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.