The Interesting Evolution of Braxton Garrett

They’re still an under-.500 team but the Miami Marlins are chock full of fantasy-relevant arms worth discussing. Sandy Alcantara has been a fantasy ace in 2022 and Pablo Lopez is knocking on the d0or (and actually staying healthy). Trevor Rogers is still far from expectations but has at least started being good enough to stop the mass cuttings, and Edward Cabrera is a hot prospect who showed flashes of excellence before hitting the IL.

Lots of exciting guys, with names you know (and roster). Obviously, we should talk about Braxton Garrett, a backend lefty who is less than 5% rostered on Yahoo, ESPN, and CBS, right? What can I say? I’m a sucker for change, particularly when it’s purposeful.

But this is also particularly fortuitous timing as Garrett is currently pitching masterfully while I write this, dominating the Pirates in a Thursday afternoon tilt. He’ll ultimately end up with six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 11. But how Garrett dominated makes his performance even more apropos for our discussion, as his excellence was led by his slider (34%) and sinker (22%), the pitches that have seen their specs change in the most meaningful ways.

We’ll get to the hows but the whats were spectacular against the Pirates on Thursday. Garrett’s slider had a 31.4% SwStr%, 55% Whiff%, and a 49% CSW%, while his sinker finished with an absurd 40.9% SwStr%, 64% Whiff%, and 59% CSW%. He threw 57 of the two combined, collecting 20 whiffs and with only three pitches being put into play.

But let’s also not get too clouded with recency bias considering:

  1. The Pirates are extra poor when facing LHP, posting a wOBA and xwOBA that are both in the bottom five and a K% that is the second-highest.
  2. Even before facing Garrett, the Pirates were especially bad against sliders from left-handers. Prior to yesterday, Pittsburgh was last in xBA/xwOBA, 29th in wOBA, with bottom-three rates in SwStr% and Whiff%.

We’ll zoom back in on the slider/sinker in a minute but first, let’s look at the wholesale changes Garrett has made to his arsenal in 2022, both in how they are shaped, as well as deployed. Whether in regards to velocity, movement, or both, each of his five pitches (4S/SI/SL/CU/CH) has changed compared to what we’ve seen in his previous cups of coffee.

Increased velocity is a commonality across his pitch mix, with all five seeing getting a 1-2 mph bump. But the increases in his sinker (89.1 mph to 91.0 mph) and four-seamer (90.3 mph to 91.6 mph) are particularly encouraging, as Garrett has now slowly ticked up in each season since tommy john surgery in 2017 – before which, he was a first-round pick with mid-90’s heat.

His overall spin is also up, with his sinker (+185 rpm) and four-seamer (+152 rpm) seeing the largest increases:

Okay, spin and velocity are both up but how has the movement been affected? One of the major changes was in the aforementioned sinker, a pitch he only added in 2021, with the overall usage this season increasing slightly from 15.6% to 18.4%. But he has significantly changed the usage by handedness, with the sinker usurping the four-seamer as his main fastball vs RHH, going from 11.7% in 2021 to 36.8% in 2022.

But the real story is in its movement, making big gains on both planes. The increased velocity has come with three more inches of break (13.2 inches to 16.2 inches) and an impressive five more inches of sink (22.2 inches to 27.2 inches). Relative to pitches at similar velocity/extension, both of those marks have gone from the bottom of vertical/horizontal movement to the top tiers, with the latter going from 6% below average to 14% above, and the former moving from 7% below average to 19% above.

Another interesting aspect of Garrett’s sinker is how the spin directions have changed. The deviations between its observed and inferred spin axis have stayed the same but how they got there hasn’t. Garrett’s sinker in 2021 had an inferred axis of 11:15 and an observed axis of 10:15 but in 2022, it has an inferred axis of 10:30 and an observed axis of 9:30. Both years have a 60-minute deviation between the two but their directions have changed. I’ll quickly get out of my depth positing what mechanical reasons brought these changes on but they are a part of what has led to the large increases in movement.

