Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Rays just signed a player coming off an injury-plagued year in which he regressed from a breakout campaign the year before.
Yes, Avisail Garcia seems to fit a pattern of recent Rays trades and signings.
He is a full year removed from his All-Star 4 fWAR 2017 season. In 2018 he had a disappointing year where he played through some injuries. Taking a chance on a player coming off a down year, who recently showed some big time production, is very much the “Rays’ Way”.
That’s what we see at the surface level. Let’s take a deeper dive into Garcia’s potential.
My immediate reaction to the news the Rays were signing Garcia, like every player the Rays are rumored to be in on, was to bring up the Fan Graphs and Baseball Reference tabs and get a nice overview. When I’ve glanced through Garcia’s surface stats before, I’ve come away fairly unimpressed.
Immediately when you see a player go from near 0 win seasons to exploding to a 4 win All-Star season and then back down the following year, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of the improvement. And in Garcia’s breakout 2017 campaign, his BABIP was a whopping .392(!).
That’s not encouraging.
Moreover, Garcia’s walk rate has gone down each year, his strikeout rate has climbed, and his defense is (according to DRS) below average.
This doesn’t look like a smart gamble.
Usually when my immediate reaction to a Rays move is, “huh?”, I take a closer look. The Rays FO have earned some serious credit, and especially with their more head scratching moves, there is usually a process underneath that might tell a more complete story.
When the Rays went out and made a big trade for Yandy Diaz, it seemed the Rays were buying into some underlying metrics. Yandy’s major league production was nothing super eye opening, but he jumped off the page in several areas measured by Statcast. It’s reasonable to believe that internal team metrics might align closer to the Statcast metrics, and offer more confidence in what Diaz could become.
It’s no surprise then that Avisail Garcia shows similar traits.
Let’s start with a measure on which Yandy Diaz (and for that matter Tommy Pham) excels: exit velocity
Avisail Garcia, over the past three seasons, has posted average exit velocities of 90.2 MPH, 90.3 MPH, and 90.2 MPH. That’s both incredibly consistent, and also quite good. In each of those years he has ranked 55th, 22nd, and 57th in all of MLB; Garcia hits the ball hard. In 2018, Garcia hit the ball 95+ MPH on 43.2% of his contact.
Garcia also shows very well in Barrels. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to:
...batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.
Barrels are good. Barrels are really good. And Avisail Garcia last year had a Barrel in 7.8% of his PA. To put that in perspective, that’s better than Edwin Encarnacion, Matt Olson, Yasiel Puig, and Nick Castellanos.
Garcia also does something else that Yandy Diaz does: hit the ball on the ground. For his career, Garcia has a 45.8% GB rate, with his past three years being over 50% to just under at 48.6% in 2018. As Jim Turvey excellently explored, “the Trop is a ground ball hitters paradise”. The Rays may very well be banking on that home field advantage to maximize both Diaz and Garcia’s talents.
Also, just for fun, I found that Avisail Garcia had the 2nd longest HR in 2018. At the time it broke multiple Statcast records:
We have liftoff in Toronto! @AvisailGarcia’s 116.7 mph, 481 ft blast sets @whitesox #Statcast records for HR exit velocity and distance. pic.twitter.com/GGeW78VAYf— #Statcast (@statcast) April 4, 2018
The glove can play
At first glance, Garcia seems like somebody who isn’t a very good defender. I’ve seen that written in comments and tweets so far.
But is he?
DRS sure doesn’t look very kindly on him; however, Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric paints a different picture.
In 2018, Avisail Garcia was worth 4 Outs Above Average, which is more than Kevin Pillar (2) and Mallex Smith (-2) to put into some perspective. By this metric, his past few years he’s ranked 33rd (2018), 76th (2017), and 67th (2016).
Garcia is also faster than he might appear with his 6’4” 240 LB frame. He has a sprint speed (ft/second) of 29.0 f/s, where a sprint speed of 30 f/s is considered Elite. Again, for some perspective, Garcia’s 29.0 ranks equal to Dee Gordon (29.0) and slightly ahead of Kevin Kiermaier (28.9).
Avisail Garcia does not seem like a terrible outfielder. He isn’t going to dazzle like Pham and KK in the field, but Garcia has the versatility and ability to fill in nicely in the corners. With the injury histories of Kiermaier, Pham, and Meadows, it’s useful to have contingency plans in place.
What went wrong in 2018?
In my research on Garcia, I’ve found a fascinating player. He hits the ball hard, he Barrels the ball at a good rate, he has speed, and he plays into a potential ground ball approach of the Rays. However, he also strikes out a ton and is walking less. If you can’t make contact, you can’t Barrel a ball. If you don’t get on base, you can’t use near elite level sprint speed.
Why did he have such a disappointing 2018? Sure, you can point to the zeppelin-high BABIP, but that’s only part of the story. In 2017 Garcia had a .506 SLG but with an .501 xSLG (expected slugging percentage).
One thing that changed was his launch angle.
In 2016 Garcia had a launch angle of 5.4%, in 2017 7.5%, and in 2018 that rose again to 9.7%. Garcia also pulled the ball more than he has ever before
Another impediment to Garcia’s 2018 was injury, and playing through that injury.
Manny Randhawa has a great write up at MLB.com on the optimistic outlook for Garcia, and he had this quote from Garcia that might explain some of that negative regression:
“I had been feeling something, something, something [in my knee] and then I started feeling my hammy, because I think I was [favoring it],” Garcia said in September. “Especially because it’s my right knee, and that’s where all my power is.”
It will be interesting to see whether the Rays have Garcia continue to try to elevate and pull the ball, or if they will urge him to go back towards spraying the ball to all fields and lowering the launch angle.
I view the signing of Avisail Garcia as equal parts buying into a bounceback year and believing in the bat of Ji-Man Choi.
With some positive regression, Garcia’s bat could play to both hands, but it’ll be his ability to hit left handed pitching that will bring the most value to the Rays immediately.
For his career, Garcia has a slash line of .304/.358/.457 and 121 wRC+ when hitting against lefties. Even in his down year last season he slashed .279/.333/.477 with a 119 wRC+ against opposite handed pitchers.
If the Rays are believers in Ji-Man Choi’s bat as the long side of a DH platoon (120 wRC+ career vs RHP), then pairing him with Garcia provides some upside. Being the short side of the platoon leaves the Rays with some options to mix and match off the bench with a solid major league hitter who can be a danger to the variety of lefties in the AL East, and who can also play around the field, a prerequisite we knew would discount the Rays pursuit of Cruz, Encarnacion, or even Jose Martinez.
This is very much a Rays signing, and if he’s healthy, it may be a good one too.