Rooftop Resume: What to make of Matt Garza thus far

I’ll keep this part brief…

This is my first post here in some time– something like a month or so. I wish that wasn’t the case, but unfortunately the first month of baseball season coincided with the last month of my college career, so I hope anyone who was keeping up with Rooftop View understands that I had to prioritize; graduating from college has meant a little more to me these past few weeks than blogging about a mediocre baseball team.  It’s a shame I had to let up after gaining some momentum here, but I expect to pick up the pace again, starting now.  If you were a reader before I took off April, I hope you’ll continue to check this place out occasionally.  There are a lot of reasons I’m glad to be done with school for awhile, and one of them is that I’ll finally be able to focus on Cubs baseball.learn more about Forget Vazquez by clicking here

I usually don’t rely on any television broadcast for my stats-fix, but yesterday the WGN crew informed me of something I doubt I would have learned anywhere else.  Before giving up a three-run homer to Jay Bruce in the fourth inning, Matt Garza set a franchise record by recording his 55th strikeout before surrendering his first home run of the season (fittingly, Bruce homered in the same half inning WGN made the announcement with an accompanying graphic).  Who, you may be wondering, did Garza surpass in setting the record?  That would be Mark Prior (2003 version).  And who did Prior pass when he set the record?  You may have guessed it: Kerry Wood.

The record itself may not be all that significant, but I do find it an interesting achievement, if for no other reason than the company Garza now finds himself in.  Before he got hurt, Prior could miss bats with the absolute best of them, and I don’t think anyone needs a reminder of what Woody was capable of back when he was a starter.  As brief as they may have been, at their respective peaks, both of these guys were better than Matt Garza, and it isn’t a stretch to say they were among the very best pitchers in baseball.

Matt Garza

When Hendry made the big trade that brought him to Chicago, I was among the countless people who pointed to Garza’s middling peripheral numbers in arguing that he had just paid a king’s ransom for a number three starter.  However, just seven starts into his Cubs career, apparently it may be time to rethink what kind of pitcher this team went out and got this offseason.

Garza recorded seven more strikeouts in his six innings of work yesterday, and is striking out better than 11.5 batters per nine innings so far in 2011.  Entering this season, his previous career best K/9 rate was 8.38, which he posted back in 2009 with the Rays. Even more encouraging: it’s really no mystery how he’s getting it done.  A quick peak at his PitchFX profile reveals that he’s going about his business in a completely different fashion this year.  This is old news really, but in case you don’t have it duly noted, Matt Garza really is a different pitcher this year.

He’s also issued just 13 walks in 44.2 innings pitched (just 2.65 BB/9), and as previously noted, the homer he allowed yesterday was his first of 2011. Now, some would probably argue that it’s too early in the season to try and make any concrete judgements of Garza’s performance, but in some regards, that really just isn’t true.

Yesterday at FanGraphs, Steve Slowinski, the curator of the FanGraph’s Saber Library, had a nice post about what he calls “stabilizing” statistics.  The concept of “stabilizing” stats is pretty simple– at a certain threshold of either plate appearances (for hitters) or batters faced (for pitchers) a number will stabilize such that it can be taken at close to face value.  For instance– a pitcher’s strikeout rate is believed to become mostly stable after 150 batters faced.  Garza has now faced just under 200 batters, and was already past the 150 threshold before his start yesterday.  So as crazy as his 11.69 K/9 rate is, there’s actually good reason to believe he’s established a new level of swing-and-miss ability (11.5 SwStr% this year, compared to 8.2% for his career).  This doesn’t mean he’s a guarantee to whiff better than 11 batters per nine this year, but it’s probably safe to say he’ll exceed his previous career best strikeout rate, perhaps by a wide margin.  Gotta love the National League if you’re a pitcher, no?

This is actually a pretty huge development.  In March, I had this to say about Garza:

Maybe it’s something that’ll be a gradual process.  In reality though, it’s more important that we see him start to miss some more bats now that he’s in the NL.  Especially given the question marks this team has on defense, it’ll be key in the near term for Garza to rediscover some of the strikeout stuff he had back in 2009.  If the groundballs come eventually, that’ll be nice, but he’ll never be the guy the Cubs think he can be if he doesn’t pick up his strikeout rate.

That’s another thing we should not overlook– the fact that Garza’s groundball rate has also taken a huge spike this year– over 50% of his batted balls, compared to a career GB% of roughly 40%– is another really encouraging development, and it’s worth noting that GB% also stabilizes at 150 batters faced.  Among the biggest concerns with Garza coming into this year were his pronounced flyball tendencies, which were thought to be potentially problematic now that he’s pitching his home games at Wrigley Field.  Garza has almost certainly been a little lucky in allowing just one home run thus far, but if the increased GB% is any indication, he’ll probably continue to do a good job keeping the ball in the park, which obviously bodes quite well for his future in a good hitter’s park.

All these positive steps help explain why Garza currently has a superhuman 1.58 FIP, but there are undoubtedly some who are much more concerned with his mediocre 4.43 ERA, and 1-4 win-loss record. It’s as simple as this– Garza has stranded just 59.4% of his baserunners, and he’s allowed a .388 ball-in-play average.  Pitchers just don’t have very much control over either of those figures, so it’s actually fair to chalk up some of his poor results to plain-old bad luck. That LOB% will start to regress toward 75%, and his BABIP will being to retreat back toward .300, and when this happens, we ought to see him get his ERA comfortably under 4.00, hopefully for the remainder of the season.

And no one cares about win-loss records.  Or should.

This much must be noted though– Garza has allowed a healthy 23.3% of his batted balls to go for line drives, which explains in part his super-inflated .388 BABIP.  So it probably isn’t fair to say his weak ERA is totally thanks to bad luck.  He’s the sort of pitcher who pounds the strike zone with a ton of consistency, and perhaps partly as a result, he’s allowed a lot of hard contact this year.  That said, Garza has most certainly been better than his ugly 4.43 ERA suggests.

At this point, it’s simply a matter of how much better he is than that number, but that’s kind of a tough question to answer at the moment. Some of his peripheral numbers seem to point to a guy who’s ready to take his place among the elite pitchers in the game, but the early results would have us temper those expectations.  I think most people understand there’s probably no way Garza sustains these kind of peripherals, but coming from a guy who’s been pretty critical of the Garza deal since the moment it became official, I think everyone would agree he’s a lot better than a ~4.50 ERA pitcher in the National League.

Again, coming from someone who wasn’t ever thrilled about his acquisition, given the choice between being concerned over his high ERA, or encouraged by his drastically improved K/9 and GB%, I’ll most definitely take the latter.