Garza’s trip from Fresno to Chicagoby Harry Pavlidis
January 18, 2011
Matt Garza was the 25th player selected in the 2005 draft. Not wasting any time, Garza signed for a $1.35 million bonus within a week. Garza made 14 starts in his first stint as a professional. The bulk (10) came in the Single-A Midwest League, as Garza kept moving quickly while the ink was still drying
The Fresno State product and WAC Pitcher of the Year was one of a flotilla of Bulldogs to find their way into the draft in 2005. He has been the most successful pitcher of that group (apologies to Doug Fister).
Just 14 months after turning pro, Garza made his major league debut on August 11, 2006 against the Blue Jays. The tall, slender righty wouldn't get out of the third innings, but his service time in the majors had begun. Garza would split time between Triple-A and Minnesota in 2007 and has been a fixture in a big-league rotation since. The Tampa Bay Rays rotation, specifically.
The Twins moved Garza to Tampa in a six-player trade after the 2007 season, prompting MLB.com to wonder if Garza gave the Rays one of the finest young pitching trios in baseball. It worked out as planned for 2008, but by the end of 2009 Scott Kazmir was an Angel and James Shields' ERA was rising. There is a steady churn of quality young pitchers in the Tampa system.
The early start of Garza's big-league service clock has had payroll implications for the Rays and now Cubs. Garza achieved Super Two status after his 2009 season, making him arbitration eligible a year ahead of the norm. As a result, he commanded a $3.35 million salary for 2010. Not a bad price for the Rays to pay, considering the going rate for starting pitching of any caliber. Now that (growing) paycheck will be the Cubs' responsibility. An eight-player swap bought Garza to Chicago—with some high expectations—for his final three years of arbitration eligibility.
Whatever Garza commands in 2011, it will be, in part, based on 725.1 innings of regular season work, 31 innings in the postseason, an career ERA of 3.97 (3.84 after 2006) and one no-hitter. He has post-season experience and has been lauded by the Cubs as a possible Opening Day starter.
Garza's reputation goes beyond his pitching résumé. His ongoing effort to harness his emotions and pitch more consistently has been important part of his journey.
More than line scores
To understand Garza, it seems we must appreciate the amount of effort he puts into self-improvement. He grasps something fundamental about athletics and puts a simple frame around it; the relationship between emotions and performance.
If I don't get upset, I'm able to control my body more. If I get upset, I've got too many things running through my head and I won't be able to feel what's off or what's on. I was able to make one-pitch adjustments.
Garza's battle with his emotions has caused friction with his teammates, in particular an argument and shoving match with Dioner Navarro. This took place just weeks before his remarks on the importance of not getting upset. By the time the 2008 post-season was underway, any tension between the battery mates had been resolved and their focus was on getting their jobs done together. Garza's efforts at self-improvement continued.
Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan talked about Garza's emphasis on breathing and focusing during the 2008 World Series:
The breathing techniques are one of many tricks espoused by Ken Ravizza, a doctor of kinesiology whose knack for motivating athletes has turned him into a sought-after sports psychologist. Ravizza’s longtime friendship with Rays manager Joe Maddon led him to Garza, a wildly talented right-handed pitcher and mercurial spirit whose mental blowups were the only barrier to greatness.
As with virtually any pitcher, Garza's ability to pitch consistently is contingent on his ability to repeat his delivery. He understands that he is most able to repeat his delivery when his emotions are in check. It's a complex problem, but he's taken a simple approach. When in doubt, breath. Then get out of your own way and focus on the target. As Passan noted, "Let go. Focus on the catcher’s mitt. Become absorbed with it."
As Garza's ability to manage his emotions improved, his process of self-improvement took on a finer point. That being his tendency to put too fine a point on things.
"We've talked about this, trying to be too fine and not trusting his stuff," manager Joe Maddon said [in July of 2009]. "He's been pitching away from contact a little bit, and that gets away from his strengths."
Garza no-hit the Detroit Tigers less than a week later, throwing a steady diet of fastballs.
