Jaime Garcia: The Groundball Machine

What do you think is higher: seasons played by or DL stints for Jaime Garcia? That’s probably an easy one. What about Garcia’s innings v. DL stints? I’ll tell you that he has thrown 660 innings, but that probably still doesn’t help much. Garcia broke in during the 2008 season with 16 innings of work, but then missed all of the 2009 season with Tommy John Surgery. He has run the gamut of devastating pitcher injuries with the TJ, a torn labrum, and then last year’s Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

Any one of those on their own can derail a pitcher’s career, but together they form the second worst trio imaginable outside of the Kardashian clowns. And yet like Caitlyn Jenner, Garcia has emerged from the trio’s wrath better than ever. Garcia has had success before. He returned from TJ in 2010 and enjoyed a strong rookie season with a 2.70 ERA in 163.3 innings. Coming into 2015, he’d amassed a 3.50 ERA in 594.7 innings, good for a 108 ERA+.

He’s only had an ERA north of 4.00 once, last year’s 4.12 in 43.7 IP, and that was more due to the small sample because his 22% K rate and 4% BB rate were both career-bests. He allowed homers in four of his seven starts which left the ERA inflated, especially compared to his 2.94 xFIP. Garcia hasn’t been able to carry those skills over, instead falling back to his 19% and 7% career levels, but that hasn’t stopped him from being awesome through 10 starts this season.

Garcia hasn’t been injury-free in 2015 – he started on the DL recovering from last year’s surgery and suffered a groin injury in early-July for his seventh and eighth DL stints, respectively – which is why he’s been limited to just 10 starts, but he has excelled when on the field. He has a 1.77 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 66 innings. The small sample is again playing a role, but this time in his favor. Sure, he’s not a true talent 1.77 ERA, but his ERA indicators are still quite favorable: 3.26 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, and 3.15 SIERA. It isn’t just blind luck fueling Garcia, a few key changes have spurred this run and point to continued success if he can actually stay healthy.

I always look at velocity first when studying a pitcher. It is often a key driver behind changes – both good and bad – for a pitcher. Garcia’s fastballs (four-seamer and sinker) are both up about 2 MPH to 91 MPH on average from the last two years. He’s been there before, averaging 91 MPH when you round up from 2008-11, but then spent 2012-13 around 89-90 MPH. His changeup is only up about a half MPH so his split between the two has increased and sits around 8 MPH.

The increased velocity plus an approach change – he’s working it on the inner half to hitters far more often at 52%, up from 44% prior to 2015 – have helped him generate a 66% groundball rate with the fastball. The changeup has more drop this year which has also spiked the groundball rate, going from 50% prior to 2015 to a sparkling 68% so far this year. He has always been a groundball guy, but this year has been extreme with a 67% rate (career 57%) on all pitches.

His .218 BABIP and 85% LOB rate are outliers on the high end and both will almost certainly regress, but he is actively contributing to both so while we can recognize that they are unlikely to maintain, it doesn’t mean he has just lucked his way into them. Holding an 85% LOB rate is made easier when you’re not putting many runners on base (0.91 WHIP) and that groundball rate can be helpful for getting out of jams when there is someone on base.

His 12 double plays are more than he had in his 16 starts from 2013-14 combined. He induced 25 GIDPs back in his 32-start season of 2011. At his current rate of logging double plays, he would notch 41 with the same 2011 workload. Among the 51 pitchers with at least 12 GIDPs, only reliever Jake Petricka has a better groundball rate per PA than Garcia’s 5% with an incredible 7% mark. It’s tougher to envision the BABIP holding at this level regardless of how he pitches the rest of the way.

Groundball pitchers are a rule usually have higher BABIPs than their flyball counterparts as grounders go for hits far more regularly than flies, even if it was a perfect pitch and the batter did exactly what the pitcher wanted. There are 18 pitchers who have pitched at least 50 innings with a 55% or better groundball rate and no one is anywhere near Garcia’s .218 BABIP. Second-best is Aaron Sanchez at .245 followed by Jeurys Familia at .250 all in relief. The group as a whole averages .291 with guys like Gio Gonzalez (.342), Carlos Frias (.336), and Tyson Ross (.333) taking the brunt of it and likely being impacted by both bad luck and bad defense.

As the BABIP rises, it will put that LOB to the test, but that’s where the double plays come back into play. Garcia’s career marks in these categories are about as average as it gets at .300 and 72% (starters are at .296 and 72% this year) so it’s hard to disagree with the projection systems that put him right back at that average level the rest of the way. But if he maintains the improved velocity and groundball rate, he can mitigate the damage inflicted by the BABIP and LOB drifting back toward his career averages.

While this is a high-end level of performance for Garcia that is unlikely to stick, it’s in the range outcomes that his skills could produce over a small sample. The real question isn’t where will he regress to, but will he stay on the field long enough to experience that regression? Unfortunately that is a question I can’t even begin to try and answer, but I’m comfortable running Garcia out there as long as he is healthy and expecting something like a 3.30 ERA and 1.20 WHIP which is useful in any format, even without a premium strikeout rate to go with it.

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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A better version of Jon Niese, albeit not as durable.