BRADENTON, Fla. – Coming into the 2016 season, Yeudy Garcia was one of the pitchers I was most looking forward to seeing. Last year, he had a huge breakout season, posting a 2.10 ERA in 124.1 innings, with a 112:41 K/BB ratio. He was showing easy velocity, sitting 93-96 MPH, and touching 97. The numbers have still been there for the most part this year, with a 2.56 ERA in 81 innings in Bradenton, along with a 92:32 K/BB ratio. But Garcia just hasn’t looked the same.
When I saw Garcia a few times in Spring Training, his velocity was down, sitting in the 90-92 MPH range. I chalked that up to it being early. However, he carried that low velocity into the season, sitting around 92 and occasionally touching 96, but not as consistent as he had been doing in 2015. He also saw poor command, leading to an increase in walks, and very inefficient outings, averaging over 20 pitches per inning most of the time.
I last wrote about Garcia at the end of May, and at the time, his fastball command issues were a mystery. He was relying too much on the slider due to the fastball command, and that made the slider ineffective since hitters were seeing it so often. In the last few weeks, Garcia has been putting up much better results, giving hope that things have changed for him.
And they have changed. He’s starting to see that old velocity come back. It’s not hitting 96-97, but he’s consistently 93-95 MPH, and holding that longer in outings. A big reason for the velocity drop might have been due to the Pirates giving Garcia a break this off-season, putting him behind all of the other pitchers.
“The first couple of months, I think Yeudy was getting in pitching shape, to be honest with you,” Bradenton Pitching Coach Jeff Johnson said. “I know that we took a lot of load off of him in the winter, didn’t want him to throw, because of the innings last year. So he got started pretty late. I think it spilled over. He gained some weight, had to get back in shape a little bit more. I think it took him a little while.”
Bradenton Manager Michael Ryan had similar comments.
“He’s in really good shape at the moment,” Ryan said. “He’s been working hard in the weight room, doing his conditioning. Not saying he was out of shape. He’s at the peak of his [conditioning] throughout the year.”
The fastball velocity is up, which is a good thing. But that still leaves questions about what was causing the command issues. Garcia has done a much better job of that in his recent starts. His last outing, which I saw live, had a few rough innings. But prior to that he had a start with 68 pitches in 6 innings, 90 pitches in 6.1 innings, and 84 pitches in 7 innings. He also walked just one batter in those 19.1 innings. That’s a far cry from his high walk totals and high pitches per inning earlier in the year.
Part of the recent success has come from getting Garcia to attack hitters when he’s not in a jam.
“[We are also] trying to keep the concentration and focus consistent,” Johnson said. “Really good when he’s in trouble, really good when it’s a hard inning. Not as good when it’s going easy. He kind of had some lapses there this year. So we really worked hard on the focus and concentration.”
This is chalked up to Garcia being an inexperienced pitcher. Despite being in High-A at the age of 23, he’s only been in pro ball for three seasons, and didn’t really play much baseball before that.
“He’s not a young man, but he’s a young pitcher,” Johnson said. “He hasn’t pitched a lot. It’s easy when nobody is on base to kind of throw it and expect it to work, instead of understanding that over time, you have to focus and be intent on every pitch. Because it’s hard. Eventually the competition will make you do that. And this year is a perfect example. The competition has made him do it.”
But aside from the concentration, Johnson also has him focusing on his third pitch more often, relying on the slider less. The problem with Garcia earlier in the season was that he was relying on his slider way too often. This gave the hitters plenty of views, and made the pitch less effective. So Johnson has Garcia working on the changeup more lately.
“One of the big things I’ve been impressing on him is to use the changeup,” Johnson said. “Yeudy’s slider is a very good pitch. It takes a lot of effort to throw it and get the result he wants. Throwing it for a strike, it’s not hard. But getting a swing and miss, he has to get after it, and it’s a lot more physical pitch. That’s one thing we’ve been talking about. The more sliders he throws earlier in the game, the harder it is for him later in the game. If you’ll see the games that he’s been really efficient, it’s been at least even on changeup and slider usage in the first three or four innings, if not more changeups than sliders. And then, after that, he can go to the slider more as the game gets deeper.”
Ryan mentioned that there was a start recently where Garcia didn’t even throw the slider until the sixth inning, using a fastball/changeup approach the first five frames. This was a stark contrast to early in the season, when Garcia would lean on the slider heavily at the first sign of struggles from the fastball, and would rarely use the changeup. But they don’t want to completely remove the slider.
“It’s a really good, devastating pitch for him,” Ryan said of the slider. “It’s not like we want him to put it in his back pocket. But pick and choose when he’s going to use it. … I think that the less that he shows it, the less chance they have to hit it. I think he’s getting confident in the other two pitches. It makes his slider that much better. The less they see it, the less they’re going to hit it.”
The focus right now is for Garcia to use the changeup as much as he can early on, using the slider only when he has to, so that the pitch is there for him later. Johnson said that they wanted to avoid getting to a point down the road where he reaches a higher level and doesn’t have a changeup. He’s seen the pitch go from a “show me” pitch, to something that Garcia is now using as a weapon in situations.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “If we can get the changeup to play more, it’s going to make his stuff that much better. And he’s going to be more efficient. He’s not going to have to work so hard to get the outs. He’s a big, physical guy, but with anybody, if you’ve got to work your butt off to get outs, then that’s going to tire you out. Especially in this league. It’s so hot, man. It’s a scorcher every day.”
Overall, Johnson had high praise for Garcia’s recent performance.
“It’s been awesome,” Johnson said. “I’m so glad where he’s at. For me, he’s the best pitcher in the league right now.”
That sounds a lot like the Yeudy Garcia the Pirates had last year, rather than the version they’ve had for most of this season.