Matt Garza: The Even Bigger Race-Changer

Matt GarzaOn Tuesday over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron shared with us with his latest insights into the developing trade market, arguing that Anibal Sanchez is potentially the biggest-impact acquisition to be made this summer.  Cameron points to his proximity to free agency, as well as the Marlins’ remote playoff odds as the two biggest reasons why they should be entertaining offers for their 27-year old right hander as the deadline approaches.  The above linked article also shines a light on just how good Sanchez has been over the past calendar year (5.1 WAR, 5th best in the NL during that span), while identifying a gradual increase in his velocity as the key to his newfound success. read more about Gazza deal at http://www.rooftop-view.com/why-the-garza-deal-is-no-good/

As per usual, the chief blogger at FanGraphs makes some good points in support of his argument.  Sanchez has quietly become one of the better starters in his league, and the fact he’s also under club control for 2012 makes him that much more desirable, since he wouldn’t be just a rental for the acquiring team.  However, according to the same criteria that led Cameron to glow about Anibal Sanchez, the Cubs’ own Matt Garza actually appears to be an even more valuable commodity.  In all likelihood, Cameron just assumes that Garza isn’t among the players who will hit the market this summer– and he may be right to do so– but if he were to be made available, I don’t think people would be shocked to learn Garza could be an even bigger race-changer than Sanchez.

Ignoring for a moment the logistics of a potential Matt Garza trade, let’s compare these two just in terms of what they’re capable of on the mound.  A quick look at their respective numbers suggests that they’re actually pretty comparable pitchers–Sanchez owns a career 3.57 ERA on the strength of a 4.24 xFIP, compared to 3.98/4.19 for Garza. While both of them have good-not-great career strikeout rates, they’ve always had respectable command of overall quality repertoires.  However, focusing on their career numbers might actually be a little misleading.  For one, Garza spent the past three years in the AL East, while Sanchez has spent his entire career in the NL, pitching his home games in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark.  More importantly though, it just looks like neither of these guys are the same pitcher today that they were a year or two ago.

In making his case for Anibal Sanchez, Cameron suggests that he’s elevated his game to the point where he’s not the same pitcher that he’s been in the past, but Sanchez isn’t alone in that regard.  If you’ve followed the Cubs at all this year, there’s a chance you’ve read or heard all about the “new” Matt Garza, and how he’s a markedly different pitcher today than he was with the Tampa Bay Rays.  Indeed, Garza has taken nicely to the National League, experiencing a huge spike in his strikeout rate this season (9.43 K/9 in 2011, against a career 7.43), while avoiding the struggles keeping the ball in the park that some predicted.  While we can’t point to a spike in his velocity as the reason behind his new level of ability, there’s no doubt that he’s also going about his business quite differently than he has in the past.  In the past, Garza has basically tried to blow a four-seam fastball by every batter he faces, throwing it well over 60% of the time before this year.  These days he’s throwing his four-seamer just 35% of the time while increasing the usage of the rest of his formidable arsenal.  The inferiority of National League lineups undoubtedly has a lot to do with the numbers he’s managed to put up this season, but Garza’s new approach has almost certainly played a hand in his transformation.

Garza and Sanchez appear to have benefitted immensely from the recent changes in their game.  Both of them are posting by-a-mile career best strikeout rates, while maintaining outstanding numbers across the board (both have xFIPs south of 3.00).  Sanchez has a slightly better walk rate, but Garza has the edge in strikeout rate, and while his 4.07 ERA isn’t as pretty as Sanchez’s 2.82, we can chalk the difference up to the Cubs’ little league defense (they currently have the lowest Team Defensive Efficiency, meaning they convert the fewest percentage of balls in play into outs), as well as the fact Garza has managed to strand just 65% of his baserunners (a figure that tends to regress toward ~75%).  The differences in their performance up to this point are practically negligible, but I’d be willing to bet Garza is seen as the superior pitcher within the industry.  For one, whereas Sanchez has only recently begun throwing in the low to mid 90′s, Garza has averaged 93 mph on the fastball for his career, while showing the ability to dial it up to 95+ when he has to. Furthermore, Garza’s history of success pitching in the toughest division in baseball is probably the tiebreaker between these two if you think they need one.  I suppose there might be some Marlins fans who would argue otherwise, but I’m pretty confident in saying that given the choice between the two, a team that targets Garza would be targeting the better pitcher.

But now for some of those logistics I mentioned earlier.  Despite the fact he’s only about three months older, Garza already has more than 800 big league innings under his belt, to Sanchez’s 582, the biggest reason being one of them has a much cleaner bill of the health than the other.  This is a major consideration, since both of these guys are under contract past this season, and the respective likelihoods of these two staying healthy is as big a factor as it would be with any other commitment to a starting pitcher.  His recent stint on the DL not withstanding, Garza is undoubtedly the better bet to stay healthy going forward; Sanchez has had substantial arm issues in the past, while Garza will probably surpass 180 innings for the fourth consecutive season in 2011.  So not only is youth an equally valid point in Garza’s favor, he would be the considerably safer investment of the two.

I’ve already mentioned that both of these guys are under club control past this season, but while Sanchez will be a free agent at the end of 2012, Garza offers two years of club control beyond this one, which may be the biggest reason why he’s the superior asset. It’s true that between now and the end of their respective deals, both of these guys could be in line for contract extensions that would completely change the outlook of their future value, but for now, the additional year of club control for Garza can only be seen as a point in his favor.  Not only could he make an impact on this year’s playoff chase, but he could be a long-term part of the solution for a team that feels like it’s one good starter away from joining the class of its league.

Of course, the extra year also means that Garza would come at a greater cost than Anibal Sanchez, both in terms of the talent needed to acquire him, and the dollar amount necessary to keep him for a few years.  That said, Garza is only marginally more expensive than Sanchez in 2011– by my admittedly rough calculation, he’d only cost another $1MM or so more than Sanchez for the remainder of the year, so his salary would be about as easy to accomodate midseason.  Also, if at the end of this year Sanchez still has a impressive ERA and win-loss record– two things Garza does not have– then it’s quite likely he’ll be the more expensive pitcher in 2012; not only does baseball’s arbitration process award pitchers based on superficial numbers like ERA, but it’ll also be Sanchez’s last trip through arbitration, which means he’s in line for a substantial raise next season.

No matter which angle I look at this from, it just seems like Matt Garza is the more interesting proposition in every regard.  He’s equally young and affordable as Anibal Sanchez, but even more talented and valuable.  And the Cubs are just as far out of playoff contention as the Marlins are, so while putting Garza on the trading block wouldn’t necessarily be the best course of action for them, doing so would be justifiable given their place in the standings.  If I had to bet on it, I’d say Garza isn’t going anywhere–Hendry paid out the ears to pry him away from the Rays, and it appears as though he and the rest of the Cubs’ front office has job security through at least the rest of this season. After that, Garza’s fate could be totally dependent on whether the Ricketts family is serious about keeping Hendry & Co. around past this year.  Regardless of who’s calling the shots for the Cubs in the future, what to do with Garza will be a key question to answer, because at this point he presents a great deal of value to any number of contenders that are in need of pitching, but at the same time could be seen as part of the long term solution to turning this team’s fortunes around.

Don’t count on Matt Garza being dealt this summer.  As long as Jim Hendry is charge, there’s probably just no way that happens.  But the reality is if the Cubs make him available in July, they might be dangling an incredibly valuable trade chip, as well as the single biggest “race-changer” in the game.