First Pitch: What Would it Take For Willy Garcia to Start in Pittsburgh?

In almost any other organization, Willy Garcia would probably have a good shot to be a starting outfielder one day. Unfortunately for him, he plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A team with an MVP in center field. With one of the most under-rated players in the game in left field. And a right fielder entering his age 24 season who is still capable of a big breakout.

That trio is under team control through the 2018 season, at which point Andrew McCutchen may depart as a free agent. However, the Pirates also have one of the top 50 prospects in the game in Austin Meadows, and a sleeper outfield prospect in Harold Ramirez, and both should be in Altoona this year, with plenty of time to be ready for 2018, or whenever they’re needed.

Garcia finds himself stuck between a very talented outfield in Pittsburgh, and top ranked outfield prospects in Altoona. Because of this, it’s hard to imagine him ever being a starter for the Pirates. That doesn’t mean he can’t start elsewhere. He’s got plus raw power and an elite arm. A guy with two plus tools can definitely start in the majors. But there is one thing holding Garcia back, and keeping his name out of the conversation in Pittsburgh’s outfield: Strikeouts.

It’s no coincidence that the Pirates had Garcia working on cutting down his strikeouts in 2015. He made some impressive strides in the process, going from a 33% strikeout rate in Altoona last year to a 23% strikeout rate in Altoona this year. His 27.5% rate in Indianapolis was better than any other year in the US, outside of the 2015 numbers in Altoona.

There are a few reasons for the reduction in the amount of strikeouts. A lot of the Altoona hitters focused on cutting down their body movement at the plate. Garcia was one of those, as Sean McCool wrote early in the season. Another one was Max Moroff, who went from a 27.6% strikeout rate in High-A in 2014 to a 21.2% rate in 2015 in Altoona. Not every player cut down on the strikeouts, but there were a few success stories, and Garcia appeared to be one of them.

The problem here is that Garcia didn’t do a good job of limiting strikeouts while hitting for power. The body movement focus was supposed to help in two strike counts, with Garcia being better equipped to attack pitches in the strike zone. However, he didn’t hit for power while taking this approach. It was pointed out in the comments today that not all of his home runs would have come with two strikes, and that’s true. So focusing solely on the two strike situations wouldn’t seem to explain the drop in power. But it’s not like Garcia had a special batting stance for two strikes. His stance was the same in each count, with a reduction in movement that was supposed to help him get ahead, and also help him with two strikes.

By the end of the year, Garcia saw his power returning, with the strikeouts starting to rise a bit, but not to the extremes he saw in previous years. His average dipped in Indianapolis, mostly due to a slow start after his promotion. His time in Altoona saw reduced strikeouts and a better average, but a drop in power. His time in Indianapolis saw a lower average, but the power he is known for, and only a few more strikeouts than he had in Altoona.

Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios will work for Garcia as a starter in Pittsburgh. They’d help make him a great fourth outfielder, and his ability to play all three spots would allow him to step in as a starter in the event of an injury. But to crack this outfield, you need to be an impact talent, and Garcia isn’t going to be that unless he can put everything together and hit for power while reducing strikeouts. Otherwise, he’s Starling Marte, minus the speed, outfield range, and ability to hit for average, which removes a lot of the value Marte has.

The whole “reduce the strikeouts but keep the power” thing is much easier said than done. I can’t tell you how Garcia can make this happen. If I had the simple answer to totally removing the strikeout issues from a guy like Garcia, then I’d be named the Vice President of Hitting for some team in baseball. The new approach that he added in Altoona seems to be working, although I’m not totally convinced of the long-term success. The approach worked for the two strikes, but barely did anything to get ahead in counts and increase walks. And if the two strike approach doesn’t work going forward, then 2015 will look like a fluke season that was wrongly associated with a change in batting stance.

The other theory here is that Garcia was learning a new approach this season, and that’s not something which comes easy or instantly. It’s also something which could come with a lot of inconsistent performances, like going from low strikeouts and no power, to power and low strikeouts, to more power and an increase in strikeouts. And if that would be the case, then it would illustrate the main hope Garcia would have to be a starter — he’s showing some positive signs, and if those signs are related to the new approach, then eventually things might click to the point where Garcia can hit for power while limiting strikeouts.

All of this is easier said than done. And that’s why we started the countdown with Garcia at number 20, rather than eventually getting to him somewhere in the top ten. If strikeouts weren’t such a huge concern, and such a hard habit to break, then we’d be talking about Garcia in Pittsburgh’s long-term outfield. Instead, we’re discussing a good fourth outfield option who could probably end up starting if he’s moved elsewhere.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #20 – Willy Garcia. We started the countdown today with Garcia, and will be rolling out a player per day. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.

