When a player shows an ability to field multiple positions and handle the bat a little bit, the immediate question is almost always the same: Have the (insert team here) found their very own Ben Zobrist in (insert utility player here)?
The answer is almost always no.
Zobrist is an above-average regular who happens to be able to play multiple positions effectively. He’s not your basic platooning, pinch-hitting, defensive replacement. As his 42.3 bWAR over 11 seasons demonstrates, he’s not just another utility guy — he’s THE utility guy.
But still, every new player with versatility will continue to beg the question until we find ourselves a legitimate challenger to Zobrist’s crown. So in that spirit, we must ask — have the Cardinals found their very own Ben Zobrist in Greg Garcia?
Don’t dismiss it out of hand. The 2010 seventh-round pick from the University of Hawaii acquitted himself quite nicely in 2016, posting a .338 wOBA and 111 wRC+ in his 257 plate appearances for St. Louis. If we head on over to the FanGraphs leaderboard and drop the plate appearance requirement to 200, Garcia makes his presence felt in some very important categories.
Garcia plate discipline
It’s immediately clear why Garcia received the honor of “Best Strike-Zone Judgement” for the Pacific Coast League in Baseball America’s 2015 best tools feature, voted on by the league’s managers and coaches. He has a low swing rate, and that patience is combined with a high contact rate, especially on pitches in the strike zone. Not all contact is good — when players hit the ball outside the strike zone, it tends to be weaker. So while his contact percentage on outside pitches is middle-of-the-road compared to the league, Garcia is one of the best in baseball at not swinging at bad pitches. If it’s not in the middle, he’s rarely interested.
It’s a good thing he shows such discipline, too, because Garcia does not hit the ball hard. According to Baseball Savant he averaged an exit velocity of 85.8 MPH, one of the lowest marks in the majors. Statcast doesn’t track every ball put in play — 19 of Garcia’s batted balls don’t show up on Savant — but that omission actually helps his cause, because 18 of those balls were soft infield grounders. Indeed, FanGraphs’s data from Baseball Info Solutions gives Garcia a 23.6 percent hard-hit rate, which ranks him in the ninth percentile.
The good news is that while he doesn’t hit the ball hard with regularity, Garcia does spray the ball all over the field. His 50.3 percent ground ball rate is in the top 20 percent of baseball, making him difficult to shift against.
Greg Garcia 2016 Batted Balls
|2016 BB Types||Pull%||Cent%||Opp%|
|2016 BB Types||Pull%||Cent%||Opp%|
While Garcia — like almost everyone favors the pull side and the center of the field on ground balls, the splits aren’t so drastic that you can play him to pull exclusively. Among the 304 players who hit at least 75 ground balls in 2016, Garcia ranks 12th in baseball with his 22.2 opposite-field rate. On balls hit in the air, he will pull line drives but not fly balls, so as with infielders, positioning outfielders to defend Garcia is not a straightforward task.
Garcia’s ability to use the entire field is one of the main reasons you can’t look at his 2016 BABIP of .346 and immediately declare that he was simply the beneficiary of a lucky year. The soft contact is concerning, though, and part of the counterargument for why his BABIP faces regression in 2017. There’s also the fact that he’s not a burner. In his 2016 Cardinals’ prospect list, then-FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth put a grade of 50 on Garcia’s run tool; his speed is average.
Combine soft contact and average speed with natural regression, and the BABIP will probably not be sustainable at .346, even with Garcia’s all-fields approach. On that note, let’s take a look at what the projections think of him for next year.
Garcia 2016 production vs. 2017 projections
Both Steamer and ZIPS basically agree on what Garcia is, forecasting both his walk rate and BABIP to come down to slightly above league-average levels. They both agree that his demonstrated 2016 power is fully formed, which is to say he has very little and we should expect no progress. All in all, the projections have Garcia as a slightly below-average hitter, about what you’d expect out of a typical utility player.
Where they disagree is Garcia’s playing time, with ZIPS projecting him for more than double the plate appearances Steamer does, and 170 more than his actual 2016 number. He has the ability to play second, third, and shortstop, but will have to share backup duties with Jedd Gyorko, who’s coming off a career year of his own.
Despite the crowded Cardinals infield, Garcia has a path to regular playing time. Jhonny Peralta, the presumptive starter at third, is 34 years old, and it looked like Father Time was starting to take a toll during an injury shortened 2016. Last season, Kolten Wong posted his third straight wRC+ under 100. The Cardinals seem intent on having him be their starting second baseman — or at least in a platoon with Gyorko — but if Garcia’s able to maintain last year’s production, there’s a real chance he could significantly cut into Wong’s playing time.
So, have the Cardinals found their very own Ben Zobrist in Greg Garcia? No. He’s defensively versatile and has tremendous plate discipline, but brings with that very little power or speed. Plus, despite that impressive plate discipline, he strikes out at almost a league-average rate.
Has the team found Zobrist-lite? Probably! Despite the lack of power, there’s still a lot to like about Garcia. If he’s able to continue his 2016 production, it’s conceivable that he starts to see more regular at-bats over the aging Peralta or underwhelming Wong. Keep in mind that the exceptional plate discipline he’s demonstrated has come in just 362 major-league plate appearances; improvements aren’t out of the question, even for a 27-year-old. He may be a utility guy right now, but Garcia is on the cusp of something more.
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Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.