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Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Half-full, half-empty: Matt Garza

By David Schoenfield

Matt Garza
Matt Garza was 4-5 with a 4.38 ERA in 13 starts after being acquired by the Rangers in late July.
Let's do another half-full, half-empty, this time with pitcher Matt Garza. The soon-to-be 30-year-old right-hander is particularly attractive because, unlike Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, he isn't tied to losing a draft pick if you sign him (players traded in the final year of their contract can't be given a qualifying offer). So even if Jimenez and Santana are regarded as superior pitchers, Garza is likely to receive a contract with more total value.

Half-full

The positives with Garza start with his stuff. He throws a moving two-seamer and averaged 93.0 mph on his fastball, cranking it up to 96 when he throws a four-seamer. He has a wipeout slider that opponents hit just .163 against, as well as a curveball and changeup, although he dumped the changeup for the most part in 2013, throwing it only 99 times in 24 starts.

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The whole package leads to pretty good swing-and-miss results. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings, Garza's strikeout rate of 20.9 percent in 2013 ranked 34th out of 96 pitchers, better than guys such as Zack Greinke, John Lackey, James Shields and David Price. Over the past three seasons, his strikeout rate is even a tick higher, at 22.4 percent. His control is more good than great, averaging 2.7 walks per nine innings over those three seasons, although that number improved a bit in 2013 to 2.4 walks per nine, leading to the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career.

Garza also has been consistent, posting an ERA under 4.00 each full season of his career. He did have a minor elbow issue in 2012 and a lat strain in 2013 that caused him to miss time, but neither injury is viewed as a concern.

One tantalizing comparison is Anibal Sanchez, who hit free agency last year in his age-29 season. Like Garza, Sanchez was always a pitcher with excellent stuff who had never quite put it all together. From 2009 to 2012, he had a 3.72 ERA, similar to Garza's 3.76 mark since 2008. With the Tigers in 2013, everything clicked for Sanchez and he led the AL with a 2.54 ERA.

Another comparable is A.J. Burnett, another pitcher with outstanding stuff who never quite put everything together because of command issues. I'm thinking of the Burnett of the past couple of seasons with the Pirates, away from the pressures of New York. But don't forget in 2009 with the Yankees, Burnett posted a career-best 4.4 WAR. Garza's career-high WAR is 3.5, with Tampa Bay in 2009, but like Burnett I wouldn't be surprised if he has his best seasons in his 30s.

A year ago, Sanchez received a five-year, $80 million deal from the Tigers. At the time, his career record was 48-51 with a 3.75 ERA. Garza is 67-67 with a 3.84 ERA. Don't be shocked when Garza receives a similar deal.

Half-empty

Here's the thing about Garza: A lot of people still remember that performance in the 2008 ALCS, when he twice beat the Red Sox, including a two-hit performance over seven innings in Game 7. That seemed to raise him in the eyes of both the public and within the game as the kind of pitcher who can front a rotation. The Cubs gave up a good package of prospects to acquire him and then the Rangers gave up a good prospect in Mike Olt just to rent Garza for two months.

But really, what is he? He's still a pitcher with a 3.84 career ERA and 108 ERA+. That's more No. 3 starter than top-of-the-rotation material. Sure, he has good stuff, but he also pitches up in the strike zone too often and gives up a too many home runs. We saw that bite him when he went over to the Rangers and allowed 12 home runs in just 84 1/3 innings, leading to a 4.38 ERA in the 13 starts he made with the Texas.

Those two months represent the risks with Garza: He spent his early years in Tampa Bay, a good pitcher's park with a good defense behind him. He went over to the National League where he faced DH-less lineups and, guess what, his strikeout rate spiked up a bit. He went back to the American League and his ERA shot up. His best season ERA-wise came in 2011 with the Cubs, with a 3.32 figure, but that also was the one season he didn't give up home runs, only 14 in 198 innings. He allowed home runs on 7.7 percent of his fly balls but he has been over 10 percent every other season since 2009.

No, rather than Anibal Sanchez you may be getting somebody like Brett Myers. In 2010 with the Astros -- at age 29 -- Myers went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA. Since then Myers has gone 10-25 with a 4.46 ERA. OK, he didn't have Garza's stuff. How about Josh Beckett? Through age 29 he had a 3.79 ERA, ace-level stuff, some big postseason wins. Since turning 30, he's 26-32 with a 4.33 ERA. Remember, Garza is coming off two seasons of injuries, and even if they're considered minor, injuries are injuries. Gil Meche is another example that betting on any pitcher to remain healthy is risky. Meche led the league with 34 starts in his age 28 and 29 seasons, putting together good seasons for bad Kansas City teams. He made only 32 more starts after turning 30.

You want to bet on a 30-year-old pitcher to stay healthy for five years? Good luck.