Speaking of things I don’t want to get far out of my depths in, we also see a clear change in Garrett’s release points, and not just on his sinker:

Unfortunately, a lower arm slot has also brought more sink to his other fastball, with the four-seamer increasing in velocity but dropping in rise, going from +0.8 inches vs AVG to -1.4 inches vs AVG. But it’s the opposite on the other plane, with the horizontal movement increasing from -1.6 inches vs AVG (25% below average) to +2.9 inches vs AVG (45% above average). However, less rise and more break have gotten it done in 2022, with the Run Value against it decreasing from +1.4 RV per 100 pitches last season, to -0.9 RV/100 this year.

Moving on from fastballs, Garrett’s slower stuff has also seen big changes in their movement. The curveball (10.3%) and changeup (8.1%) are both lightly thrown, with the latter being used almost exclusively vs RHH. But both are also, in addition to being thrown 1-2 mph faster, getting a lot more movement compared to last season.

The faster curveball has tightened up considerably, losing five inches of drop but has a lot more break, increasing from 8 inches to 11.9 inches. That extra almost four inches takes it from being 4% below average in 2021 to 41% above average this season. The extra break hasn’t brought more whiffs but has turned into a reliable strike-getter, running a 35.6% CSW entering Thursday’s action, with a 28.9% Call% that leads his pitch mix.

The changeup is rarely used but still picked up considerable drop this year while keeping the horizontal break that was already well above average. Its break was 20% above average in 2021 and has only increased to 21% this year but at the slightly higher speed, the extra inch of wiggle moves it into the top tier of movement. But the vertical break also increased nearly five inches, taking it from -0.4 inches vs AVG to +3.7 inches vs AVG.

Again, the changeup is lightly used but it’s still an important pitch, giving him another pitch with which to work away from right-handers with. It already had a lot of break but added more this season, along with significantly more drop, while being thrown harder. Sound anything like the changes to his sinker?

All of the aforementioned pitches can be effective tools but they’re all still supporting characters for a slider that’s the star of the show. Now running a 22.6% SwStr%  and 40.0% after roughing up the Pirates, that kind of whiffery puts him in the upper tier of starting pitchers.

Garrett’s slider has always been his best pitch but it’s gone to a new level of whiffs in 2022, with a six-point jump in SwStr%, and seven-point increases in Whiff% and Chase%. Given the success, it’s no wonder that the slider has also ascended to his primary offering, going from 22% usage in 2021 to 34% in 2022.

But the usage isn’t the only thing that’s changed because much like the rest of Garrett’s pitch mix, the slider has a brand-new bag of movement. And going back to the changing release points, the slider has seen some of the most, with his release extension increasing from 6.3 inches to 6.4 inches:

Like everything else in the arsenal, Garrett’s slider has picked up speed in 2022, increasing from an average of 82.7 mph to 84.5 mph. Its relative depth has only dropped from +11% vs AVG to +10% vs AVG with the increase in speed but the raw movement is down three inches. And the lesser drop is even more pronounced when taken with the bigger change on the horizontal plane, with an extra 2.6 inches taking it from 10% below average all the way to 33% above average.

A new slider that’s coming out of a lower arm slot and getting significantly more horizontal movement? Wait a tick, I wonder if…

Ah ha! The deviation between Garrett’s inferred and observed spin direction has increased from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, implying that more of the seam-shifted side force is now coming into play. Add that to the other changes we covered and you can tell them what that means, Missy.

Beep, beep. Who got the keys to the sweep…Err.

Going from this:

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To this:

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Faster, tighter, more sideways slide. These have combined to take Garrett’s slider from plus to wipeout, acting as the sweeper screw on which his arsenal turns.

Along with the new and sweeping slider, Garrett’s improved arsenal gives him enough tools to go further than his current backend-starter profile. And if the velocity continues to trend upward, all the better. But even without more heat, the improved movement on his sinker will hopefully continue to improve his performance against right-handers, which is always key to left-handed starters’ ability to turn a lineup over multiple times.

Following the All-Star break, Garrett will get another chance to shine, currently lined up to face the same Pittsburgh team that probably won’t have gotten much better with sliders by next week. Even coming against substandard competition, if we see anything close to a repeat performance Garrett will quickly start to flee the waiver wire.

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1 year ago

This was amazing. Thanks!