikes, with movement, and are easy on the arm.

    When Wainwright returns, I’d prfer him to be more like Garcia and drop the slider for the cutter. I think the cutter is slider enough to be almost as effective, without the elbow risk. The cutter has enough movement to induce swings while missing the barrel.

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