Matt Garza is not this bad or this good

The start to Matt Garza‘s career as a Cub has not gone as planned. After giving up Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer and Super Sam Fuld, the Cubs Cubs were expecting big things from Garza. He’d been a very good pitcher for a few years now and was moving from the AL East to the NL Central. He was the supposed top of the rotation starter the Cubs have lacked in recent years.  A closer look at his stats revealed a pitcher who was quite similar in value to Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and even Randy Wells.

Despite giving up so much, sometimes you just assume the team who traded for a player like that saw something that made it worth it. I’ve been opposed to this trade since the moment we first heard rumors about it. The Cubs didn’t need to add payroll while getting rid of young prospects. They needed to exactly the opposite, but it’s done. Entering the season Garza was projected to be worth about 3 WAR, which is right there with Zambrano and Dempster.

He’s allowed 6.27 runs per 9 innings (RA) and his Base Runs per 9 innings (BsR9) is nearly as bad at 5.30. Although he’s kept the ball in the park, he has allowed 7 extra base hits. Then again, that’s much better than Ryan Dempster‘s 12 XBH allowed and not much worse than Zambrano’s 5 XBH allowed. All the Cubs starting pitchers have gotten hit hard to start the season. As a result, it’s nearly impossible for a team with a less than average offense to put up a winning record and the Cubs haven’t even done that against much less than average competition.

The Cubs wanted a top of the rotation starter, but so far they’ve gotten only a back of the rotation starter. Only 23 starters with 10 or more IP have a worse ERA than Garza. Ryan Dempster has been the 22nd worst while Carlos Zambrano‘s ERA ranks 28th worst. That’s only one side of Garza’s story though.

The start to Matt Garza‘s career as a Cub has gone far better than anyone expected. The hard throwing righty’s best K/9 rate was in 2008 at 8.4 per 9. In his 18.2 innings this year, he’s struck out more than 12 batters per 9 innings. That’s almost 5 strikeouts per 9 higher than his 7.2 career average. Not only has one aspect of his fielding independent pitching statistics improved, but so have the others. Garza’s career BB/9  rate was 3.16, but he’s walked only 5 (2.4 BB/9). One of those walks was intentional. His uninteional walk rate is below 2. That’s not all. Garza is a flyball pitcher who of course is going to give up a lot of home runs. He hasn’t allowed one yet. Part of the reason is that Garza is not allowing nealry as many fly balls. The only season in his career in which he’s allowed more GB than this season is 2007.

Due to the improvement in these fielding independent pitching stats, Garza’s FIP is an impressive 1.21. That’s the best in all of baseball among starters with 10 or more innings. By a long, long way. Next up is Roy Halladay with his 1.63 FIP. Sam LeCure also has a 1.63 FIP and 4th best is Cliff Lee at 1.69. His 1.95 xFIP also leads the league. It beats Cliff Lee (2.02), Clayton Kershaw (2.19), and Tim Lincecum (2.45). Any time you can say you’ve been better than Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw things are going well.

As for WAR, Garza has been worth 1.0 WAR already. Only Roy Halladay has been worth as much (1.0) and Halladay has thrown 4 more innings. Among all players in 2011, only Matt Kemp (1.3), Troy Tulowitzki (1.3), Colby Rasmus (1.2) and Alex Rodriguez (1.1) have been worth more WAR than Matt Garza. Joey Votto, Halladay and Garza have each been worth 1.0 WAR.

The Cubs thought they were getting a top of the rotation starter, but what Garza has done so far isn’t just top of the rotation, it’s best in baseball.

We’re talking about a relatively meaingless sample size at this point. We haven’t really learned anything more about Garza than we did by this time last year with Carlos Zambrano before his bullpen test. Speaking of that, the two performances are kind of similar. Both had awful ERA’s while both looked significantly better when you looked at their FIP. However, both were also hit so hard that it was difficult to take the FIP too seriously.

Carlos Zambrano allowed nearly 20% of the fly balls to end up as home runs. His BABIP was .397. Although Garza has yet to allow a home run, well over 30% of the balls in play have been line drives resulting in a .474 BABIP. Zambrano allowed a lot of home runs and some cheap hits while Garza has allowed a lot of line drives and a few cheap hits. Both were knocked around and very bad despite their shiny FIP. Each was a little unlucky too. Garza’s LOB% is below 60% while  Z’s was about 65%, which is well below league average. There’s no reason his LOB% shouldn’t return to what he’s typically allowed. There’s also no reason that his LD% shouldn’t return to what the league average is (~20%). There was no reason Z’s HR/FB rate shouldn’t have returned about league average (~10%) as well and it did. His LOB% dropped. His HR/FB rate dropped. His BABIP dropped. All things we knew would happen that did.

We know Zambrano eventually settled down. We knew the sample size was meaingless even if the Cubs did not understand it. We also know the same thing with Matt Garza. At each point in the season, the ERA (RA is much preferrable) more closely represented how they had pitched, but their solid FIPs and xFIPs were and are more reprsentative of how they’ll pitch moving forward. Well, not 1.2 FIP like Garza has, but you get the point. He’s not that good just as he’s not as bad as his ugly RA would have you believe.