ESPN.com's post-draft scouting report had this to say about Garza in 2005:
Garza had only a four-seam fastball and a slow, lazy curveball when he enrolled at Fresno State, but he now has plus stuff with a four-pitch repertoire. His fastball ranges from 90-94 mph and touches 95, and a hard 82-84 mph slider is an effective second pitch. A 72-78 mph curve has the makings of a solid third pitch, while his change-up has been slower to develop. He's projected to be a starter in pro ball but could move into relief if his curve and change-up don't progress or he lacks the stamina to be a starter.
Garza has emerged as a 200-inning pitcher, but some may quibble over how much his secondary stuff has progressed. His strength has increased since college, as you might expect. His average fastball speed since 2007 is at the top of his former range and his slider is a step above.
Garza pitch usage and speed, 2007-2010
Garza's change-up is his least frequently used pitch, and fastballs dominate his offerings.
Garza's two- and four-seam fastball groupings come from a "best effort" classification and lack the precision of the other pitches. Garza's fastball groupings tend to overlap such that perfect separation may not be achievable. The Tampa/St. Pete PITCHf/x installation was miscalibrated for part of 2010. My attempts to account for these factors are subject to human error and bias.
With that grain of salt on the table, we can have a still have some discussion of Garza's year-by-year pitch selections.
Garza pitch mix
|Four-seam FB||Two-seam FB||Change-up||Curveball||Slider|
Dominated by fastballs, Garza's mix varies by batter hand in his choice of secondary pitches. It appears Garza did edge more towards his four-seam fastball and away from his two-seam fastball over time. This happens to be supported by Garza's background story (more power, less finesse) and changes in his performance metrics.
For many pitchers, a two-seam fastball is a sinker. Relative to their four-seam fastball, it is more likely to be out of the zone, less likely to be whiffed and more likely to be put on the ground. Garza's two-seam is delivered from his high three-quarters position, making it tail more and sink less than one delivered from a lower slot. As a result, you usually won't hear about Garza throwing a sinker.
These flight paths are aggregated over four years, so they are not granular enough to product many strong conclusions. But you can see Garza's tendency to work away with all but one of his offerings, which varies based on the batter's hand. Lefties will see his slider coming inside, righties the two-seam fastball. His preference for the outer half is not as pronounced against righties as it is with the lefties. Both see fastballs up and off-speed pitches down.
Garza average flight paths by batter hand, 2007-2010: (click to enlarge)
Using a basic "heat map" of fastball locations, we can get a better idea of where Garza throwing. He does hammer different locations based on batter hand and fastball type.
Garza fastball locations by type and batter hand, 2007-2010: (click to enlarge)
Regarding our grain of a salt, one potential source of bias in Garza's fastball classifications happens to be his groundball rates. I was already aware of the following trend—but not by batter hand—when I embarked on full-blown classification effort.
Garza ground ball rates by batter hand
|Season||vs LHH||vs RHH|
Knowing Garza yielded fewer ground balls could have influenced where I drew the line between four- and two-seam fastballs, as classification at that level was done manually and on a game-by-game basis. Being aware of my own bias and reviewing my own work helped, but not enough for me to glow with confidence.
While the grains of salt are lining up a warning about reliability, we can forge ahead and do our best to make sense of Garza's pitching style and how it will translate in his new home.
We've already noted Garza's decline in groundball rate. It hasn't exactly been paired with major changes in is ability to miss bats (Whiffs; misses per swing) or throw strikes (IWZ; rate in a 2 ft. wide zone).
Garza ground ball, whiff and IWZ rates
Garza ground ball, whiff and IWZ rates bay batter hand
Garza has moved his whiff rate up above .2 against righties as his ground ball rate has declined.
Comparing Garza's walks+hit batters and strikeouts per batter faced (BBHBPpBF and KpBF) and his ground ball rate (GBpBIP) to league average provides much of the same information as his actual ground ball rate and pitch-by-pitch whiff and zone rates. League adjustments set everything to the same scale you see with OPS+, 100 is average and every 10 points represents a distance of 10 percentage points above or below average.
Garza league relative ground ball, walk plus hit batter, and strikeout rates
2010 may have been a slight breakthrough for Garza. While his ground ball rate continued to decline, his walk and strikeout rates straddled league average. Fewer walks and more strikeouts than average is noteworthy for a starting pitcher who hadn't pulled it off before. Moving 2009 into outlier status will require another season or two, but he may be on his way.
