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October 13, 2008

Player Profile

Matt Garza

by Marc Normandin and Eric Seidman

One of the reasons that the Rays are in the American League Championship Series is their acquisition of Matt Garza prior during the offseason. This wasn't necessarily the way it seemed it might work out early in the year, when Garza was struggling with his consistency and putting up numbers that belied his former top-prospect status, but he improved over the course of the season and helped the Rays on the way to their first winning season and first playoff berth in franchise history. Which Garza can we expect to show up against the rival Red Sox in their chase for the AL pennant? We'll take a look at that today, as well as his future prospects as a starter.

Matthew Scott Garza was not an impressive pitcher during his first two years at Fresno State University. In the 2003 season, the 19-year-old posted an ERA of 9.55 over 43 1/3 innings, splitting duty as a starter and a reliever. He walked more batters than he struck out, and though he fixed that issue his next year-partially thanks to surgery that cleared the cloudy vision in his right eye-a 4.90 ERA with 7.7 strikeouts per nine in college still doesn't do much to get you on the scouts' radar.

The 2005 season would be a major step up for the right-hander, as he would shave nearly two runs off of his ERA and jump his punchouts to 10.0 K/9, whiffing three times as many hitters as he walked. His homer rate also dropped to one-third of what it was the year prior, and he gave up just over one hit per nine, the first reasonable rate of his college career. Thanks to his improved performance, Garza was left in the Fresno State rotation for much of the season, and he was selected by the Twins in the first round of the 2005 amateur entry draft. After signing, the 21-year-old was sent to Rookie-level Elizabethton, where he would toss just 19 2/3 innings (11.4 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 3.66 ERA) before moving on to Beloit in the Midwest League. He would throw 54 innings there, and impress once again, with 10.3 strikeouts per nine and over four times as many punchouts as free passes.

Just a year prior Garza had been a struggling college pitcher without a set role, but he immediately became the seventh-best prospect in the Twins organization. Baseball America said that Garza owned both the best fastball among the Twins' 2005 draft picks (sitting in the 90-94 mph range, with the ability to hit 96), as well as the best breaking ball: a high-velocity slider that helped him rack up strikeouts. In addition to those pitches, Garza also threw a mid- to high-70s curveball, and flashed a changeup that required polish. Baseball Prospectus 2006 believed that the development of either Garza's change or curve would determine which role he would fill in the big leagues, but with the bevy of pitching prospects in the organization-Garza, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey, to name a few-the Twins were "comfortable with his developing into either a starter or a reliever."

Garza's true breakout season would come in 2006, as the right-hander would rocket through three levels of the minors and finish the year in Minnesota in his first full campaign as a professional. He blew through High-A Fort Myers, posting a 1.42 ERA over 44 1/3 innings while striking out 10.8 per nine and walking 2.2 with 0.6 homers per nine, and he would get better from there. A move to Double-A New Britain saw Garza throw 57 1/3 innings while racking up the strikeouts (10.7 K/9) and keeping the walks to a minimum (2.2 BB/9), cutting his homer rate even further to 0.3 per nine. His 34 innings at Triple-A Rochester went better than expected as well, as Garza lost a few strikeouts (8.7 per nine) but cut into his walk rate (1.9) and kept his homers (0.3) and ERA (1.85) in fantastic shape over five starts. His stop in Minnesota didn't go over quite as well; the right-hander struggled, posting a 5.76 ERA while seeing his walk rate balloon to 4.1 per nine and his strikeouts drop by around two per. Thinking about it, that wasn't all that surprising; he had already thrown 135 2/3 innings over three levels, and was bound to hit a road block eventually.

That performance put Garza in the spotlight; according to Baseball America he was named the top prospect in the Twins organization, and was the 21st-best prospect in the entire minor leagues. Kevin Goldstein awarded Garza the top slot in his Top Ten organizational rankings, naming Garza as the lone "Excellent Prospect" in the system:

The Good: Everything came together for 2005 first-round pick that rocketed from High-A to the majors in his full-season debut. Fastball gained a few ticks, moving to a 92-95 mph plus offering that touches 97, breaking balls gained bite, changeup came around, and command took a big step forward. All of these improvements added up to one massive step forward and a ranking among the best pitching prospects in the game.

Goldstein also said that Garza was still learning how to mix in his multiple pitches, "particularly in hitters' counts." The Twins were aware that Garza could use some additional seasoning in the minors before they were to throw him into the big-league fire full-time, so a move to Rochester was arranged. Garza threw 92 innings over 16 starts there, posting an impressive line: 9.3 whiffs, three walks, and just 0.5 homers per nine. Minnesota finally called Garza up in July, and this go-round was far superior to his first. The 23-year-old pitched in 16 games, 15 of them starts, throwing 83 innings, and putting up rates of 7.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and 0.9 HR/9. His hit rate (10.4) was a bit high, though part of that was due to his flukish .345 BABIP, since Garza was giving up liners just 15.5 percent of the time. This liner rate would indicate a BABIP around .275, though consistently posting a liner rate that low is nearly impossible, and was a product of small sample size. Still, Garza's rookie year was a success, and he looked to be an important part of the Twins future.

Until the Twins traded him, that is. Garza was one of many pitching prospects in the system, and as one who had skyrocketed through the ranks and succeeded over a short time in the majors, he had plenty of appeal in the trade market. The Twins acquired Delmon Young and Brendan Harris from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan. The deal made sense for both clubs, as the Rays were trying to improve their pitching and defense, while the Twins, an organization that was almost always rich in young pitchers, needed a potential high-ceiling impact bat in order to color their own future in brighter shades.

