Jaime Garcia may only be 28 years old, but he has been through a lot in his career. Since being called up in 2008, he has spent close to half his major league career on the disabled list with a myriad of injuries, all related to his throwing arm. He's had Tommy John surgery (2008), labrum and rotator cuff surgery (2013), and thoracic outlet surgery (2014), becoming one of the few pitchers — if not the only one — to complete the triple crown of arm surgeries. Each of these injuries alone has ended the careers of countless pitchers, but Jaime Garcia has survived all three.
When healthy, Garcia has been very good, as he has posted a career FIP- of 88 in 645 2/3 innings. Unfortunately, his health has been a huge question mark, especially in the last couple of years. Garcia pitched a total of 99 innings in 2013 and 2014 combined, and he started 2015 on the disabled list before being activated on May 21st. Garcia's injury past is so bad that the Cardinals effectively planned their starting rotation around not having him, choosing to see any contribution from him this year as a bonus. In Spring Training, Garcia was seen as an afterthought in the fifth starter competition, as manager Mike Matheny referred to him as the "Oh, and..." pitcher.
After nearly winning the fifth starter competition out of Spring Training before having a small setback, Garcia has indeed made his way back to the major leagues once again, filling the rotation spot of the injured Adam Wainwright. And while he has only made six starts so far in 2015, he is arguably pitching the best baseball of his career. His ERA (1.76), FIP (2.89), and ground ball rate (66.1 percent) would be career bests, and his xFIP (3.04) is only topped by his 2.94 mark from last year, which he put together in just over 40 innings. In addition, he has a miniscule 4.6 percent walk rate, despite walking five batters in his first start after coming off the DL. (His walk rate is down to 1.6 percent since that start.)
In addition to providing quality innings for the Cardinals, Garcia has provided a high quantity of innings pitched, doing a great job of filling the innings gap left by the Wainwright injury. Early in his career, Garcia struggled with efficiency, often failing to make it through six innings. He averaged 5.8 innings per start in 2010 before settling in at around 6.1 innings per start each year from 2011-2014. This year, he has completed at least six innings in every start, going seven innings three times and eight innings once. He has thrown a much lower number of pitches per inning, likely because of his low walk rate and high ground ball rate.
Garcia has improved his efficiency throughout his career, but his 13.6 pitches per inning so far in 2015 is incredible. To put this number in perspective, Max Scherzer is averaging 14.2 pitches per inning in 2015, the best number in baseball among qualified starters. For a pitcher who has been through as many injuries as Garcia has, throwing fewer pitches per inning can only help in avoiding future injuries.
One of the most encouraging signs from Garcia this year is his increase in velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, Garcia is throwing his fastballs harder than he has at any point in his career, with his fourseam fastball averaging 91.4 mph and his sinker averaging 91.6 mph.
Garcia is also getting more horizontal movement on his pitches, especially with his two fastballs and his changeup. In addition, his two breaking pitches (curveball and slider) have good movement in the opposite direction, creating a wide horizontal gap between his different pitches.
And despite throwing most of his pitches harder in 2015 than in previous years, Garcia is generating more vertical drop on his pitches, especially his fourseam, sinker, and changeup. His fourseam and sinker have an additional two inches of drop over last season, and he has added nearly four inches of drop on his changeup. This increased movement may explain why Garcia has generated a 66.1 percent ground ball rate so far this season.
By mixing five different pitches with distinct movements and velocities, Garcia has been able to effectively keep hitters off balance in 2015. From an injury standpoint, it is certainly encouraging to see Garcia throwing harder and with more movement. When pitchers returning from injury say that they are looking for "life" on their pitches, they are usually talking about velocity and movement, and so far in 2015, Garcia has shown more velocity and movement on his pitches than any other point in his career.
The plate discipline numbers against Garcia also tell an interesting story.
Garcia is throwing more pitches in the strike zone than ever before. His 51.7 Zone% is five percentage points higher than his career average, and it ranks sixth among all pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings this year. In addition to throwing a lot of pitches in the strike zone, Garcia is generating a higher rate of contact than ever before. While this is normally a trend that pitchers should try to avoid, almost all of the increase in his contact rate has been from contact on pitches outside the strike zone. Typically, less damage is done on pitches outside the strike zone, which explains why Garcia's increased contact rate hasn't hurt him so far this season.
So will Garcia be able to keep this up? If we're talking about his 1.76 ERA, then probably not. Even if he pitched closer to his FIP (2.89) and xFIP (3.04), I'm sure that Cardinals fans would be pleased. The real issue is whether or not Garcia will be able to stay healthy for the rest of the season. He made nine starts in 2013 and seven starts in 2014 before each season was ended prematurely due to injury. He has not had a stretch of more than eleven uninterrupted starts since 2011. Garcia has now made six starts, so it would not be surprising to see him hit a wall at some point in the near future and go down with yet another injury.
With that being said, there are still some encouraging signs. The increased velocity and movement on his pitches could mean that he is healthier than he has been in years. His command is also noticeably better than ever before, suggesting that he isn't having to fight through an injury to put the ball where he wants it. Yes, past pitching injuries are the biggest indicator of future injuries, and Garcia will always be an injury risk. It would be foolish for any team to count on him to stay healthy for an entire season. Still, he has battled through injury after injury to make it back to where he is now, so no matter what he does from this point forward, he has already exceeded expectations.
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