The Cubs have shown high regard for Garza, both in the prospects they gave up and the way they've expressed their excitement to the media. Ace at Bleacher Nation collected some remarks by Cubs Vice President/General Manager, Jim Hendry.
- You don’t always pull off things the way you want to. Sometimes the names change. But I will tell you that Matt Garza was a guy we targeted. I didn’t know if we could do it, but that was the one [trade] that made the most sense for us.
- It isn’t often you can acquire a 27-year-old top-of-the-rotation kind of guy that has three years left before he becomes a free agent in any kind of a trade. Obviously with that comes trading some significant young talent back.
- We’re not giving away the farm to try to win in one year. That couldn’t be farther from the truth with a guy like Matt Garza.
- Matt’s 27 and he’s going to be a Cub for awhile. We look at this as a great trade for the present and the future.
Reading between the lines, the fact Garza reached arbitration eligibility a year early is water under the bridge. The Cubs see him as a fully developed starter entering his prime with three seasons of control. They already view him as a candidate to start opening day, along Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster.
Garza has faced high expectations before, so this is nothing new. The level media attention he'll encounter in Chicago will not be completely foreign. His post-season and American League East experience as exposed him to throngs of credentialed media, but nothing like the day-to-day exposure he's in for.
Changing over the National League Central will bring some more baseball-related changes, too. One you may not expect is a relative lack of left-handed hitters (including switch hitters) on his docket.
Left-handed hitters* faced as a % of total batters faced by right-handed starters
*pitchers as hitters are excluded
Seeing fewer lefties probably won't make much of a difference for Garza, judging by his career splits. A less subtle change is the drop in run scoring between divisions.
According to Baseball Reference, the five American League East teams averaged 4.8 runs per game in 2010 while the entire junior circuit averaged 4.5. National League clubs averaged 4.3 runs, the same as the six clubs in National League Central. This doesn't mean we should peg Garza for a 3.50 ERA just yet.
During the offseason (and trade) in which they acquired Garza, the Rays were making a massive improvement in team defense. Worst to first in 2008 and safely within the top 10 since. The 2008 Rays bumped none other than the Cubs from first to second in team defense, according to Baseball Prospectus. The Cubs regained a slight edge in 2009 and then dropped off a cliff in 2010. The Cubs' defense doesn't look to be getting any better ahead of 2011.
Defensive Efficiency rating and rank
|Rays||.656 (30)||.710 (1)||.696 (8)||.710 (3)|
|Cubs||.705 (1)||.705 (2)||.701 (5)||.680 (26)|
Baseball Prospectus provides a park adjusted team defense rating, and it paints a slightly different picture in terms of rank order. The overall trends are the same.
Different remains the operative word when it comes to Tropicana Park and Wrigley Field. The only thing they have in common is they are both unique.
Juice vs. Gum
- Surface: FieldTurf with a dirt infield vs. a brand new, de-crowned surface with high-quality drainage
- Elements: the last non-retractable roof in the majors vs. conditions that can range from pitcher's freezer to batter's sauna
- Not routine: the white roof vs. the sunniest right field in baseball
- Ground rules: catwalks vs. ivy
- Average attendance: 23,000 vs. 38,000
- Run scoring: pitcher's park vs. hitter's park
We've started to chip away at the benefits of the run environment with a weakened defense and inverted park effects. There's also a new league, unfamiliar and increased media coverage, different wake-up times and travel itineraries, cactus instead of grapefruit, a new manager, pitching coach, catchers and teammates. How's that easier pitching environment sound now? He's due a raise, so he does have that going for him.
Not broken, but opaque.
Tentatively, I'm projecting Garza rather conservatively at 4.15. I'll explain my methodology when I trust it. According to Fangraphs, Bill James has Garza at 3.80 while THT Forecasts has him at 3.95.
References and Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and Sportivsion. Batted ball data from MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author. Park factors are not regressed, otherwise follow Patriot's method. Heat map code for R based on The Prince of Slides. Defensive Efficiency from Baseball Prospectus. Run scoring park factor from ESPN.com and everything I've heard on the interwebs. Can't be wrong. Attendance figures from ESPN.com.
Harry Pavlidis admits he has a baseball problem. He is the founder of Pitch Info LLC, His pitch classifications power the player cards at Brooksbaseball.net. Feedback, questions and comments are appreciated - Email firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @harrypav