Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia has never thrown 200 innings. He’s had three major surgeries. He’s now 29 and was an afterthought going into the season, not mentioned at all in some team previews, and viewed as a bonus if he ever got healthy.
It’s been a tough time, and even the pitcher admits as much: “I’ve been through so much, with so many injuries, and it’s been tough,” he told me before a game against the Giants.
Is there a chance, though, that he’s come out of all of this improved as a pitcher? He’s currently showing the best ground-ball rate of his career, a number that would make him second in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and he’s slated to pitch a big September game against the second-place Pirates this weekend.
He credits the struggle to get here as a learning process that taught him more about his mechanics, his stuff, and his approach.
Gradually, perhaps due to pain in the elbow (he had Tommy John surgery in 2008), and the shoulder (labrum surgery in 2013 and thoracic outlet surgery this past offseason), Garcia picked up some bad mechanics along the way. “I created so many bad habits, a lot of things I was doing unintentionally, didn’t even know I was doing them,” Garcia said. “I got away from what made me successful and made me what I was, and you need to find that and stick to it.”
In an effort to find a healthier way forward, Garcia went on the road. He went to Houston to work with his original coaches. He went to Boston to meet with a team there. He met with pitching mechanics guru Tom House, who “corrected some stuff with my mechanics.”
Though Tom House has his detractors, that’s fine with Garcia. He doesn’t subscribe wholly to one viewpoint. “You have to know your own body,” Garcia said. “I’m not doing 100% what he told me, I’m finding a little bit of everything. My arm, even though I’m healthy has been through so much, my arm is always going to have aches and pains, and you have to adapt to what you have.”
The full story is a complicated one, but there is a synopsis. “The biggest thing is finding a good arm angle and staying closed,” is how the pitcher would summarize. To that effort, Garcia arrested a decline in his arm angle, and even brought it up an inch or two from its lowest point.
And it looks like he’s keeping his shoulder more closed longer, too. If you take particular notice of where his throwing arm and shoulder are when his front foot lands, you’ll see a stark difference between his delivery in 2012 and this year.
“My mechanics are so different than they used to be,” said Garcia, and it’s hard to argue when you him drag that arm less after his front foot fall. Given how badly his health outcomes have been with the old mechanics, we’d have to call this an improvement.
“Coming through the system with the Cardinals, it’s always been about weak grounders,” admitted Garcia. But his belief in that mantra has only been strengthened through injury.
“My philosophy is just to get quick outs,” Garcia said. Per ESPN STATS & Info, he’s averaged 3.61 pitches per batter faced for his career, and the league average is 3.82. Over your typical 200 inning season, that could save over 300 pitches.
This is additionally impressive considering that Garcia currently has four above-average pitches by whiff rates, and one of the most balanced arsenals in the game. He could easily use these weapons for more strikeouts. “Strikeouts look cool, but they are going to make you throw a lot of pitches,” he pointed out.
“The goal and the purpose of the movement is so you can miss the good part of the barrel,” he continued. “That’s when you create weak grounders and weak pop-ups, I’ll take that any time over a strikeout.” Not only is Garcia showing his best grounder rate of his career, but according to ESPN STATS & Info, his well-hit average right now (.106) is more than half of what it was last year (.234) and significantly better than what it has been for his career (.181).
One of the ways that Garcia achieves these grounders is by having an array of fastballs. “I do different things with them,” Garcia said of his hard stuff. “A four-seamer that sometimes cuts and I can make it move a little bit, and the same thing with the sinker, some move a little bit more than others.”
Garcia’s sinker is averaging more horizontal movement than it ever has this year. So is his four-seamer. He’s throwing the fastballs more than ever, too.
But it’s when you look at a graph of the movement and velocities of his fastballs that you get the best sense of how dizzying those fastballs are. This year alone, he’s thrown fastballs that have differed 19 inches horizontally, 21 inches vertically, and 14 mph in speed.
Even if that clump at the bottom is actually a group of sliders, and even if we’re looking at mostly just three fastballs, the spread of movement is remarkable. Take a look at Clayton Kershaw’s fastball spread for contrast. “Sometimes it’s arm angles, sometimes it’s little things you do, sometimes it’s the grip,” smiled Garcia, while also crediting Yadier Molina for being ready to catch the fastball no matter how it moves.
Not *everything* is better than it once was, though. You can see that Garcia’s slider has changed. It’s a mile per hour slower than it once was, and it drops two more inches.
Garcia admits it’s not where he would like it. “I feel like the slider is one of the pitches that has always been my pitch, and right now it hasn’t been where it could be. This last offseason I was recovering from a major injury and I didn’t spend a lot of time on working things like that. At the same time, there’s no excuses,” he told me.
He’d like to make it a harder slider, almost like a cutter. “The goal is to make it look like a fastball until it gets to the plate with a late break,” he said. The bad news is, it’s getting slower, all the way down from 84-85 mph to 81-82 in his last game.
The good news is that Garcia has confidence. “It’s coming back,” he affirmed. “Sometimes the more you try to make it better, the worse it gets. You battle with what you have, and between starts you find little things, whether it’s the grip or something you’re doing with your arm, and you work on it. It’s coming along, and it should be getting better.”
Not everything is better after the battles Garcia has been through. His slider isn’t the same, and even his body will never be completely right again. “My arm, even though I’m healthy has been through so much, my arm is always going to have aches and pains, and you have to adapt to what you have,” shrugged the pitcher.
And adapt he has. By improving his mechanics and learning how to use his fastball like an extra four or five pitches, he’s hoping to make his next five years healthier than the last five years. “After everything I’ve gone through, three surgeries, I’m healthy and battling,” is how he put it, and maybe there isn’t a better way to say it.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.