As Baseball Prospectus 2008 points out, trading away their former top pitching prospect was made easier due to the problems in their relationship:

It would be a stretch to say that the Twins traded Garza because he didn't fit their organizational personality; they did get Delmon Young for him, after all. However, Garza's expressed displeasure with the team-over pitch selection and roster decisions-certainly made him a top candidate to be sent away. The right-hander works off of a mid-90s fastball, and while he relies heavily on it, he has good breaking stuff as well, and his command has become a strength over the past two seasons. He's going to be a good story this year, maybe even an All-Star.

The upper levels of Garza's PECOTA forecast were excellent examples of what he was capable of over a full season, and the right-hander did not disappoint. Before he got there, though, he did stumble a bit initially as a Ray, as the first two months of the season did not go well; in spite of a not-so-bad 4.38 ERA, his peripherals were weak, as he was striking out a very mediocre five per nine, with 3.6 walks and 1.2 homers per nine to boot. On June 8, Garza got into a shouting match with his catcher, Dioner Navarro, but this altercation ended up being a turning point of sorts for the inconsistent starter.

Rays manager Joe Maddon helped set Garza up with a sports psychologist who was a personal friend. The idea was to make Garza focus on the mound in order to stop him from overthrowing when he was upset, and to keep him centered on pitching and getting the hitter out. The plan showed dividends soon after; just two starts after the incident with Navarro, Garza struck out eight Astros while walking just a pair, and in his next outing, he whiffed 10 Marlins in a start where he looked almost unhittable. From that point forward, Garza would throw 116 innings with vastly improved peripherals: 7.1 strikeouts per nine, just 2.6 walks (an indication that his stellar command from the minor leagues had returned along with his focus) and 0.9 homers per nine.

His overall line looks like that of a pitcher who may sustain his success, his seasonal K/9 is only 6.3, and while still above average, is not as impressive as his rates from June 20 onward. He was much better at keeping hitters off base after the shift as well, as he allowed a .254/.331/.396 line prior to June 20 (.283/.341/.417 against right-handers), and a .245/.297/.377 line after, with significant improvement against righties (.234/.287/.325). It should be this pitcher that the Red Sox will face in the ALCS, the pitcher we all expected to see from the start of the season. Regardless of the outcome of this year's playoffs, Garza will be just 25 years old next year, and ready to make that jump to an All-Star level that we've already seen from him over the latter half of this season.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

The task of evaluating Matt Garza's 2008 campaign is as tricky as they come, since his surface numbers and peripherals do not even come close to telling the whole story. Generally speaking, 184 2/3 innings of 3.70 ERA baseball with a K/BB ratio above 2.0 is fantastic for a third starter in a big-league rotation, but how he ended up with those cumulative final numbers is something else entirely. For starters, the similarities between this season and his 2007 statistics are interesting: Garza posted identical 72.9 percent strand rates; his ERA "rose" from 3.69 to 3.70; his FIP "dropped" from 4.18 to 4.14; and his K/BB rate dropped slightly from 2.39 to 2.24.

One significant change came in the form of a reduced 2.8 BB/9, down from the 3.0 in 2007. Unfortunately for Garza, his strikeout rate also dropped, going from 7.3 per nine innings to 6.2. One possible reason for this drop-off was the change in scenery to the scary AL East. Supporting this theory is the fact that, among all pitchers with at least 120 IP this past season, Garza had the second-highest quality-of-opposition OPS at 767. In 2007, however, with the qualifier reduced to 80 innings (since he only pitched half of a season), Garza again ranked second, with a 777 quality-of-opposition OPS, so scratch the theory of his facing much stiffer competition, because in both of these seasons he finished just short of the top spot in toughest batter's faced.

His 35.8 VORP placed him just ahead of Jesse Litsch and A.J. Burnett, and slightly behind Mark Buehrle and teammate Scott Kazmir. That he faced such stiff competition elevates him a bit; in support of this elevation is that his support-neutral metrics are higher when the marginal lineup value of the hitters faced is introduced. His pure SNVA was 1.0, but when you introduce the value of that performance via SNLVAR, it rises to 4.9.

What works against Garza, however, is how often he was bailed out. He left 21 bequeathed runners in 2008, 15th most in the junior circuit, but the Tampa Bay bullpen allowed just two of these runs to score. Due to this, Garza's pen support-which measures how many bequeathed runs the bullpen allowed to score compared to that of the average bullpen-was the third-best mark in the league. At -4.182, the metric suggests that Garza's ERA looks better than it should because his bullpen allowed about four runs less to score than an average bullpen would have allowed. In 2007, his pen support was 0.527, meaning his ERA was ever-so slightly worse due to the bullpen's inability to strand bequeathed runners. Odd how he produced virtually identical seasons in 2007 and 2008 despite getting there from different fashions.

Another big shift that could explain the reduced strikeout rate is his change in pitch selection. Garza throws a 94-plus mph fastball, but with his change in organizations he upped his usage of the heater from 63 percent to 72 percent this season, almost equally cutting back on sliders, curveballs, and changeups. When Garza was on, he had the ability to dominate. One look at his gamelogs, however, and you may conjure images of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Garza had relatively little middle ground this year: he was either very on, or very off. His FLAKE score, which measures the deviation among the quality of his starts, was 0.284; highest in the American League out of starters with at least 20 games started.

Garza is slated to square off against the Red Sox tonight in Game Three of the ALCS. In four regular-season starts against Boston he pitched 22 innings of 4.50 ERA baseball, with seven walks and 10 Ks, rather average numbers. For the Rays' sake, the Dr. Jekyll version of Garza had better show up, and if the regular season is any indication, the bullpen will need to be in top form to ensure no further damage is done should he exit the game leaving runners aboard in his wake.-Eric Seidman


Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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