Matt Garza has the fifth-most strikeouts in baseball through three starts, with 25. Only Cliff Lee has more among pitchers with three or fewer starts. Armed with that information alone, it would seem that Garza’s introduction to the Windy City has gone smoothly. Reality is cruel, though: Garza has suffered two defeats, an earned run average of 6.27, and only one quality start despite averaging six-plus innings per outing.
The 2011 season represents the fourth that Garza has begun in the majors. Monthly splits rarely reveal a genuine trend, but Garza hasn’t exhibited a pattern of starting slow regardless. In fact, April of 2008 was the only one in which Garza failed to strike out nearly a batter per inning (he actually walked eight and struck out only six on the month), but that can be attributed to a radial nerve issue in his throwing arm.
Garza’s April starts in 2009 and 2010 produced 22 total earned runs in 68 innings pitched; he has allowed 13 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings this season. The culprit behind Garza’s struggles is a .491 batting average on balls in play. Yes, nearly half of Garza’s batted balls have turned into hits.
Those who do not buy into the theory of defense-independent pitching may wonder whether Garza is contributing to his own mess by throwing hittable pitches. Garza’s strikeout rate flies in the face of that theory, as does the Cubs’ staff BABIP (.344), which suggests that Chicago’s pitchers are suffering from the effects of a porous defense.
Another item that supports the notion that Garza shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility alone is his home run total (zero). How could someone who is ostensibly hittable avoid the long ball entirely despite pitching at Wrigley Field, Miller Park, and Coors Field? The key does not seem to lie in statistical accounts, so let’s explore some observational data.
Here is an event log from Garza’s most recent start (in Colorado), which includes the pitches he gave up hits on, the counts, the locations, and the batted-ball classifications:
Troy Tulowitzki (RH): 2-1 count, 94 MPH fastball, middle-in, liner to left for a single.
Todd Helton (LH): 3-1 count, 93 MPH fastball, middle-in, grounder through the right side of the infield for a single.
Chris Iannetta (RH): 0-0 count, 86 MPH slider, middle-away, liner to deep center for a triple (the relay throw would bounce into the dugout, allowing Iannetta to score).
Dexter Fowler (LH): 2-1 count, 92 MPH fastball, middle-away, liner down the left field line for a double.
Jhoulys Chacin (RH): 0-1 count, 93 MPH fastball, middle-away, liner into center field for a single.
Jonathan Herrera (LH): 2-2 count, 83 MPH slider, up-and-away, liner into left field for a single.
Todd Helton (LH): 3-2 count, 93 MPH fastball, middle-low, lined into left-center for a double.
Four of the seven hits came with Garza behind in the count. That’s not a huge surprise, as Garza is a better pitcher when working with favorable counts—like literally every other pitcher, ever. At Garza’s best, he uses his mid-90s fastball to get ahead and then tosses his power breaking stuff (either a curve or a slider) for weak contact or a swing-through.
That start against the Rockies may not provide new insight into Garza’s abilities, but it does offer a look at how often the 27-year-old is falling behind. Given Garza’s lofty K-rate and BABIP, one could theorize that hitters are becoming more aggressive on pitches within the zone and only taking pitches outside of it, so to avoid becoming strikeout victims.
A plausible theory, but an invalid one. Garza is falling behind in one-third of his plate appearances, but that rate would be a career low for Garza, as he had previously fallen behind in 38.2 percent of his plate appearances from 2008 to 2010. Batters do seem to be making the most of these increasingly rare favorable counts against Garza, though, hitting an aggregate .417/.517/.500 with a .476 BABIP. Those numbers are elevated in comparison to Garza’s career line when trailing in counts: .274/.433/.473 with a .272 BABIP.
No pitcher would last in the major leagues very long with a .491 BABIP, but it’s clear that Garza’s hit rate will regress before bad luck drums him out of the league. He has given up his fair share of line drives, but his stuff has been good, and he has avoided falling behind in counts more often than he has in the past. There is enough information in the form of empirical data and observational notes to suggest that Garza will pull through this rough patch without issue, possibly beginning as early as this afternoon at Wrigley.