The Real Matt Garza

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A little over a week ago, chatter linking Matt Garza to the Detroit Tigers began. I, as many others, blew it off as highly unlikely at first. Monday night, however, Garza was thrown to the forefront of Tiger fans’ minds once again as David Kaplan with CSNChicago.com reported that Detroit was “down the road” in conversation about Garza with his current club, the Chicago Cubs. Kaplan later elaborated by saying that the “talks have progressed far beyond the initial stages.” As vague as that statement is, I’m now–maybe regrettably–buying that this could be for real.

The fan reaction to this news has been somewhat varied. Many have scoffed at the price estimated for Garza, which is said to be similar to the ridiculous package that the Oakland Athletics returned for Gio Gonzalez. Still others believe the addition of the hard-throwing right-hander to a rotation that features young studs Justin Verlander and Doug Fister would push the club over the top.

Most interesting from my perspective, though, is the debate over what kind of pitcher Garza really is price aside. Two separate camps regard him as either undervalued or severely overrated, while few seem to reside in the middle ground. Whether Garza is the ace we saw this past season or the good-but-pedestrian pitcher we saw before is a critical question.

Let’s recap. Back in 2005, the Minnesota Twins drafted Garza 25th overall in the amateur draft. After throwing just 133 major league innings over a couple partial seasons for his first club, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in a six-player deal that brought Delmon Young to Minneapolis. For the next three years, he was quietly solid playing second fiddle to James Shields, Scott Kazmir, and David Price among others.

Through 2010, his ERA was a mediocre 3.97 and his WHIP an equally boring 1.315. He had never posted a FIP or xFIP under 4.14 for a season and had accumulated just 7.8 Baseball-Reference and 9.7 FanGraphs WAR.

His most recent season was a different story. He posted career-bests almost across the board and was one of few bright spots for his new club, a laughably dim rendition of the Cubs. His 2.95 FIP was eighth among qualified pitchers (better than Justin Verlander’s 2.99) and rightfully turned quite a few heads. What changed?

First, of course, his league and home ballpark. Wrigley Field was certainly friendly to Garza, but not more so than Tropicana Field was for three years prior. According to ESPN’s MLB Park Factor metric, Tropicana was actually the second-most pitcher-friendly stadium in the league in 2011. Meanwhile, it’s hard to count throwing in the National League against a guy who was largely solid in an extended period of time in the American League East.

No, it wasn’t circumstantial changes that made Garza what he was last year. Rather, his time in Chicago has seen him essentially reinvent himself as a pitcher. Before, he relied almost exclusively on his fastball, going to the pitch over 70% of the time. The new Garza, though, puts much more stock in his complementary arsenal, specifically a good slider, and now goes to his hard fastball only around half the time. In addition to the slider, he mixes in a changeup and a curve with some regularity. The results, of course, have been tremendous; a pitcher who previously tried to blow by hitters by pouring in high, heavy fastballs nearly all the time and hoping to convert fly balls into outs became far more refined. He posted a groundball rate of 46.3%, above the league average, a K/9 of 8.95, a single tenth of a point behind Justin Verlander, and all with a BB/9 2.86 that lowered his career average.

Josh Weinstock of FanGraphs, more qualified than I to analyze a pitcher, wrote on Garza back in November and also decided to attribute Garza’s positive change to pitch selection. He supports the theory with some fancy charts, so I encourage you to read his piece when you’re finished here.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s not much reason to expect Garza to regress after his fantastic 2011 campaign. His BABIP was actually up to .306 off of his career .290, so it may even be reasonable to expect him to improve on it. Put an offense behind him like the one the Tigers will field this coming season and cool things will happen.

He’s young, consistent, and coming into his prime. Other than the fact that Detroit could use a left-handed pitcher to insert into their unbalanced staff, I don’t see much to dislike about Garza. To me, he’s a better option than Gio Gonzalez would have been despite his handedness.

It’s all about the price tag. In addition to Jacob Turner or Rick Porcello and probably another highly regarded prospect, Garza will cost somewhere around $9 million through arbitration this year. He’s set to become a free agent after just two seasons. Is the immediate improvement he would provide the Tigers worth it considering all that? It’s a tough question, but one general manager Dave Dombrowski seems willing to explore, at least more extensively than the average fan who seems to dismiss Garza so casually.

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Tags: Chicago Cubs Detroit Tigers Gio Gonzalez Jacob Turner Matt Garza Rick Porcello

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