**Pirates Sign Four, Announce 12 Spring Training Invites. Details on the four new signings, and what to expect from the minor league Spring Training invites.

**16 Boom or Bust Pirates Who Could Make a Difference in 2016. One last mention of the New Year’s Eve article, taking a look ahead to the 2016 season, and some of the players who could help the Pirates contend again.

  • This is only conjecture, but if the Pirates wanted Garcia to work on his two strike approach, the first thing that would need to happen is that he would need to have a two strike count. If that were the case, I could envision a scenario where he was purposely passing on pitches that he could drive in order to reach a two strike count. That would be one scenario that would explain the drop in power, and a decrease in K’s. I have no way of knowing if this is truly the case, but just throwing it out there as a possibility.

    I don’t believe fixing what is wrong with Garcia’s approach at the plate is something that could be done in one season. It would need to be more of a baby step type process. Step one, it seems was to reduce the strike outs. IMO, this makes the most sense, simply because, as a pitcher, if you have a 30% chance to strike out a hitter, regardless of his power potential, you just don’t issue that hitter a walk. However, if that same hitter is striking out at closer to a 20-25% rate (still better than where Garcia is) then the pitches start moving closer to the edges of the plate instead of the middle of the plate. This in turn should lead to an increase in walks as more pitches start to miss the plate.

    I have no proof that any of this is true or accurate, just alternate scenario’s that I hadn’t seen anywhere else that I had been thinking about.

  • My hope for Garcia is that some Major League team wants him as a starter and we can trade him for some good pitching prospects, like we did with Travis Snider.

    Outside of that, I don’t see him doing anything viable in the Majors.

    He is Rob Deer without the walks.

  • Patrick Kelly
    January 5, 2016 12:02 pm

    If Garcia keeps trending in the positive direction with the K% and Avg, and if Polanco doesn’t improve, I could see there being a playing time split going on in RF by the end of the season. I’m a huge GP fan, but what he has shown so far shouldn’t stop someone that is performing better from getting a shot at the starting gig.*

    *not saying that Garcia is/will outperform him, just a general statement regarding PT for underperforming players.

    • Highly unlikely to think Garcia throws out 2 WAR as a rookie, so “underperforming” is really a relative terms since Polanco’s overall value is fine. He’d have to revert to his first 80 games-like production to be in real danger of losing his job, barring really large changes in how Garcia has produced.

      Him regressing and someone having a monster year at AAA shouldnt stop them from considering a move, but Polanco shouldnt really be in danger of losing his job if he even “just” keeps up last years performance.

    • I think those are both pretty big “ifs”.

      • yeah but…

      • Patrick Kelly
        January 5, 2016 3:03 pm

        Sure, they are big “ifs”. But Polanco needs more than a .700 OPS IMO to justify holding down RF for 4 more years. If Garcia can hit better than that he will likely provide similar defense and throwing from the position. A 2 WAR player should not be guaranteed a job. Again, not saying Garcia would do that out of the gate and also not saying he should replace GP. But I’m sorry, 2 WAR isn’t going to cut it when the team needs him to produce more than that.

        • Another big “if “. His pitch recognition is far, far away from him being a consistent hitter. Sliders and off speed stuff cause Garcia all kinds of problems.

        • There were basically 40 players last year who played enough to qualify in the OF that were 2 WAR (i counted anyone over 2.5, so 41 and i rounded).

          If being top 40 in value doesnt cut it, a ton of teams are gonna roll with 1-2 guys that dont cut it. If you MUST have each OF at 2 WAR to cut it, the rest of your team is also kinda sucking.

          Polanco basically just came off a year being middle of the pack at his spot in overall value. So yes, you want more than that but if he gets benched for that in favor of a rookie, i question that logic highly. You bench a guy for being average in value as a young player foooorrrrr…..a younger player with 0 ML time. Seems like if we desperately need better production, we should trade both of them for a current MLer.

    • He is not even close to Polanco’s ceiling.

  • piraterican21
    January 5, 2016 10:27 am

    Sending to the Chris Stewart school of hitting.

  • We could use a good 4th outfielder.
    Too many inside pitches to Marte & McCutchen.
    One pitch could change a lot of things.

  • Well done, Tim. Tough prospect to rank, given his extremely high bust probability yet very real raw tool set.

    I think you can learn a lot from prospects like Willy Garcia. Two plus tools; that’s great, right? Except that all five tools aren’t created equal, and unfortunately for Willy Garcia, arm strength and raw power may be the most overrated. Especially considering Garcia doesn’t appear to have true plus raw, as he saw his power drop dramatically with a shorter swing. Lots of guys can cheat and yoke balls out with softball swings.

