Matt Garza’s awful 2015 shouldn’t be a surprise

Matt Garza is a trainwreck.

There’s no other way to describe it. With a 5.63 ERA that serves as his highest mark since he was a rookie nine years ago and a very public meltdown regarding his (lack of) spot in the Milwaukee Brewers rotation, Matt Garza has gone from a highly-coveted trade piece, and subsequently a sought-after free agent, to a player that could be without a home by the time the winter’s over. With Garza losing his spot in the rotation and refusing a bullpen assignment, resulting in him being shut down for the year, the question now becomes: Where did it all go wrong?

Between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago Cubs Matt Garza had some fine years prior to his arrival in Milwaukee. His stretch of four seasons from 2008 to 2011 featured three seasons of at least a 3.0 WAR, two of which were with Tampa, and the best of which came on the North Side, where he posted a 4.9 figure.

Focusing on that 2011 season in which he posted that 4.9 WAR, the number itself was good for the fifth-highest mark in the National League. Garza pitched to a 3.32 ERA and a 2.95 FIP, striking out a career best 8.95 hitters per nine, while walking 2.86/9. Coming off of two consecutive seasons of 200 innings, Garza reached 198 IP that year, a mark which he has yet to come anywhere near reaching since.

Garza’s halfway through a four-year, $52 million deal he signed prior to the 2014 season. That deal has obviously been a very notable failure, and it remains to be seen whether or not Garza will be able to pitch into the second half of the deal or if he’ll have a new home by the time the 2015 season rolls around. That’s not to say that Garza might not find a groove again somewhere, it just probably won’t be in Milwaukee. But in order to do so, he’s going to have to get back to what made him successful in Tampa Bay and in Chicago.

With the Brewers, Garza has seen his number of strikeouts diminish, while his walks in 2015 have been frighteningly high. Prior to his demotion/refusal to report to the bullpen, Garza had struck out just 6.30 hitters per nine, the second lowest figure at any point in his career, at any level. His 3.45 BB/9 were his highest since the 2009 season, when he issued 3.50 free passes per nine. His WHIP for the year was at 1.57, the highest of his career.

As an additional emphasis as to how bad Garza was in 2015 prior to being shut down, ERA- gives an indication of how far above or below league average a pitcher is. The goal is to below 100, with the farther below that mark indicating how far above average a pitcher is. Garza’s ERA- for the season is at 138.

The total body of work doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an illustration of just how bad Garza had been of late for Milwaukee. His final four starts featured consecutive earned run totals of five, seven, seven, and four. In only four of his total starts on the year, out of 25, did he log seven innings.

Garza was never really the starter that he may have appeared to be during stretches with the Rays and Cubs, particularly when he was one of the hottest commodities on the trade market prior to his trade from the Cubs to the Texas Rangers. But he was still a strong mid-rotation option, with a FIP of 3.88 between two teams in 2013 and a 3.54 figure last year. How exactly does one go from a pitching that a team is willing to shell out $50+ million for to a player shutdown for the last month of the season without a legitimate injury?

There hasn’t been a significant decline in velocity, though that may be worth noting:

One might look to his pitch selection for a source of the struggles, as that does represent one of the more significant changes that has taken place, primarily over the past year:

His four-seam usage has declined about 10 percent since last year. He’s ditched it in favor of a sinker, which he threw almost 30 percent of the time this season, prior to his shutting down. While that’s led to a 45% groundball rate, the highest outside of Garza’s Cub days, opposing teams are also going for a .326 average off of that particular pitch, according to Brooks Baseball. Opposing ISO against that pitch is at .145. That batting average against is his highest with any pitch (change is slightly higher, but he only threw that pitch 72 times in 2015).

Opposing teams have just generally made more contact off of Garza, as well as better contact off of him than they have in years past. Hitters made contact at an 83.7% rate through 2015, the highest since Garza was a Ray back in 2008. The hard hit ball percentage of 33.0% was the highest of his career, outside of his rookie season in 2006. As a result, harder hit balls led to a higher BABIP than Garza has had to face. His overall .319 mark on the season was the highest he’s had recorded against him since 2007. Against the sinker, that number spikes to .364.

And Garza hasn’t been able to strand those runners that get on against him, who have reached to the tune of a .357 OBP. His 65.6 LOB% was his lowest at any point during his Major League career. With runners on, opposing hitters hit .297 off of Garza. Combine that with a declining strikeout rate, and it’s probably no wonder that we’ve seen Matt Garza struggling as tremendously as he has.

There are a lot of things not going right for Matt Garza, as is the case with a season like this. His change in usage has had a visibly negative effect, and he’s run into his fair share of bad luck. Add in his tendency to let his emotions get the best of him on the mound, something that isn’t exactly quantifiable, and you have a recipe for disaster that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The only question now becomes whether or not the Brewers will allow him an opportunity to right the ship, or if a team in rebuilding mode sees what they can get for him out on the trade market and get him a change of scenery.

**Usage/Velocity Numbers via Brooks Baseball
***Statistics via FanGraphs

Randy Holt is an editor for Statliners. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.