December 16, 2010
With the free-agent market starting to resemble Halloween candy displays the day after the holiday, it isn’t surprising to note that some general managers have started to look to the trade market to bolster their starting rotations. Among the names that have been bandied about publicly include Carlos Zambrano, Zack Greinke, and today’s subject of B-Warned, Matt Garza.
Garza’s meteoric rise to the major leagues started as a 2005 first-round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins out of Cal State Fresno. Garza signed two weeks later, and made his major-league debut just shy of 14 months later while becoming the first Twins pitcher to pitch at four levels in one season. Yet, as with even some of the most collegiately polished starting pitchers, Garza took his lumps at the big-league level that first season, posting a 5.76 ERA with an unsightly 1.70 WHIP. He was sent to Triple-A to begin the following season, and wouldn’t resurface until early July, but made 16 appearances (15 starts) while improving his ERA to 3.69 and his WHIP to a more palpable but still troubling 1.54.
What materialized that offseason, however, is still a bit baffling. Garza was surprisingly dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays amidst reports that he and the Twins coaching staff frequently clashed over pitch selection. Garza allegedly wanted to throw his fastball early and often in counts, while the Twins wanted him to mix his electric off-speed pitches in more often. It isn’t hard to see both sides of the story; Garza’s fastball averaged over 94 mph in Minnesota, and his heater and slider have both graded as well above-average offerings. Yet there Garza was, a 23-year-old former first-rounder already switching teams well before his first sniff of arbitration.
Garza’s pitch charts show a stark difference in his pitch selection upon arriving in Tampa. He never eclipsed the 63.3 percent mark of fastballs thrown while donning Twinstripes, whereas he’s yet to dip below 71.5 percent in the Sunshine State. Oddly enough, he’s lost about one full tick on his heater, which is part of what prompted this article.
For all the hype surrounding Garza, he isn’t exactly an unstoppable force on the mound. Aside from his ALCS wizardry, he’s posted a 3.97 regular-season ERA, with 7.1 K/9, 2.2 K/BB, and a 1.32 WHIP. Twice in the past three seasons he’s posted strikeout rates south of seven per nine innings, while his WHIP has basically plateaued. His K/9 last season of 6.6 ranked him 59th among qualified MLB starters, and was exceeded by mid-rotation talents including Kevin Slowey, Joe Blanton, and Chris Narveson.
Further assisting Garza in his years of pedestrian strikeout rates was the fact that his Rays squads were third and first in team Defensive Efficiency in 2010 and 2008, respectively. Both of those teams quelled opponents on exactly 71 percent of balls in play, which no doubt helped soothe his odd penchant for finding the bats that he missed in the season sandwiched within the two.
All of this leads to this question: What is likely to happen to Garza if he goes to the Chicago Cubs, the alleged front-runner for his services? The club ranked 26th in DE in 2010; like another rumored suitor, the Nationals, the Cubbies only converted 68 percent of balls in play into outs.
Needless to say, a club may want to think twice about dealing a king's ransom for a bull-headed fireballer with increasing line-drive rates, wildly inconsistent strikeout rates, and a disdain for worm-burners. BP’s 10-year forecast is similarly lukewarm on Garza, forecasting him to settle in as a mid-to-upper 4.00 ERA starter while posting roughly a 2.0-2.5 WARP for the next six campaigns. Andrew Friedman would do well to deal him if and while the getting is good, but word to the wise for other general managers: don’t say we didn’t warn you.