    I like the idea that you can succeed at the Major League level with a lot of strikeouts, and you can succeed at the Major League level without a lot of walk, but you cannot succeed with both; unfortunately, that’s exactly the realm where Willy Garcia finds himself. The lack of walks signals not only an overaggressive approach but also a deficiency in identifying pitches, which may ultimately be his fatal flaw. Big league pitchers will pick him apart.

    • Tried to find anybody that sniffed success as a high K/low BB hitter…

      I’m sure there are plenty I didn’t think of, but, of all the names that ran through my head, the only ones that were remotely close to Garcia’s rates are Pedro Alvarez and Pete Incaviglia.

      Pedro
      K: 1/3.44 PA
      BB: 1/10.75 PA

      Inky
      K: 1/3.66 PA
      BB: 1/12.99 PA

      Those are major league totals…while, in the minors…

      Garcia
      K: 1/3.76 PA
      BB: 1/18.68 PA

      There’s a lot of work to be done with this young man before he’s ready…

      EDIT:

      Jose Hernandez
      Steve Balboni
      and Ron Kittle appear to be in the same boat…

      …but they still walked a lot more than Garcia does…yikes.

      • I don’t have it saved, unfortunately, but for a bit of perspective I looked for Major League regulars over a 20 year span that averaged %20 K around the time Starling Marte was making his debut; if I recall correctly, only Adam Jones fit the criteria. Relaxing the walk criteria a couple percent resulted in plenty of players, but each one of them was a >.180 ISO hitter, which is borderline plus *game* power.

        Garcia strikes out more, walks less, and doesn’t project the ability to turn what raw power he has into usable production at the highest level. Not to pile on, but this is a classic bust profile.

        http://platoonadvantage.com/2012-articles/what-do-minor-league-walk-and-strikeout-rates-tell-us-about-prospects-recap.html

        http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2013/6/7/4402222/minor-league-baseball-walk-strikeout-rates-prospects

        • Interesting stuff…

          K’s really aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. Walks, on the other hand, are. I could live with Chris Davis’ 190 K’s/year because he walks 1/4 PA’s, hits 40 HR’s…and those contribute to an .876 OPS.

          Makes me wonder why the team focused on cutting strikeouts as opposed to increasing walks…unless it’s some plan of increasing plate discipline that hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet.

          Fun fact:

          Tony Gwynn almost never struck out…but it was also a mildly chilly day in hell before he took a walk, too. Even with a .338 lifetime average, and with seven seasons batting at least .351, he never lead the majors in OBP and only won the NL crown once.

          • A hit is more valuable than a walk with runners on base- and during Tony’s lighter years he turned some of those singles into doubles with a decent SB total.
            Unrelated stat change:
            I propose a change in OPS to allow for the value of stolen bases to be calculated in- I propose such…… If the player is caught stealing, then the single (under most circumstances anyways) would then be considered an out, thus lowering OBP and slugging, but if he is successful, that single is then treated as a double as far as the value for slugging percentage goes. Likewise a double with a caught stealing at third……would have half its OBP value taken away, and credit the player for only a single for slugging % calculations

            • It’s a tight fit to argue what’s more valuable…a .338 average and a .388 OBP or a .314 average and a .406 OBP? Sure, you have the potential to knock in more runs with the higher BA, but you also have the potential to be driven in more often the more you get on base.

            • You’re talking about a completely different statistic at that point. OPS/wOBA is intended to be a measure of hitting ability, which has nothing to do with baserunning. FanGraph’s Offense metric does what you suggest, except it encompasses all baserunning.

          • “Makes me wonder why the team focused on cutting strikeouts as opposed to increasing walks…”

            At the risk of having the wrath of zeus reigned down upon me by the minions, I’d suggest that maybe they aren’t really that great at maximizing offensive potential in their players.

            I will say, though, that I’m not sure you can really “teach” a guy to take more walks. Pitch recognition may be one of those inherent baseball skills that separate good athletes from good baseball players.

            Low power, uber contact guys like Gwynn can’t really help but be low walk guys when you think about it…pitchers throw those types a higher percentage of strikes, and those hitters rarely miss strikes meaning they rarely get into deep counts that would allow walks to come. Not that anyone is complaining about .3888 career OBPs… 😉

            • Nothing at all to complain about. Gwynn was one of the all-time greats. He appears to have swung at everything…and hit it.

              Yeah, don’t know that there’s an answer…except resurrecting Charlie Lau.

