January 24, 2014
The Scars of Garza
Reportedly reached an agreement with RHP Matt Garza for four years, $52 million. [1-23-14]
By ERA, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pitcher more consistent than Matt Garza. Since 2007, when he started 15 times to establish himself in the majors, he has never had an ERA over 3.95; he has only once in those seven years dropped below 3.69. Considering he has switched teams and ballparks (three times), leagues (twice), and arguably even eras in that time, the consistency is—well, it’s not really more impressive for those changes, so much as it’s quirkier. But the point remains: Matt Garza’s a pretty sure thing. So it says an awful lot about pitchers, and about baseball, that even a pretty sure thing gives you a queasy feeling when you start imagining his next four years.
With good reason. Garza has spent time on the DL in each of the past three seasons, with elbow issues (but not elbow surgery) in 2012 and shoulder issues (but not shoulder surgery) in 2013. For that reason, he has thrown only 457 pretty-good innings since 2011. So now let’s go to our favorite trick in these situations: The All Pitchers Like This Guy trick.
Since baseball’s last shortened season in 1995, there have been 12 previous pitchers who have thrown between 427 and 487 innings (Garza’s total, +/- 30) in ages 27 to 29, with an adjusted ERA better than the league’s average, in almost exclusively starting roles. Here’s that group:
Whoops, I should have warned you that there are spoilers in that chart. Jason Hammel is too recent to draw lessons from (though early indications are bad), but of the other 11 pitchers—and, remember, these are all by definition pitchers who were already pitching to around 75 percent capacity—seven saw their innings drop even further from ages 30 to 32. Nine saw their ERA+ get worse. And I’m not even getting into the pitchers’ generally calamitous age 33 seasons, which would cover the fourth and final year of Garza’s new deal. I’m just conceding that teams already expect the last year to be charity.
More than a third of the pitchers missed at least one entire season in the next three. Another (De La Rosa) had a season where he made just three starts, and Chris Young had two seasons where he made just four apiece. All in all, these 11 pitchers—of whom Garza is almost the perfect median, by both innings pitcher and ERA+ in ages 27 to 29—combined to produce the following three-year total from 30 to 32:
That’s about a season and a half of average production; generously, call it 4 WARP, and that’s about what PECOTA expects, starting with 1.4 WARP this year. Four WARP, plus whatever they get out of the final season. And remember: This is the rare deal that the internet seems to like! Pitching is just so, so perilous.
And there are reasons to like the move for the Brewers. Different URLs favor Garza more than ours does, for instance; over the past three seasons, he’s better than average on FanGraphs, (and a bit below average on Baseball-Reference), and of the published forecasts for 2014, PECOTA is the gloomiest (by as much as about half). After missing all that time late in 2012 and early in 2013, Garza seemed to be quite healthy upon his return, charging his four-seamer up to a near-typical 93.4 mph after the trade to Texas. His swinging strike rate, after dropping a touch early in the season, was better than his career rate after the trade. His FIP and FRA were each the second-best of his career, and despite an ERA spike after the trade, neither one went to any particularly dark places in the Lone Star State. His Texas FIP, at 3.99, and FRA, at 4.22, both were better than career averages, even with Arlington’s pernicious influence on such park-unadjusted stats.
Further, the Brewers aren’t as long of a shot as you might think given their 74-win season last year. Their third-order winning percentage was considerably better—.500, basically—and they’ll have 162 games of a presumably healthy Ryan Braun this year, along with not the worst first-base situation in major-league history.
Of perhaps some note is that it’s the Brewers who signed Garza, arguably the best pitcher available this winter who wouldn’t cost his new employer a draft pick. The Brewers have the highest unprotected draft pick, which means that they had the most to lose had they forfeited the pick. How much is a pick worth? How much more is the 12th pick than, say, the second-round pick that the Mariners would have forfeited, or the 22nd overall pick that the Indians would have? In a perfectly efficient market, perhaps just enough to make the difference.
Of probably no note whatsoever: Randy the Random Number Generator predicted this one. R.J. Anderson now leads Randy 5-2. —Sam Miller
Garza’s transition from the National League to the American League last year was—predictably—a very unsmooth one. Toss in a Twitter rant and it’s easy to see why the 30-year-old was lost in a sea of free-agent pitchers. A Tanaka deal later, Garza’s fantasy value is on the rebound with a return to the Senior Circuit. Milwaukee isn’t a premier destination for right-handed pitchers by any stretch of the imagination, but at least Garza will be familiar with the NL Central after playing in Chicago from 2011-2013—it also helps that he gets to face those same light-hitting Cubbies a few times a year. That being said, Garza’s tendency to pitch up in the zone in a home run park is a legit concern.
Another big concern is health, as Garza has made just 42 starts over the past two seasons after averaging 32 starts from 2009-2011. If he stays healthy—and that’s a big “if”—Garza should be the Brewers' best starting pitcher in 2014. I feel comfortable slotting him into the no. 45-50 range, with an expectation of a 3.75 ERA and 170 strikeouts (assuming a full workload). If he can stay healthy, he can easily return top-40 value.
The addition of a veteran is a blow to the chances of Thornburg opening the season in Milwaukee’s starting five, as the Brewers current rotation includes Garza, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. A strong spring could tilt the scales in favor of Thornburg over Peralta, but adding Garza to the mix makes it less likely. Milwaukee’s no. 2 prospect a year ago, Thornburg didn’t hurt his chances across seven starts in 2013, making 18 appearances—including seven starts—with a 2.03 ERA and 48:26 K:BB ratio in 66.2 innings. If the 5-foot-11 right-hander wrestles the fifth spot away from Peralta, we’re likely looking at an NL-only target with an innings limit. —Alex Kantecki
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBP