Matt Garza: Whiffing Prodigy

Matt Garza isn't having fun at the plate. - USA TODAY Sports

Matt Garza has been known to make hitters look foolish at the plate, but no one looks as foolish at the plate as Matt Garza.

At some point in the days to come a major league franchise is going to load up a massive truck full of money and send it over to Matt Garza's house. I'm speaking figuratively of course; you wouldn't actually need a massive truck to haul that amount of money, a larger-than-average sedan would do fine. The 30-year-old pitcher will sign on a dotted line and instantly acquire more material wealth than you and everyone you know combined will ever see.

Maybe that's an unfair statement. Definitely more material wealth than I and everyone I know will never see. Perhaps you are either more popular or wealthier than I am, or have wealthier friends. That's neither here nor there. This article isn't about you or I, it's about Matt Garza. The fact of the matter is that Matt Garza is about to make a lot of money based on the assumption he will be a very good pitcher in the future.

That assumption, for a variety of reasons, is a dangerous one. Firstly, pitchers in general are very fragile so any contract of the length and value that Garza is likely to receive is inherently risky. There are also risks specific to Garza. Matt Garza hasn't been the most durable pitcher in the world lately with only 259 innings pitched over the last two years. Jeff Zimmerman's recently released report on starting pitchers DL chances gave Matt Garza a 50.7% chance of landing on the DL in 2014. As pitchers rarely get less injury prone as they pitch into their thirties, this is a worthwhile concern.

Beyond durability concerns there is some worry that Matt Garza is a little bit overrated. He has pitched at least 100 innings in six different seasons and only twice has he recorded a FIP below 4. In those 6 seasons he's averaged approximately 175 innings and 2.7 WAR per year. If you remove his excellent 2011 season those numbers change to 170 innings at 2.2 WAR per season. It's not fair to pretend one of his seasons didn't happen, but it does help make it clear that Matt Garza is closer to good than great and far closer to average than elite. His numbers are not to be sneezed at by any means, but they aren't the numbers of a top-shelf starter.

If you are reading Beyond The Box Score you are likely at least somewhat aware of what Matt Garza brings to the table as a pitcher. What you may not be aware of is his legendary incompetence at the dish. Pitchers are not expected to be excellent hitters, good hitters, or even functional hitters. However, Matt Garza does not clear the very low bar that is acceptable hitting performance from a pitcher. Before digging into this too deeply be forewarned that almost every examination of an individual pitcher's hitting statistics involves small sample sizes.

In the case of Matt Garza we are looking at a mere 125 plate appearances since he went to the Cubs in 2011. However, the moment you realized that this was an article about Matt Garza's hitting ability you should have been tipped off that this wasn't the most serious thing you'll be reading today, hopefully. Today we are here to have some fun; sort of at Matt Garza's expense. Sorry, Matt.

Since joining the Chicago Cubs in 2011 Matt Garza has hit .107/.130/.125 and a wRC+ of -42. To give a frame of reference for that, the average pitcher hit .132/.164/.169 last year, with a wRC+ of -13. It is apparent that Garza is below average, but from those numbers alone it's not entirely clear why he is below average to a noteworthy degree.

The first interesting thing about Matt Garza as a hitter is his basic inability to make contact with a baseball. There are 63 pitchers who had at least 100 PA appearances between 2011 and 2013; of those pitchers Garza has the highest strikeout rate and the lowest contact rate. Even that's not too shocking, after all somebody has to be in last place. What is pretty remarkable is the extent to which he is head and shoulders ahead of the rest when it comes to whiffing. Below is a chart showing the top 5 pitchers by K% since 2011:

Pitcher K%
Matt Garza 59.2%
A.J. Burnett 50.4%
Lance Lynn 48.9%
Paul Maholm 47.8%
Roy Halladay 46.2%

Things don’t look any less grim for Garza when we take a look at Contact%:

Pitcher Contact%
Matt Garza 52.7%
Chris Capuano 57.0%
A.J. Burnett 60.3%
Roy Halladay 62.2%
Matt Cain 62.4%

When it comes to swinging and missing Matt Garza is blowing away the competition, and the competition he’s blowing away is pretty damn good at swinging and missing. Those numbers speak for themselves but a pretty visual never hurt anyone so here’s Matt Garza’s zone profile when it comes to Whiffs per Swing, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

So, we know that Matt Garza misses baseballs like no one else in the business. What happens when he hits baseballs? The following chart shows his batted ball profile in the last three years and where he ranks among the 63 pitchers with 100+ plate appearances:

Line Drive% Ground Ball% Fly Ball% BABIP
15.6% (38th) 81.3% (1st) 3.1% (63rd) .316 (4th)

We are working with such small numbers here considering how seldom Garza puts the ball in play, so these figures should be seen as no more than a fuzzy outline of what Matt Garza does when he hits the ball. However, when you pair these numbers with Garza's woeful inability to make contact it's not hard to imagine a guy who is just hopeless with a bat in it hands. Although keeping the ball out of the air is generally a good idea for a guy with no power, I would venture a guess that the .316 BABIP might be a bit on the lucky side for a player with no wheels who hits pretty much exclusively ground balls. If given more at-bats it seems probably that Garza's BABIP would come down and as a result his .107/.130/.125 line over the last three years is probably overly generous. When taking into consideration Garza's inability to get his bat to the ball or get the ball off the ground, there is an argument to be made that he's the worst hitting pitcher in baseball.

That brings us to what that actually means. If Matt Garza signs with an American League team it means nothing. He might get a couple of plate appearances during interleague play, but not enough to have any effect. That would make this article no more than a bundle of fairly irrelevant trivia facts. I can live with that. However, if Garza signs with a team in the National League like the Diamondbacks, who he has been linked to in recent days, things get a little bit more interesting. FanGraphs pegs Garza as worth -0.5 WAR with the bat over the last three years, a figure that is softened by BABIP luck and the fact that Garza's lack of durability has cost him at-bats. Half of a win over three years isn't a ton, but it's not absolutely nothing either.

To project Garza going forward you would have to assume that what he's demonstrated so far is representative of his skills. That's problematic for two reasons. The first one is that the sample size is clearly too small to say anything definitive. The second issue is that Garza could improve on his hitting. After all, he started off in the American League where he got virtually no reps as a hitter and perhaps a little bit more practice will help. While these issues are undeniable, I think the fact that Garza has so clearly demonstrated he can't make contact and the BABIP luck help cancel those factors out. While there is reason to believe that regression to the mean and some improving skills could lead to better results there is also reason to believe he's lucky to have done as well as he has given the astounding lack of skill he's shown. In my view that's about a wash.

Between 2011 and 2013 Matt Garza has cost the Cubs 0.5 WAR with his bat at a rate of -0.1 WAR per 25 plate appearances. If we projected that rate to continue, it would take Garza 250 plate appearances to cost his team a win. If Garza were to take a four year deal, that 250 PA mark would be within reach. Garza did log 74 PA in 2011 alone. If he were to sign for five or more years it would be fairly likely. I want to reiterate that this is based on an awful lot of assumptions and is not remotely scientific, we are speaking about a hypothetical situation here. That being said, it is well within the realm of possibility that Matt Garza's hitting would cost his team a win over the length of his free agent contract.

It seems fairly unlikely that loss will be reflected in Garza's contract. The market value of a win is somewhat unclear at this point as there are still some big deals to be signed. Estimates have tended to range from six to seven million dollars. In theory, Matt Garza could be worth about that much less to a National League team than an American League one. That's a sizable gap, enough to make it much more likely that he would sign in the American League.

Hypothetically, if you were absolutely positive that Garza was as terrible a hitter as he's shown, it would be a good reason to value him slightly less. The crux of the issue is that sample sizes for pitchers hitting are too small to confidently make projections going forward. This creates a natural tendency towards ignoring them and taking your chances. I've never heard of an example of a pitcher's price being adjusted based on his hitting ability. Perhaps it is being done behind closed doors. There are hundreds of very intelligent people working in front offices who are trying to quantify the value of players with a great deal of precision, so I'm sure it's come up.

In the relatively near future a National League team may invest a great deal of money in multiple years of Matt Garza's pitching. Matt Garza's hitting is unlikely to play much of a role in the negotiations. However, it will play a role, albeit a tiny one, in his overall value going forward if he remains in the National League. In a sport that embraces the details in the pursuit of precision and efficiency, that ought to mean something.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Nick Ashbourne is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.

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