Matt Garza Catches Chicago Cubs Strikeout Syndrome

Posted on April 11, 2011

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On May 6, 1998, the Chicago Cubs got one of the three-to-five best pitching performances in baseball history. In just his fifth career start, Kerry Wood hurled a one-hitter and struck out 20 Houston Astros. Thirteen years later, the team’s pitching staff continues to pay dearly for it, and the latest victim is new co-ace Matt Garza.

Since that day, the Chicago Cubs have had an organization-wide obsession with strikeout pitchers. Along with Sammy Sosa, Wood became the co-face of the organization overnight. Cubs management realized immediately that Wood’s proclivity for missing bats could make him a marketing gold mine.

They rode him hard from then on, eventually shredding his arm. Wood threw 709 pitches in six starts in July, then 249 in back-to-back starts in late August. The team shut him down for the remainder of the regular season at that point, but brought him back to pitch Game 3 of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. He needed Tommy John surgery that offseason and would not pitch again until 2000.

Wood was the first of several young pitchers (Mark Prior became another notable case five years later) the team would pitch into oblivion through sheer overuse. Usually, the reason for that abuse was the team’s thirst for the marketing potential of a pitcher with electric strikeout stuff.

Over time, though, the team’s pitching focus narrowed so much that even healthy pitchers no longer pitched up to their potential. Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth moved to the bullpen within weeks of becoming big-leaguers as the team sacrificed their potential viability and value as starters for the increased velocity and strikeout potential each would have as relievers. Despite starter Matt Clement’s shaky command of his slider, the team encouraged him to throw it a large percentage of the time.

That trade-off, allowing more walks and home runs than necessary merely to get a few extra strikeouts at the margin, became a regular occurrence. Carlos Zambrano had fringe command but a great sinker his first few years in the big leagues. Thereupon, the team leaned on him to strike out more batters, leading to more strikeouts but many more walks and home runs allowed. He led the league in free passes in 2006 and 2007.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild survived three managers in Chicago and installed a system whose sole objective seemed to be strikeouts. Working with GM Jim Hendry, Rothschild built pitching staffs that led the National League in strikeouts for an unprecedented eight straight seasons. Zambrano was joined by more low-contact, marginal-command types, some of whom (Carlos Marmol and Ryan Dempster) worked out in the long term but most of whom (Rich Hill, Rich Harden, Jeff Samardzija and David Aardsma) were mere flashes in the pan.

In 2009 and 2010, the nightmare scenario hit: The strikeouts began to dry up, but the walks continued unabated. Wood was gone for those years, but his legacy remained and the team continued to chase strikeouts with guys like John Grabow, Andrew Cashner and Thomas Diamond. In 2010, the team led the NL in walks allowed and surrendered 767 runs.

Okay, you say, but what does all this have to do with Matt Garza? Just this:

“I’m a fastball guy, and six of their eight hits were breaking ball pitches, or off-speed pitches, and that’s uncalled for.”

That’s a quote from Garza after his second start of the season, a rough one in which he gave up five runs in 5.2 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. In those two starts, Garza has a total of 12.2 innings pitched, and has allowed 20 hits–while striking out 20 batters.

Garza has nasty stuff. Striking out batters at a rate of one per inning is by no means an unattainable or unsustainable goal for Garza. His fastball hums in at around 95 miles per hour with movement, and he complements same with a good slider. Over the past three years, though, he has relied on the fastball almost exclusively. Of the 67 pitchers with enough innings to qualify from 2008 to 2010, Garza threw his fastball a higher percentage of the time than all but three.

In Chicago, he has changed that approach. He has ratcheted his slider usage up from 14.0 in 2010 to 24.4 in 2011. Pretty clearly, Garza is pitching aggressively, but pitching for strikeouts. That alone can explain going to sliders and change-ups as often as he has in lieu of the fastball he loves.

Thus far, walks have not been a problem, and bad batted-ball luck will even out over time. I have very high hopes for Garza. In the AL East. he may have been merely above average, but his raw stuff is more than enough to dominate the NL Central. Watching Garza’s two outings so far, it’s easy to see why Hendry took such a chance and gave away so much to get Garza. No currently active NL Central starter has higher upside.

Still, Garza clearly is frustrated by the early returns on this new approach:

“That’s not my style. That’s not who I am, and something is going to change,” he told the Chicago Tribune. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope that change sweeps through the entire Cubs clubhouse.

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