May 12, 2017
Can Amir Garrett Make This Work?
The Reds are treating Amir Garrett like a central part of their rebuild, and perhaps a part of their very long-term future. After his start on Saturday, Garrett was optioned to Triple-A, a move the Reds say will allow them to manage his innings and keep him on the mound well into September—an important consideration, if you’re willing to make a certain set of assumptions, because the team leads the NL Central at the moment.
Of course, a more cynical person might point out that the Reds are unlikely to be contending by the time Labor Day comes, so Garrett could just as easily be shut down then to protect him from accumulating an undue workload for the full season. That person might also observe that the demotion will probably last long enough to keep Garrett from accruing a full season of service time this year, thus delaying his potential free agency by a year. If that person were a real bulldog, they might also say that Garrett turned 25 years old last week, has faced between 550 and 600 batters in each of the past three seasons while in the minors, and might not really need this kind of protection.
Right now, though, let’s give the Reds the benefit of the doubt there. For one thing, I do somewhat prefer a plan for managing a young pitcher’s innings that allows him to pitch the full season, with extra rest and carefully controlled single-game workloads, to a plan that simply cuts them off early. For another, precisely because Garrett is already 25, there isn’t overwhelming value in clawing back control of his 2023 season. Most importantly, there’s a more interesting question at hand: Is Garrett worth worrying this much about? To answer that, we need to take a long look at his fascinating profile.
The tempting physical comp for Garrett is Aroldis Chapman. He stands 6-foot-5, with a lanky frame but plenty of strength. His butt is high and his levers are long. It’s easy to see the former collegiate basketball player, and why Garrett believed just a few years ago that his future might be in the NBA, not MLB. Even his gait and his mannerisms mirror those of Chapman a bit. He walks the mound the way Chapman does, with an imposing presence but without the extreme efficiency of movement or the determined, downturned head posture most pitchers maintain. Garrett’s face is open, and his movements are easy. He doesn’t need to pretend nastiness in order to project confidence. He feels genuinely in control.
Unlike Chapman, of course, Garrett doesn’t throw 100 miles per hour. In fact, he sits in the low 90s, hitting 95 or 96 only when really reaching back for it. His delivery is athletic, but not clean, and without the extraordinary power of Chapman’s. Garrett’s real match, from a performance perspective, is Cubs left-hander Mike Montgomery. Garrett throws from a true three-quarter arm slot, with above-average extension. He pitches from the third-base side of the rubber and is better at commanding his fastball to the glove side, so he can get the pitch in on right-handed hitters. That same ability allows him to pound left-handed hitters away, and sets them up to chase his slider as it moves off the plate.
Indeed, he’s gotten opposing hitters to swing at his slider at a high rate, and they’ve whiffed at a high rate too, despite less than exceptional movement on the pitch. Because of the location, sequencing, and delivery of the pitch, Garrett seems to get late reactions from hitters on it. When he has command of that offering, he can miss bats consistently. On the other hand, he struggles with the fastball to the first-base side of home plate, and that limits the utility of his changeup—a pitch that will be vital if he wants to get right-handed batters out well enough to be a mid-rotation starter.
It’s the fastball itself that will make or break Garrett, though, because the fastball is a unique offering. So far this season, 114 pitchers have thrown at least 150 four-seam fastballs. Garrett has the lowest average spin rate on that pitch, and it’s not especially close. (Montgomery is second in that regard.) That means he achieves more sink than most pitchers do on their four-seamers, and it allows him to have success just by locating the pitch at the bottom of the strike zone. Happily, few pitchers are better at doing exactly that than Garrett is. Of those same 114 pitchers, only four have thrown a higher percentage of their four-seamers to the ribbon along the bottom of the strike zone.
I said Garrett can have success pitching that way, and I believe it, but I should qualify that. What throwing such a low-spin fastball near the knees allows Garrett to do is to induce ground balls. It doesn’t (either in theory or in practice, so far) allow him to miss bats with the pitch. Back to those 114 pitchers who have used the most four-seamers this year: Garrett has the second-lowest whiff rate on swings. He’s well above average at getting ground balls with the pitch, but he doesn’t completely stand apart in that regard.
It’s not so much that Garrett can’t ever miss bats with his heat, as that he might not be able to do so when he most needs to. I broke down Garrett’s four-seamers in his six starts so far into velocity bands.
Amir Garrett, Pitch Totals and Swinging Strikes by Velocity, Four-Seam Fastballs
Garrett really only induces swings and misses on the fastball when he humps it up to the high end of his velocity band. That, in itself, is neither surprising nor problematic. However, the relative infrequency with which he gets to that level is an issue. Right now, Garrett doesn’t create momentum as well out of the stretch as out of the windup—not by a few degrees, but by an order of magnitude. He does seem to save his best pure gas for two-strike counts, and he can elevate it when he does go to it. Those are good things. In general, though, he doesn’t add and subtract on the fastball a whole lot from pitch to pitch, and when he does, it seems to be more a matter of timing issues in his delivery than a deliberate effort to throw off opposing hitters.
Like Montgomery, Garrett has a breaking ball that can make up for the fastball’s inability to miss bats, as long as he can get ahead in the count and induce batters to chase that secondary offering. Also like Montgomery, though, Garrett has so far appeared to fatigue early, to have trouble repeating his release, and to have loose enough tunnels that batters pick up the differences between his fastball and his secondary stuff by the time they see him a second or third time in a game.
Not everyone fits into one of the narrow roles created by the bifurcation of the job of pitching that has taken place over the last 30 years. We used to talk more about this, but the idea still floats through sabermetric circles now and then. Montgomery looks unlikely to get the call to the Cubs’ rotation this week, even as the team casts about for a replacement for the injured Brett Anderson. (Chicago is leaning heavily toward calling up Eddie Butler from Triple-A Iowa.) He’s often been hyped as a possible starter, and even a potentially good one. It’s clear that he’s wasted in one-inning relief. However, for a number of reasons, it looks more and more likely that Montgomery's optimal role is somewhere between the two jobs from which pitchers can usually choose in the modern game.
Garrett is the same way. He has a little more athleticism, a little more fluidity, a little more to suggest that he might turn a corner. The Reds certainly ought to let him keep working as a starter, for now. In the near future, though, they would do well to evaluate him again, and seriously consider shifting him into a multi-inning relief role like the ones Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen have taken. All three of those pitchers could dominate for years, and even rack up a substantial number of innings, if their club is willing to break with convention and carve out permanent spaces for them.