Matt Garza’s Potential Impact with the Cubs

By Jonah Keri //

Continuing their dramatic off-season makeover, the Tampa Bay Rays were
on the verge of trading Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs as the linchpin
of an eight-player trade (none of the other players in the trade
project as worth rostering in 2011).

Opinions are split on
exactly what the Cubs are getting in the deal. One one hand, Garza’s
enjoyed great success in his three seasons with the Rays. He was the
key to another Rays blockbuster deal, coming over from Minnesota along
with Jason Bartlett as part of a six-player trade before the 2008
season. That year, Garza went 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA. In the postseason
he fared even better, going 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in a thrilling LCS
against the Red Sox, capped by Garza’s dominant Game 7 performance that
lifted Tampa Bay to the first World Series in franchise history.

After an apparent pullback in 2009 (8-10, 3.95 ERA), Garza enjoyed
the best season of his career from a fantasy perspective in 2010, going
15-10 with a 3.91 ERA and 150 strikeouts over 204.2 effective innings.
Though he struggled at times with consistency, he also flashed the
brilliance that defined his 2008 LCS performance, tossing a no-hitter
against the Tigers in July – also a first in franchise history.

Some analysts hold a less rosy opinion of the big right-hander.
Garza’s xFIP (a stat that runs along a similar scale to ERA, but strips
out the impact of team defense, park factors, and other variables
beyond a pitcher’s control) has been fairly pedestrian over the past
three seasons, at 4.48, 4.21 and 4.51 (the 4.21 figure coming during
the season in which his more superficial fantasy stats looked worst).
His home run rates have climbed in each season with the Rays (0.93 HR/9
IP in 2008, 1.11 HR/9 IP in 2009, 1.23 HR/9 IP in 2010), just as his
groundball rates have been falling (41.7% GB% in 2008, 39.7% in 2009,
35.8% in 2010).

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs compared Garza to Aaron Harang, another
pitcher who’s eaten innings in the past (Garza’s topped 200 frames in
each of the past two seasons), owns a strong K/BB rate (2.17, 2.39 and
2.38 in the past three years for Garza) and also endangers his team
with high home run rates. With Adrian Gonzalez joining the AL East this
season, Garza would have faced an even scarier assortment of power
threats on a regular basis had he stayed with the Rays for 2011, making
those home run and groundball rates an even bigger concern.

On the other hand, Garza’s been called overrated so many times by
analysts wielding advanced stats that he may now be underrated.
Baseball Prospectus tracks 
every pitcher in the big leagues by opponents’ OPS, seeking to assess
quality of competition. Of the top 60 opponents’ OPS by pitcher in MLB
last year, just one pitcher (Madison Bumgarner) hailed from the
National League. Three of the top four hailed from the AL East.

So even if you grant that Garza has looked like another incarnation of Harang over the past three seasons with the Rays, it’s reasonable
to project significant potential improvement if and when he’s dealt to
the weaker NL Central.

But not so fast! Even if we project improvement based on a divisional
move, let’s reconsider Garza’s increasingly extreme flyball trends.
With the Rays, Garza benefited from Gold Glover Carl Crawford playing
left field, the rangy B.J. Upton in center, and underrated defender
Matt Joyce (and before him, fellow underrated defender Gabe Gross)
chasing down flyballs and line drives hit into the gaps. The Cubs
ranked just 26th in MLB at converting balls in play into outs last year; the Rays ranked 3rd. Using Ultimate Zone Rating, the Cubs ranked 18th last year, the Rays
5th.
While advanced metrics reflect relatively kindly on projected Cubs
outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd, those players rank well
below Garza’s past LF-CF tandem of Crawford and Upton. Right fielder
Tyler Colvin, meanwhile, projects as average or worse in right field.

Taking all of these factors into account, we project…fairly similar
results for Garza in 2011. He’ll post decent but not spectacular
numbers for a starting pitcher in a standard mixed league. Don’t get
too caught up with Garza’s flashes of brilliance. He’ll wield
occasional no-hit stuff. But he’s more of a #3 or even #4 fantasy
starter in standard leagues than anything approaching a #1.

The real-life take? The Cubs are still the 4th-best team in the NL Central. And the Rays are still a Wild Card contender, with Jeremy Hellickson poised to take Garza’s spot in the rotation and money now freed to sign a big bat at DH such as Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez. As I often note in The Extra 2%, my upcoming book about the Rays’ Wall Street-inspired approach, Andrew Friedman does not give a damn about public relations. To the Rays’ benefit.

UPDATE: Thanks to Twitter’s @AbPow for reminding us that Garza’s HR tendencies could be further magnified by Wrigley Field, which showed a 119 park factor for LH home runs in 2010 (100 is average, and Tropicana Field was below average).

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