Should We Worry About Jaime García?

ST. LOUIS, MO: Starter Jaime Garcia of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

After his 21st start, roughly five weeks ago, St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Jaime García's ledger stood at 10-4, with a 3.01 ERA.

In his six starts since, García's got a 6.68 ERA, with 21 strikeouts, 13 walks, and five home runs allowed in 32 innings. I don't see any huge red flags in those numbers, but they're certainly out of character and he's going to be skipped in the rotation this week.

This somewhat strange turn of events led StLouisToday.com's Roger Hensley to put together a sort of round-table discussion, featuring most of St. Louis's better-known Cardinals writers (and including Viva El Birdos founder Larry Borowsky) ...

QUESTION: Jaime García has been particularly ineffective over the last month and is having his start skipped this week. Seeing as he’s not a rookie anymore, this shouldn’t just be about innings count. Is there reason to have any longterm concerns about García?

The general consensus? No, there's not much reason to worry about Jaime García. He was really good last year, and this year his strikeout-to-walk ratio has been significantly better.

Borowsky:

The numbers don’t suggest that he’s injured – according to Fangraphs.com, his average fastball velocity in his most recent start was as high as it has been all year, and he continues to pile up swinging strikes. But he’s yielding more hard contact, and it’s clear to the eye that he’s less sharp than usual. In my opinion, the likeliest explanations are the most common ones – i.e., he’s fallen into some bad habits mechanically or has lost a bit of mental focus. Few pitchers are immune from those types of ups and downs, especially young ones. I think the decision to give him a little time off is a good one.

There's another likely explanation: Like nearly every pitcher whose initials aren't H.R.H., Garcia was bound to hit a rough patch eventually, and sometimes the rough patches can last for a month or more.*

* In case you're wondering, Harry LeRoy Halladay simply had to change his name. There's a very strict rule -- and has been, since Bud Black retired -- about good pitchers not being named Harry. That's why the Padres' manager is named Bud.

So I'm not worried, either. If García is healthy -- and the Cardinals say he is -- there's every reason to think he'll keep pitching well, and might even become one of the league's best pitchers. Based on his strikeout-to-walk ratio, anyway. But we should give space to another perspective, this from the usually perceptive Derrick Goold:

Jaime Garcia has had his moments of brilliance and his sustained stretches of effectiveness, enough that the Cardinals heaped a $27-million extension on the young lefty that could be worth as much as $50 million. He’s regarded internally and by outside scouts as a rising young pitcher, who could be a No. 2 or 3 pitcher for a contending team. Those are heady numbers and high expectations.

But it cannot paper over the fact that in his career Garcia has yet to show that he can consistently provide the innings expected from a starting pitcher. In his last start, Garcia eclipsed his career high (set last season) with his 164th inning pitched this season. In his career, Garcia averages slightly less than six innings per start. That means he doesn’t even average enough to crank out quality starts. Of his 55 starts in the past two seasons, 31 have been 5 2/3 innings or less and 25 have been 5 innings or less. For there not be concern about Garcia’s future in the rotation, he’s got to show more than effectiveness. He’s got to be effecient, too. A five-inning starter does not a No. 2 make.

That's actually pretty stunning, that 45 percent of García's starts in these last two seasons -- good seasons -- haven't exceeded five innings. I will note that in many of his five- (and six-)inning starts, García was pitching effectively, but apparently ran up against pitch-count issues. He's never thrown more than 111 pitches in a game, and has thrown 100 or more pitches in only 14 of those 55 starts. For whatever reason, the Cardinals have simply not allowed García to become a workhorse.

Again, we still have every reason to consider García a good National League starting pitcher. But I don't think we've got a good take on what shape his career will take. Has he peaked already, as so many pitchers do in their early- to mid-20s? Will he survive this mini-crisis, and emerge as a true ace who can average seven innings per start rather than six?

Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan probably have the best idea of anybody. But they don't really know, either.

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