By Mike Moritz
Matt Garza is experiencing a great season. And most conventional baseball fans think that Garza is experiencing merely just his normal season. His 3.72 ERA is good but not spectacular and his 2-4 record is much less of an indicator of his greatness. Despite those good-but-not-great "on the surface statistics", we have seen a dramatic improvement in his overall production.
Garza is second in the majors in FIP with a 1.83 mark, behind just some old guy named Roy Halladay, don't know if you guys have ever heard of him. Garza is also second in the majors with a 2.44 xFIP, behind that same Halladay guy.
The thought was that Garza was going to do a lot worse with the move to Wrigley Field over the off season. He had been considered a fly ball pitcher when he was on the Rays (albeit, he was not a huge fly ball pitcher; 43% fly ball rate). He was helped out a decent amount by Tropicana field and consistently produced very low BABIPs, never having a BABIP above .273 with the Rays because of a shut down defense. With the Rays, he never produced an xFIP 4.14, merely just an average mark for the league. He averaged an average 7.1 K/9 and a 3.1 BB/9 in Tampa. He was not an elite pitcher, really, by any means.
But in his first year in Chicago, he has already amassed 2.3 WAR and is on pace to surpass his previous high of 3.2 back in 2009. He has had his dominance mainly because of a change in repertoire and usage of his pitches.
With the Rays, he never used his fastball less than 71.1% in a season and because of that, he rarely used his off speed pitches; the highest percent-usage of any of his other pitches was just 14% (his slider). Hitters were able to hit him more easily because he was throwing the fastball so often, and rightly so. His heater is above average in terms of velocity, running around 92-94 mph.
He is now using his fastball just 54.7% of the time, much less than the 70%ish that he used it in Tampa. He is now using his slider and change up much more often. He has been using his slider 21.9% of the time compared to the and has positive value to it, as he has his whole career: .36 wSL/C this year. He has been using his change up 11.8% of the time, compared to around the 6%ish that he has used it before with the Rays. Although the change has had negative value, it has actually been the best so far this year in extended time in his career with a -0.36 wCH/C, and that number is barely below the zero mark. His best change up was back in 2007, when he was on the Twins but only pitched 83 innings: .08 wSL/C.
By mixing up his pitches, changing speeds and eye levels, Garza is now striking out hitters at a career high and getting ground balls like an ace. And he is demolishing his previous highs in those two categories.
His 10.99 K/9 is first in the majors, in front of another pitcher who is all of the sudden striking out hitters like never before. His newly found strike out ability has been backed up by a SwStr% of 11.1%, shattering his previous high of 8.8%. His opponent O-Contact% has reached a career low, 55.1%, backing up the fact that his off speed pitches are good. His opponent O-Swing% is a career high, 34.2%, again, saying that his off speed pitches are good enough to have hitters swing at nothing. Take a look for your self, and see how Matt Garza's opponent plate discipline stats have changed for the better, click here.
The other aspect that Garza has dramatically improved on is his ability to get ground balls. Coming into 2011, and with the Rays, Garza had a 39% ground ball rate, decent. This year, that number has jumped to 48.3%. That number is not considered one of the best, but it is still sky high.
But that might be where the problem starts. His 3.71 ERA is good, but not nearly as good as his 2.44 xFIP, or perhaps his 1.83 FIP. This huge gap between ERA and FIP/xFIP has been mainly attributed to his terrible luck. His .362 BABIP is the highest mark in baseball and although his 62.2% LOB is not the lowest in baseball, it is still terrible. To say that Garza's on-the-surface-performance should get better is a complete understatement; he is getting so unlucky that it might actually be funny. The Cubs defense is bad, sure, but it is not bad enough that Garza should be having this bad amounts of luck. Then again, the main reason that Garza has not had his ERA blow up is because of some good luck (crazy, I know right?): his 2.4% HR/FB is the third lowest in the bigs and is due to regress upward sometime soon.
The even better thing is that Garza has faced 242 batters which means that strike outs, ground balls rate and line drive rate have long been stabilized (150 batters faced). That also means that fly ball rate is just about stabilized too (200 batters faced). Keep in that a 10.99 K/9 is really hard to sustain, no matter how deep into the season you are, so it might regress back to around 9 K/9, still top notch.
Garza has gotten very unlucky this season but legitimate changes to his pitching approach has led to astonishing results, even if it does not show in 3.71 ERA quite yet. In time though, Matt Garza will be putting some nasty pitching lines that even conventional baseball fans will start to notice. It's just a matter of time until Garza gets the Luck Dragons to returns to his side.
(Stats in courtesy of: fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com)