There’s only one game this season I’ve gone back and watched again from start to finish: Mike Mussina‘s May 7th start against the Mariners, where he pitched eight innings, gave up five hits, one a homer, struck out 12, and walked none. Mussina’s been otherworldly so far this year, and watching him I know that it’s not that he’s particularly lucky–he’s working with top-shelf stuff and great command. Batters are left walking back to the dugout shaking their heads and asking their hitting coach: “What am I supposed to do with that knuckle-curve he’s throwing for strikes?” And the coach shrugs, because he doesn’t know either.

It was a great game, because it made me sit and think about what pitchers are and become: Mussina was almost forgotten last season, his years of excellence not recent enough, and now he’s offering a traveling clinic on how to pitch.

And this, in turn, leads me to wonder about Freddy Garcia‘s failure to move from future ace to ace. I wrote about this a little last September and found that Garcia had been lucky in his good seasons with seeing balls put into play turned into outs by the fine Mariner defense of 2000-2001.

Garcia’s a partier. It’s known, and it’s been interesting to see local sportswriters tiptoe around the issue, once afraid to mention it and now going so far as to say he is in fact a partier, but offering no actual proof. There are questions about Garcia’s work ethic and preparation, and it’s particularly awful to see him when he comes completely unraveled. There’s a look on his face as if he’s already checked out for the game as he serves up fastballs hitters can smoke, and I start to wish Bob Melvin would walk out to the mound, ask Freddy if he was injured, and then kick him in the balls so he can call in an emergency replacement from the bullpen. I don’t really think anyone should kick anyone in the balls, by the way, that’s just how frustrating Freddy’s been to watch. I want to reach down from the stands and throttle him and say, “if you don’t want to pitch, fake a muscle pull, don’t keep giving up runs before we can get someone up in the bullpen. Intentionally walk every batter if you have to, it’ll be less painful.”

It’s really the first time that my subjective view of a pitcher has so greatly swayed my objective view. Local press has quoted pitching coach Bryan Price saying that the problem is Freddy’s control when he reaches back to push his fastball to 95, and that may be part of the problem. The larger problem is that it’s increasingly apparent that Garcia doesn’t want to put in the time that teammate Jamie Moyer does–the preparation that allows Moyer to succeed at his advanced age, with stuff that is far inferior to Garcia’s. Freddy hasn’t invested in refining his mechanics at all, or repeating his delivery consistently to develop the kind of command and movement that Mussina has.

Gary Huckabay proposed an interesting tool in a recent 6-4-3 which is particularly instructive in looking at Freddy’s lines. It’s a look at various events as a percentage of approximate batters faced.

Season   h/abf  hr/abf   bb/abf   so/abf
1999      .228    .020     .100     .189
2000      .204    .029     .117     .144
2001      .202    .016     .070     .166
2002      .214    .028     .059     .171
2003      .218    .041     .096     .132

If you look at K/9 rates, for instance, you’ll see a different picture as Freddy gets fewer Ks on more hitters. But here we see he’s not striking many people out at all, his walks are back up near his rookie levels, and he’s become tateriffic. That’s not a good combination. Here are his raw stats from the minors:

Season  Team               IP     h/abf  hr/abf  bb/abf  so/abf
1995    Dominican_Astros   58      .241    .008    .056    .233
1996    Quad_City          60      .214    .011    .102    .188
1997    Kissimmee          179     .220    .008    .065    .174
1998    Jackson            119     .184    .016    .114    .225
1998    New_Orleans        14      .241    .034    .017    .224
1998    Tacoma             32      .213    .043    .092    .213

Freddy’s home run rate is as high as anything he saw in the minors (and Cheney Stadium in Tacoma is the PCL equivalent of Safeco Field), his walk rate this season fits in with his worst minor league seasons, and his strikeout rate has never been this low at any point in his minor league career. More HRs, more BB, way fewer Ks…I think we call this regression.

There are two possibilities: The one that gets Freddy the boos as he slumps off the mound, is that he sucks, that he’s going never going to realize his potential because he doesn’t care enough, and that he’s content to sling the ball over the plate and pile up the wins against the Tigers of the league and wait for some sucker team to give him a free agent contract after this year.

Or Freddy’s injured. He’s been nursing a labrum tear since some time last year. Specifically, late June, early July. He faced Oakland June 24th and was awful, giving up 10 runs on nine hits and five walks, getting three strikeouts in three innings pitched (which took him 85 pitches). He then came home to face pretty-bad Colorado June 29th, where he went 8 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 5 K, had another good outing against July 4th vs the Twins, 7 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 7 K, and then proceeded to suck for the rest of the season with occasional good starts against really bad-hitting teams (Detroit, Cleveland).

Then some of this frustration starts to make sense. Freddy’s out there unable to crank the fastball all the way up and control it, the ball’s not quite doing what he wants it to, and as a result he’s walking more batters, not getting strikeouts, and being forced to groove strikes to keep ahead or even in the count. He doesn’t know what’s gone wrong, except that what came easily before now doesn’t come at all. Maybe he’s tried preparation and practice and they haven’t helped; he’s not Gil Meche, who was able to limp somewhat effectively through his labrum injury until it finally shut him down. Garcia doesn’t want to think about being injured because even though he won big in arbitration this year, the larger payday waits at the end of the year. Being diagnosed with a serious injury now could mean he’d be in rehab without an organization behind him to help him on his way back a year or two down the road.

And so he’s up on the mound, he sucks, and all he can do is sling it in and hope for the best. The fans boo him, and batters smile at him from the on-deck circle with narrowed eyes. The look on his face, where it seems like all he wants is for Melvin to pull him–maybe all he really does want is for Melvin to pull him, and for someone to figure out what’s gone wrong with him.

Still, if Freddy’s been injured for almost a year now and hasn’t sought any help for it, that says an entirely different set of things about Freddy beyond the whispers he hears now. And while it’s easy to say that the M’s should have seen it–some clue in arm angles, or something–they didn’t shut Paul Abbott down when he tore his shoulder, and continued to run Meche out there only a few years ago. We’ll find out what’s wrong with Garcia eventually, but for now, the team’s No. 1 starter isn’t even the third-best man in the rotation. If there’s a future Mussina on the staff, it’s Joel Pineiro, with his hundred quality pitches and unflappable disposition, who faced Mussina that day. Maybe one day Pineiro will work his way to the level everyone seemed to think Freddy would reach.