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.
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 rare — Armando 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.