The Chicago White Sox aren’t good. This is by design as part of a broader plan of course, but it’s hard to find a lot to be excited about with the big club right now. Down on the farm there’s hope, and maybe some of the prospects and young guys like Yoan Moncada or Bruce Rondon or Reynoldo Lopez already in Chicago give a glimpse at a future, but there's not a lot that’s real there right now.
Then there is Avisail Garcia. Once known as “Mini Miggy”, he came to the White Sox in 2014 and has been pretty subpar since. Whether injury, bad defense or a poor bat, he’s just never achieved the potential that surrounded him. But this year might be different, Avi Garcia might actually be good.
I’ve avoided writing this article for about two months. Being an avid Cleveland Indians watcher, I’ve seen a lot of Garcia. He’s consistently not lived up to expectations. When a guy who has just muddled around with an 89 wRC+ and never seemed to be able to draw a walk (6.2 percent career walk rate prior to this year)while striking out a lot (23.1 percent career) without much power, it was hard to believe in him. So when he posted a 125 wRC+ through the All-Star Break, I took every effort to find ways to discount it. Maybe point to the .371 BABIP through the break, or the ground ball rate over 50 percent, which generally isn’t ideal to high impact offense. Or the middling power output maybe. He’s still only at 16 home runs this year, in an era where everyone hits them all the time. Yes, there was some grasping at straws, but that BABIP in particular was a bit scary. But he just kept hitting.
At this writing, Garcia is producing at a 130 wRC+ clip, working with a .321/.370/.497 slash line. He’s earned 3.0 fWAR and 3.5 rWAR this season, bringing his career total to 1.8 fWAR and 3.6 rWAR. Either way, he was very poor at baseball prior to this year. So what’s different? Aside from the looming spectre of that .384 BABIP of course. Which isn’t necessarily a death knell, but we’ll get to that. Anyhow, take a look:
Avisail Garcia Batted Ball
He’s definitely not swinging and missing as much, and seems to be a bit more composed at the plate. He’s still not walking very much, in fact the 5.4 percent rate is the lowest of his career. He’s also plowing more contact into fly balls, which could help with the extra-base potential, even if the liners have suffered some. But as for the composure at the plate, he’s more aggressive in the zone, and he’s stopped swinging at the high fastball specifically:
Which has also helped with the whiff rate on those pitches:
That’s huge. He’s not as able to be tantalized by a basically unhittable pitch that will almost inevitably end in a K or a weak grounder, which lets him hit around the rest of the zone better as well. He’s looking down in the zone more, and it’s working, for now.
Now for that BABIP that could prove to be his doom. It’s generally a harbinger of regression, that Garcia’s stats will suffer when the ball stops finding grass. But it’s not always the case. Since 2000, there have been 122 player-seasons where a guy had a BABIP over .360. If we throw out every Colorado Rockies season because that's an insane place, we still have 107.
This includes seasons from guys ranging from Chris Johnson's 2013 ruse to Odubel Herrera's rookie year (which is proving to be no farce), along with four Mike Trouts, five Joey Vottos, four Joe Mauers, and of course Jason Bartlett in 2009. All this to say, there's not a lot one can glean from simply a BABIP. The names that are recognizable for super-stardom though, They do at least one of a couple things well. Mauer hits the ball to all fields and hits it on the ground a lot(53 percent grounder rate the last three years). Votto has a career 25.1 percent line drive rate. Mike Trout is selective and hits balls hard consistently, being 17th in barreled balls per plate appearance. Not to distill his greatness down to a sentence or anything. Bartlett that one year had a 27 percent line drive rate, seven points higher than his career average. High grounder rates help, liners help, and hard hit balls help.
So what do we make of any of this? Garcia doesn't have the seemingly vital 25+ percent line drive rate that so many players with high BABIPs in the past. If anything he’s edging in the wrong direction. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Grounders turn into hits more than fly balls, just not as much as line drives. The walk rate is still a problem, but not as much as one might think. If anything, his batting profile reminds me a bit of Michael Brantley just before he broke out:
2017 Garcia vs. 2013 Brantley
The strikeouts are far, far more intense in Garcia's case, because Brantley has always had a preternatural bat-to-ball ability. If anything, they’re both so groundball heavy that the K’s play in Garcia’s favor - less double play chances. Brantley has always lived on the groundball/line drive. it was only when he shaved down on the grounders in 2014 (and gained Dad Strength after having a kid that winter) and hit more fly balls that he had the power boost and the MVP voting. Garcia is 26 years old, still approaching his physical prime despite being around for seemingly ever. And he does do one thing better than a lot of guys that can help with a high BABIP and just good batting in general. He hits the ball hard.
Among batters with at least 100 batted ball events this year, Garcia ranks 40th with an 89.8 mph exit velo. That’s just neck-and-neck with vaunted giant ox-man Chris Davis, ahead of Kyle Schwarber and Daniel Murphy, and even newly-minted slugger Francisco Lindor (88.6 mph). He just needs a launch angle tweak. Not everyone is eligible for the fly ball revolution, but all the markers are there for Garcia to take advantage of hitting it in the air. His physical tools are too good not to do something with them. Either that, or he becomes a right-handed Brantley, which is nice too.
He’s doing things better than he has, and he’s on the right track. Growth isn’t linear, and this year looks something like a leap. There may be a fade back next season, but I don’t expect him to be near-replacement level anymore. He’s not a great player, but he’s taking steps toward something special. Five tool talents are rare. Garcia probably isn’t one, but he has so many of them and is approaching his prime, this is not a hard conclusion to leap towards. The White Sox might have gotten lucky just by being patient.
Merritt Rohlfing writes vociferously for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, while podcasting at the incredible Mostly Baseball. He can be found and followed on Twitter at @merrittrohlfing.