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Garza's Slider Key to Strikeout Surge

New Team President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have aggressively started reshaping the Chicago Cubs from an old, expensive also-ran to a leaner, younger franchise with a long-term outlook. Part of that retooling might involve sending staff ace Matt Garza out of town.

Garza, 28, won't bring back the sort of prospect bounty that Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez did -- he's under team control for two more seasons rather than four, and as a Super Two eligible for arbitration four times instead of three, his salary has climbed closer to his free agent worth (a projected $8.7 million in 2012, and likely well over $10 million in 2013). That said, he could still reasonably fetch a top 50 prospect or a pair of farm talents at the back end of the top 100.

Teams talking with Epstein and Hoyer will no doubt hear about how Garza is coming off the best season of his major league career. Garza's Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was 26 percent better than the league average in 2011, putting him in the same territory as Justin Verlander, Dan Haren and Matt Cain. The main reason was a spike in strikeout rate.  Garza's K rate was expected to go up as he moved to the NL and benefited from facing flailing pitchers instead of DHs, but even adjusting for the league shift he enjoyed a big boost in strikeouts relative to 2010.

Check out Garza's "K+," or strikeout rate compared to the league average starter put on a scale where 100 is average and above 100 means a pitcher whiffed more than the average:

2008: 104 K+

2009: 133 K+

2010: 102 K+

2011: 131 K+

During his four years as a full-time starter, Garza's strikeout rate has alternated from slightly above-average to elite. For the first three years, including that high-K 2009, Garza threw his fastball around 70 percent of the time. But in 2011, he tossed his heater much less (53 percent) and instead relied more on his slider, curveball and changeup.  His slider was particularly whiff-worthy.

Garza used his slider 24 percent of the time in 2011, up from about 13 percent the previous three seasons. Batters missed that power breaker 42 percent of the time they swung at it, the eighth-highest rate in the majors among starters:

Highest Slider Miss Pct. among Starting Pitchers, 2011:

Name Miss Pct.
Zach Britton 0.50
Shaun Marcum 0.46
Mat Latos 0.45
Brandon Beachy 0.44
Josh Johnson 0.44
Jhoulys Chacin 0.43
Francisco Liriano 0.42
Clayton Kershaw 0.42
Matt Garza 0.42
CC Sabathia 0.41


That slider was Garza's out pitch with two strikes, as he threw it 42 percent of the time in such situations and got nearly half of his 197 Ks with the pitch. It would be hard for a pitcher to be more on-target with a breaking ball than Garza was with his slider. Check out his two-strike pitch location to hitters with his slider:

 Garza's two-strike slider location, 2011

Most were out of the zone, but just close enough that hitters offered at them anyway in hopes of keeping the at-bat alive and avoiding a looking K.  Here's opponents' swing rate by pitch location against Garza's two-strike sliders, and then the league average:

Opponents' swing rate by pitch location vs. Garza's two-strike sliders, 2011

Average swing rate by pitch location vs. two-strike sliders, 2011Opponents chased 49 percent of Garza's two-strike sliders out of the zone, comfortably above the 45 percent league average.

It's difficult to say whether Garza will retain the bump in strikeouts that he enjoyed in 2011. On one hand, he did shift his approach rather dramatically, becoming less fastball-dependent and burying batters with his power slider. But Garza had a similar increase in Ks in 2009 only to see his punch out rate fall back to earth in 2010. Either way, he's a quality young arm who will earn less than his free agent worth in 2012 and 2013. But just how good of a prospect package teams are willing to part with to get Garza could come down to their faith in his ability to keep missing bats at an elite level.


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