          • I don’t think you are wrong Blaine, it’s purely opinion, but I think there is much more valuable in reducing strikeouts because quality outs that move baserunners are actually the key to turning walks into runs. Walks have zero value to a team if you don’t have players putting the ball into play to move them over, again…just my opinion. If you put 20% of those strikeouts in play, you may see the same amount of runs gained by making productive outs and getting additional hits- as you might by getting more walks, without the unintended side effect of losing your aggressiveness at the plate early in the count (which leads to most homers and doubles). you simply do not want speedy hitters to strike out, because if they put the ball on the ground, they are unlikely to get a double play against them (which is the only thing you can do as a hitter more worthless than striking out). Alternatively- and one case where your point is quite valid- a hitter like big papi or alvarez or ARAM- you’d rather him strike out because if he hits the ball on the ground with runners on base, it’s 2 outs. So- if he’s slow and hits lots of grounders- yes- strike out- but otherwise, we need productive outs- sac flys, moving runners over, etc.

            • I see your logic, but time and time again additional outs have been proven to be more valuable than additional bases. This is the basis to the sac bunt logic, or lack there of. It’s great to move runners up and all, but that rarely results in a better run scoring situation than if you kept that extra out in the first place.

              We’re talking about a hypothetical that doesn’t really exist in real life, so a balance between contact and walks always needs to exist. But your club is going to be better off taking more bases than it is putting more balls in play as a general rule.

              The 2015 Royals were a *historically* good contact hitting team, and yet were roughly average offensively relative to the league. Trade that for a historically good walking team and all those extra bases over 6000+ PA almost certainly would lead to more runs scored.

              • Those are good points NMR. I don’t believe in ever giving up an out- its a matter of a better quality out. One might say that the only reason why the Royals were as good as average was because they were such a good contact hitting team, putting more balls in play and getting more hits. Everything else I said was more anectodal as I think you have to know your players well enough to know whether increasing walks leads to sacrificing the aggressiveness that makes them good- and knowing whether or not a two strike “battle” approach is more fitting for a batters style. I really don’t see any reason why you can’t do both. Once you get to two strikes, you don’t want to be trying to take a walk anyways, you need to be battling so the two points of view aren’t mutually exclusive at all. Early in the count, you don’t want to be “playing for a walk” either, but you want to swing at quality pitches you can drive.

                • “I really don’t see any reason why you can’t do both.”

                  ^Because baseball is really, reeaaallly hard!

                  I do very much agree with your point in general, though. This is a very player-specific decision.

                  • Lol- well yes- baseball is really hard, but I meant there just isn’t anything mutually exclusive about the two things.

      • Soriano? (without looking up his stats to prove this)

    • Wrong park too, to be RH.

    • I don’t think the issue is that those tools are over-rated. In this case, it’s that the other tools are needed to be at least average for a player to work out.

      Raw power is great, but a lot of guys with raw power have high strikeout rates (this could be incorporated into the hit tool). Thus, the value of the power is reduced at the plate.

      Then there’s defense. Guys with great arms could either fit in center or right field, but if the defense isn’t great, they’re more likely for right. Garcia can play center field in the minors, but I don’t see him as more of a fill in at the position in the majors. He’s not like Polanco and Marte where the only thing holding him back is an MVP at the position.

      So I guess the opposite of Garcia would be a good hitter with no power who has the defense to play center field, but a weak arm that would make him more suited for left field. Add in some speed, and I think I just described Nyjer Morgan.

      The power and the arm strength definitely carry more weight, but I think that’s because you can teach the other stuff. You can improve arm strength, but it’s almost impossible to take a Nyjer Morgan type and add power. It’s not easy to teach a guy like Garcia how to hit, but I’d take that over the Morgan scenario if I’m developing a prospect.

    • Also, the cases where a guy strikes out 25% or more in the minors and then goes on to be a decent major league hitter are extremely rare. We discussed this last year when Garcia was added to the 40-man. I agree with NMR that this is a classic “bust” profile.

      Thread from last year in the comments here: http://18.206.184.11/2014/11/keeping-track-of-todays-pittsburgh-pirates-40-man-roster-additions.html

  • Awesome follow up column Tim! Answered all of my questions too…

  • Great article Tim- It all makes sense to me now. He doesn’t have a two-strike approach, rather an approach which is better suited to making contact in 2 strike situations. Learning that fact is kind of disappointing, quite honestly, as I was hoping they would leave him alone to be aggressive early in the counts, then using the age old strategy of “shorter swing, choke up, see the ball longer” approach that has worked for countless quality hitters over the past 100 years. As someone who played baseball for over 20 years, I really don’t understand why this is so difficult for players; its pure psychology/mindset at the plate- drive the ball early, make solid contact late in the at bat.

  • Last year, each of the Bucs’ outfielders played 150+ games. I can very well imagine that not happening.

    The team really could stand to have a better fourth OF, not just because of the threat of injuries but because it’s a long season. Garcia would better fit the bill if he hit lefthanded, but more to the point, normal teams don’t get 1900 plate appearances out of their starting outfield.

  • Appreciate the “Vice President of Hitting” reference here

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