Last week, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that the Yankees appear more and more likely to acquire a starting pitcher at this years trade deadline and that Brian Cashman preferes Chicago Cubs right-handed starting pitcher Matt Garza over the field of trade candidates. Pleased with Matt Garza’s American League East pedigree, and concerned with the likes of Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Ryan Dempster making that transition, Yankee executives appear to have placed Garza near the top of their target list.
There is certainly a case for preferring Garza over similarly gifted pitchers. The 28-year-old has always had exceptional stuff going back to his days as a top prospect in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system and through his early career in Tampa Bay. In four full seasons as a Major League starting pitcher, three in the American League East, Garza has pitched to a 3.72 ERA. Early career success aside, 2011 was really a watershed for Garza. His FIP, previously hovering well above 4.00 for most of his Major League career, dropped to 2.95. He struck out nearly a batter an inning and allowed just 0.64 home runs per nine innings. In 31 starts, Garza pitched to a 3.32 ERA – a career best.
Matt Garza was a different, better pitcher last season and anyone acquiring him in light of his 2011 success will pay for – and expect – similar success going forward. Garza is not an ace and will not sell like an ace. But neither will he sell like a third starter, a middled-aged pitcher capable of an ERA in the high 3s but nothing much better. Garza was overvalued heading to Chicago. The Cubs paid for a better pitcher than the pitcher we saw in Tampa Bay, as good as that guy was. If the Yankees were to take Garza off the Cubs hands this summer, they’d likely pay even more than that. Can we really be convinced that Garza has finally taken, once and for all, the steps needed to reach his potential?
In 10 starts this season, Matt Garza has a 4.10 ERA and 4.09 FIP, a far cry from the lowest figures of his career posted in 2011. Though certainly among his better early-season starts, Garza’s peripheral numbers are little better than they were back in 2009, when Garza went 8-12 with a 3.95 ERA for the Rays. Much of this is due to a high HR/FB ratio and that will likely correct itself. In truth, Garza is pitching better than he did in Tampa, but not nearly as well as he pitched last season. The difference lies in his ability to induce strikeouts. Last season, Garza threw his fastball dramatically less often, but more effectively, setting up his mid-90s heat with a mid-80s changeup and mowing batters down with a devastating slider. The changeup is back to pre-2011 levels now, the fastball and slider less effective. His swinging strike rate, which peaked at 11.2% last season, is down to 9.6% on the year. Batters, even in the NL Central, are making contact off his pitches more often. Half the progress he made in that department last season is not there in 2012.
Garza’s peripherals have always been inconsistent. The jumps we saw last season were dramatic, but no doubt aided by the league and division change Garza experienced, and to see some regression back to career levels is no surprise. We need go back not more than two years to see similar skill and performance growth prove unsustainable for this very same pitcher. After his strikeout rate sharply increased in 2009, from 6.24 to 8.38, and his xFIP saw a similar improvement, Garza struck out just 6.60 batters per nine in 2010. His xFIP shot back up to 4.31 from 4.14. At 26, much of his 2009 growth was gone and the Rays were willing to part with their gifted young starter.
If we are to believe Garza’s results from last season, we must recognize that many of the adjustments and improvements Garza made last season are missing this season, at 189 innings is not the end-all, be-all sample size of statistical analysis anyway, that Garza is quite inconsistent and that the difference between the Garza of 2007-2010 and the Garza of 2011 largely a matter of AL East vs. NL Central. If Garza’s progress last season was mostly the result of a league change, then we should not expect much of this progress to carry over in a switch back to the American League East. And while Garza was a solid pitcher in Tampa he was much the product of his surroundings. Pitching to a 3.7-4.0 ERA in front of the leagues best defenses is one thing. A similarly skilled pitcher in Yankee Stadium, in front of an old defense and an inconsistent outfield, is not going to have the same kind of success.
The Yankees may very well need to acquire a starting pitcher at the deadline and Garza is a good pitcher coming off an excellent season with AL East experience. That much is true. Expectations, nevertheless, need to be kept in check. Garza’s 2011 season so far appears to be the high watermark and his success in Tampa was in part the product of an excellent defense. Garza is a pitcher with a career xFIP above four who has pitched dramatically better in the National League. A good third starter? Sure. A top of the rotation anchor? I’m not sold.