Can a pitcher actually succeed as a starter (or at least stave off replacement level) without breaking 90 mph with his fastball? Certain lefties, I suppose, have the capacity. Outside of the end of Greg Maddux's career, though, there are vanishingly few examples of right handed starters making any kind of career out of junkballing. That's the only way Freddy Garcia is going to make his bones at this point. And, surprisingly, he's posted a well above average FIP in 6 starts so far, including 2 against the Red Sox and 1 against the Yankees. What the hell, right?
It's common knowledge that throwing hard is desirable and the Tigers, for one, have made a season out of throwing hard and harder. How to pull off the opposite? Fortunately for us, Dave Allen exists.
In his own words, regarding the graph below:
To see how these two factors interacted I plotted fastball success by horizontal location for three groups of four-seam fastballs: all fastballs, those over 95 mph and those under 87.5 mph. The result below is just for those pitched to RHBs, so the inside is negative numbers and outside is positive numbers. The error bars are the shaded bands. The run value is the change in run expectancy so negative is better for the pitcher.
And here's Velocity vs. Vertical Location:
Command is obviously a great equalizer, as batters simply have little problem recognizing a fastball out of the zone. All of the difference comes in what happens when a strike is thrown. What really sticks out is that the below average fastball's best possible location is no better than a grooved average fastball. So, there's a lot of pressure to throw strikes when Freddy throws his fastball AND to avoid throwing his fastball as much as he can. If he's going to be average, he's got to make it up with his off-speed stuff.
So let's refer to that platoon splits by pitch chart I've been using recently. To compensate for his crap fastball, he's got to have a good change/split and a good slider. I pulled up his most recent start against the M's and his excellent start against the Red Sox on Brooks to see what it looks like Garcia's tossing. He's throwing a splitter from what I could tell. He starts on that grip and changes off it much like Contreras did with his forkball. He's not throwing a ton of them and the early returns are pretty meh. In case you're wondering what to look for, Dave Allen summarizes:
Changeups that have very little movement (close to 0,0) get crushed. Those with extreme vertical movement, either lots of rise or lots of sink, are very successful. Since changeups are thrown in opposite handed at-bats even those with neutral run values are good pitches.
Freddy's splitter isn't really either of those. As Allen says, getting out opposite handed batters is a difficult task anyway so having a merely average change/split is useful. But the exercise here is to see if Freddy's got the stuff to be average-ish. Against lefties, we should really expect him to struggle. That hasn't happened so far, in fact the opposite has been true. In '09, Señor Sweaty has allowed a .191/.263/.382 line. The culprit is a minuscule BABIP, 70 points below his career average. If all we do is add that 70 points back in, the slash line becomes .261/.333/.452. That's more or less what I'd expect to see in the future. He'll have to cut down on free passes significantly to achieve average performance with his current stuff.
So he's going to be vulnerable to lefties. If he can really shut down same-handed batters, he might be able to make up the difference. And here, there's actually some hope. For one, his contact rate allowed is still quite good and in line with career averages. This suggests a good slider that's generating whiffs; obviously it's not the fastball doing it and he simply hasn't thrown enough splitters for them to be primarily responsible. Compare Freddy's contact rate to qualified starters in '09. He'd be right up there with enough starts. Putting the Brooks chart side by side with yet another Allen chart, it seems at least possible Garcia's slider is in a smallish sweet spot. In his wee sample size, he's had BABIP issues against RHB. If it were a more reasonable .300, he'd have a .253/.282/.405 slash line against. That would be pretty useful and it's probably a lot more than we can expect. Put simply, I have a hard time believing he'll be able to keep his BABIP and ISO down with such a hittable fastball.
So he's not going to be average. I don't think SSSers were really holding out hope for such. After all, dude's had shoulder problems and can't break 90. The consensus seems to be that he's very cheap, so why not give him a go? It's just $1MM, right? And, certainly, there are hints that he's better than replacement level. And all he's got to do is take the ball until Dan Hudson's ready. If Kenny does go that route, I'd really like to see him bring on a lefty long man who can clean up for Freddy when he inevitably gets bombed by lefty-heavy lineups.