It was your average Wednesday evening in the baseball world. Well, unless you were Grayson Rodriguez, tasked with making his MLB debut in Texas facing off against Jacob deGrom, setting the stage for the perfect game for anyone to consume.
Yet, as exciting as Rodriguez and deGrom were, my attention shifted to a different storyline. Was it the Orioles’ stellar young lineup, or some of the Rangers’ high-priced free-agent acquisitions? Nope! Instead, it went to a player who, in what has been a difficult two-year stretch for the Rangers, has been a shining light that the fanbase has been able to be excited about.
See, Texas’ broadcast mentioned a particular player making an effort to make improved swing decisions, which, given the significant correlation between that and offensive success, naturally intrigued me. Then again, we hear players constantly talking about wanting to get better in certain areas, and simply “swinging at better pitches” is often a practice easier said than done. Nevertheless, who would I be to not give the player the benefit of the doubt and at least see if their intentions were transpiring into tangible results?
To my surprise, I seemingly came across the rare case where that was turning out to be true! Of course, it was only April 5th; the sample size was so minimal, and we see statistical aberrations all the time. Yet, as we get closer to the one-month mark on the MLB season, this player continues to accomplish his main objective, demonstrating that actions and words can both speak loud together.
Oh, you’re wondering who this player is? I’d credit myself for the ultimate teaser, but I also put Adolis Garcia’s name in the headline, so you already knew who we were here to discuss. I’m guessing “Finding Nemo” doesn’t exactly bury the lede on the top storyline either, right? Anyways, as simple as it sounds, Garcia is doing precisely what he said he would do – swinging at ideal pitches to hit and laying off those that aren’t – and we ought to find that incredibly fascinating.
Now, before we delve into the significance of this, we should take a step back to understand Garcia’s entire story as a player. It’s not every day that a 28-year-old rookie makes the All Star team, especially one who posted just an 88 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) as a 26-year-old in Triple-A in 2019. Yet, when did baseball ever make sense?
Over the past two seasons, Garcia’s fWAR (7) ranks 46th among all players, a result of a combination of above-average offensive production (105 wRC+) and extra value added on the bases and with his outfield defense. What’s been most interesting, however, is how he has reached that 105 wRC+. His walk to strikeout rate (0.19) was tied for the tenth-lowest among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances during that span, while he’s had the tenth-highest swinging-strike rate (17%). That’s a combination that generally hinders offensive success, though Garcia has been able to overcome that due to the quality of contact he makes. In fact, the one-dimensionality of his skillset is remarkably fascinating:
The beauty of baseball is that every player is unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the “what” matters much more than the “how” when it comes to overall production; an A on a test counts the same whether the student studied for ten hours or winged it. At the same time, weaknesses can theoretically be improved over time, which takes us right into 2023.
Think Garcia was kidding about becoming a more selective hitter? Well, think again. In fact, we’ve never seen a period of time where he was making more optimal swing decisions:
Generally, if you swing at fewer pitches outside the zone, then you should also increase your chances of making more contact. Well, that’s precisely what is happening:
This is remarkably encouraging! Consequently, as you’d expect when the percentage of pitches you swing through decreases, you’re likely going to strikeout less; Garcia’s 22.7% strikeout rate is considerably lower than it has been in the past (27.9% in 2022, 31.2% in 2021). Yet, it isn’t just that Garcia is swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone – he’s simply succeeding in swinging at the pitches that he wants to.
Baseball Savant breaks up pitch locations into four categories – heart, shadow, chase, waste. Really, these four names perfectly describe them, with the heart of the zone representing the location of the most ideal pitches to swing at. For Garcia, this is particularly true. Over the previous two years, a swing in the heart of the plate netted him a 27.2 run value over 977 pitches. As for the other three locations? A negative 74.1 run value over 1738 pitches. As you’d presume, swinging at optimal pitches is generally going to lead to improved results.
Hence, why Garcia’s swing decisions this season are even more encouraging:
If Garcia simply decided to express more patience at the expense of some damage pitches, then that would be a very logical trade-off. Yet, at the moment, he’s swinging at pitches over the heart of the plate more than the league average in 2022 (73%), while swinging less on “shadow” (54%) and “chase” pitches (24%). Since when did we live in a perfect world?
Of course, why would we stop here? To take it one step further, the pitch types that Garcia is choosing to swing at is significant to examine. After swinging at breaking balls (58.7%) around nine percentage points more than against fastballs (49.7%), that gap has essentially dissipated this year (44% vs 43.6%). As you can see, breaking balls down and away was a particular spot for him to chase:
This year, you may ask?
Much better! Now, why is this so significant? While we can continue to look at this from a “swinging at better pitches is statistically superior” lens, seeing it put into practice creates a visual memory that illustrates why Garcia felt compelled to make a change at all. Thus, let me take you to Minute Maid Park, where a seemingly inconsequential plate appearance against Astros’ rookie Ronel Blanco was anything but that.
After getting ahead of Garcia 0-1, Blanco sets out to attack the Rangers’ cleanup hitter with breaking balls. Considering the success pitchers have had in the past with this approach, why wouldn’t he? Yet, this isn’t the same Adolis Garcia.
That’s four stone-cold takes on four quality sliders, allowing Garcia to do something he did just five times last season; walk on a breaking ball. This year, that’s already up to two, including an exceptional 3-2 take against Zack Wheeler, of all pitchers:
In 2022, a quality 3-2 slider to Garcia may have gone something like this:
Or, even worse, like this:
Okay, now that we’ve established the monumental conclusion that walking is a preferred outcome to striking out, see how these swing decisions can have an indirect effect as well. If you tuned into the highlights from April 4th’s Orioles-Rangers game, then you likely were made aware of this home run:
Yet, what if I told you that last year, Garcia would likely have been back in the dugout already? When you’re chasing at breaking balls just under 46% of the time, as he was in 2022, pitches like this are likely swung through:
Think of this two-pitch sequence like the plot of a movie. We see the happy ending, but what’s lost is the turning point that allowed for the outcome to take place. Personally, I appreciate when a movie has a happy ending – to go back to our “Finding Nemo” reference, the story is much more of a bummer if Nemo is never actually found. Rather than deal with a bummer, a world with quality takes on 2-2 sliders is much more fun!
Unless we believe Garcia is going to post a batting average on balls in play (.204) at an astonishingly low rate, the chances are that his newly-found selectiveness is about to transpire into very positive results. While that’s great news for a Rangers team currently in first place in the AL West, it’s also tremendous for baseball in general; having a player with such an electric set of raw skills lead to sustainable productivity is exactly what anyone could ask for. For a 30-year-old to take a glaring weakness in arguably the toughest aspect of hitting and turn it into a relative strength is incredible, and ought to be spotlighted.
So, to Adolis Garcia, cheers to you doing exactly what you set out to do! Next up? Perhaps the best offensive season of his career. How that’s for a happy ending?
Note: Statistics as of Saturday, April 22nd morning, prior to Garcia’s three-home run performance later that night.