As 2010 began, Jon Garland had an awful lot to prove. He finished 2009 strong in six starts after being traded to the Dodgers, winning three games and posting a 2.72 ERA. Still, it took him a while to find work with the San Diego Padres, who looked like a moribund franchise soon to loser their twin stars, Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell. Garland had a reputation as a workhorse, but had never given his teams a great ratio of quality to quantity. That contributed to his making San Diego his fifth home in four seasons.
Garland needed to do a number of things differently to become a solid starting pitcher in the big leagues. He needed to minimize his home runs: He allowed fewer than 23 in only one season from 2002-09. He needed to miss more bats: Since 2003, he had struck out five batters or fewer per nine innings every season. He also needed to surrender fewer hits in general: He gave up 212 or more hits every year from 2004 to 2009.
Suddenly, though, Garland found the ability to do all of those things. His ground-ball rate reached a career high of 51.9 percent, 13th-best in baseball. That helped him allow only 20 homers–still not perfect but a step forward. He mixed his pitches more thoroughly and began to strike out hitters as he never had before, punching out 6.12 batters per nine frames. Not only was that figure the best of his career, but he struck out 136 total batters–21 more than he ever had before.
Finally, Garland’s move to the friendly pitching environment and solid defensive system of San Diego allowed him to stop the bleeding on balls in play. He allowed only 176 hits in 200 innings. Opponents’ hit rate and batting average on balls in play against Garland were the lowest they have been during his 11-year career. It all added up to a season in which Garland had 14 wins and an ERA (3.47) lower than any previous full-season Garland ERA.
Garland then declined his half of a mutual option for 2011, heading for open water on the conviction that he can make more than the $6.75 million his contract would have paid him to stay with San Diego. Thus, all 30 teams must ask themselves whether they believe in the new Jon Garland, or whether they think he was a product of his team and home park in 2010.
Garland offers a number of fair comparables for projecting his future performance, but one man has a repertoire very much like Garland’s and had a startlingly similar track record to Garland’s at present when he was 30 years old. He may actually have been 35 then, and he may be 40 now, but Livan Hernandez gives us a fantastic baseline on Garland’s future.
2010 stats: 200.0 IP, 6.12 SO/9 IP, 3.92 BB/9 IP, 0.90 HR/9 IP, 3.47 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 4.35 xFIP
Career (age 30): 2,029.1 IP, 4.86 SO/9 IP, 3.02 BB/9 IP, 1.10 HR/9 IP, 4.32 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 4.58 xFIP
Garland hits free agency riding the tide of his best season so far, although there are reasons to mitigate our enthusiasm: He walked 3.92 batters per nine frames, his worst rate ever over a full season. A guy who does not strike out many and who gives up his share of go-fer balls can hardly afford errant control like that, unless he plays in the best pitcher’s park in baseball and in front of the NL’s best defense.
Garland is one of many success stories for the cutter during the past few seasons, as he has improved his numbers across the board by mixing it in more and using his fastball less. The only problem is that Garland, like most non-natural purveyors of the cutter (Mariano Rivera, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay throw the pitch almost by accident, so natural is the drifting movement on their fastballs), does not always know where the pitch is going. That contributes to rising walk rates.
2005 stats: 246.1 IP, 5.37 SO/9 IP, 3.07 BB/9 IP, 0.91 HR/9 IP, 3.98 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 4.50 xFIP
Career (through age 30): 1950.2 IP, 6.1 SO/9 IP, 3.1 BB/9 IP, 1.0 HR/9 IP, 4.11 ERA
Through 2005, Hernandez pitched essentially the way Garland did, but he showed unmistakable signs of having better stuff. He had superior strikeout rates, and lower home run rates despite being a fly-ball pitcher in comparison with the highly terrestrial Garland. He relied heavily on his slider because, unlike Garland, he could afford to: His slider was a better pitch than of Garland’s breaking stuff.
Still, Hernandez had lost whatever zip may once have pushed his fastball by people by the end of 2005, and his approach became predicated wholly on movement and command. Garland’s approach will need to be much the same going forward.
Here’s hoping he can do it more effectively than did Hernandez, who finished 2006 with a pitcher slash of 4.83/4.85/5.08 in ERA/FIP/xFIP. Hernandez, of course, had peaked sooner than has Garland, and pitched in poor pitching environments in 2006. Momentum suggests that garland will do better than that in 2011. Still, he would be wise not to stray too far from home: San Diego and Los Angeles are each looking for pitching and present comfortable environs in which to work.