After grabbing two-sport star Amir Garrett in the 22nd round of the 2011 MLB Draft, the Reds knew they had a developmental project on their hands. After transferring high schools for basketball his senior year, Garrett didn’t baseball. But after throwing 96 MPH right in front of scouts before the draft, the Reds thought enough of him to give him a $1 million signing bonus, even agreeing to let him continue his basketball career to the college level.
Garrett was raw and he also had his attention partially tied up to another sport. In his debut professional season in 2012, he struggled in the 20 innings he threw, particularly with control. After returning to short-season ball in 2013, where he started to get on a roll, he was promoted to Low-A, where he proceeded to pitch to a 6.88 ERA in 34 innings, walking 16 and only striking out 15. You wouldn’t have been crazy to think this project might be coming to an end.
The Reds held on though. Garrett reappeared in Low-A in 2014, where he looked better across 27 starts (3.65 ERA, 3.87 FIP). Garrett’s stock started to pick up and it was moving faster than ever. He then went on to dominate his way up the rest of the minor league ladder in the coming years, making him considered one of the better starting pitching prospects in all of baseball.
Garrett made the opening rotation for the Reds in 2017. After some early success, major league hitters started to pick apart his command and he fell apart, posting both an ERA and FIP of 7.39. Among 189 starters with at least 50 innings that season, his FIP ranked... 189th. Things didn’t get easier for him in his return to Triple-A too, as his 5.72 ERA in 67 2⁄3 innings suggested maybe things were starting to fall apart for him as a starter.
Throughout his time in the minors, Garrett sat mid-90s with his fastball, a large part of the reason he was so enticing. In 2017, his velocity had fell closer to low-90s, giving nothing to be excited about. It looked like in order for him to be effective again, he’d need a move to the bulllpen, which is exactly what happened in Spring Training of 2018. After an encouraging performance in Arizona, he returned to the majors, working as a middle-reliever for the Reds.
During 2018, Garrett showed flashes of potential and his fastball velocity was back up the mid-90s, but the end result was nothing to get excited about. Garrett turned in a serviceable, but not great season, appearing in 66 games and ranking 80th out of 151 qualified relievers in fWAR.
Both the Reds and Garrett were hoping to see improvement this season. And they received just that and nothing else. His strikeout-rate is up nearly 10 percentage points. His ground ball-rate has risen from 38 percent to 50 percent. He’s getting more whiffs and he’s getting more whiffs outside the zone. All this adds up to a 1.69 ERA and 2.66 FIP in 26 2⁄3 innings. He’s already surpassed last season’s fWAR in less than half the time.
As for the Statcast numbers, his exit velocity against is down one mile per hour, his barrel-rate has been cut in half, his launch angle against is down 9.2 degrees from 14.7 to 5.5. He currently holds a lowly .257 xwOBA.
What’s even more positive is that Garrett is getting better. Since the beginning of May, he’s put up a 1.93 ERA and 2.00 FIP in 14 innings, mostly a product of him striking out a ridiculous 41.7 percent of batters. His fastball velocity has also climbed to 96 miles per hour. More recently, Garrett has been one of the better relievers in all of baseball.
So what’s been driving this positive change?
The most obvious change in Garrett’s game has been his pitch usage. His four-seamer usage has taken a big hit, as he’s now relying on a more sinking two-seam fastball to get him ground balls. He’s ditched his rarely used changeup all together and is also throwing his slider a lot more.
The increase in slider usage is the interesting part here. Last season it was clearly his best pitch, producing a .179 xwOBA against with a 52.3 percent strikeout-rate. He saved it though, only throwing it a third of the time. In 2019, he’s thrown it 53.9 percent of the time, garnering the same results. Out of 341 pitchers with at least 20 innings this year, only 10 have thrown their slider at a higher rate than Garrett. And about him getting better as the season has gone on? Well that coincides right with his slider usage, as since the beginning of May he’s thrown the offering 62.1 percent of the time. Out of 371 pitchers with at least 10 innings in that time, only one, Matt Wisler, has thrown it at a higher rate.
Amir Garrett has gotten better just by throwing his best stuff more often. Not all the time is it as simple as that, as conventional wisdom doesn’t necessarily apply here, but for Garrett it has. And when he’s not throwing it, he’s throwing mid-90s sink towards hitters. All together, he has the makings of a really great reliever.