The Rays made a flurry of roster moves on Thursday, right before the 2022 season officially began. A few of those moves were expected, such as selecting Chris Mazza to the opening day roster and placing Pete Fairbanks on the 60-day IL. The Rays also placed Brendan McKay on the 60-day IL which brought the 40-man roster down to 39, leaving one spot open for an acquisition.
The Rays wasted no time filling that spot, claiming right-handed reliever Ralph Garza Jr. off waivers from the Red Sox on the same day. The 28-year old Garza Jr. had been a part of the Houston Astros organization for six years before finally making his big league debut in 2021. He has pitched in relief throughout his professional career and has a career 3.72 ERA in 399 career minor league innings.
Garza Jr. was also fairly effective in the big leagues last season, as he posted a 3.56 ERA across 30.1 innings. These surface level stats are not what makes Garza Jr. interesting though, it’s how he attacks hitters that really separates him from the pack.
Let’s start with his pitch mix. Garza Jr. possesses six different pitches in total: a four-seam, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, and a changeup. That’s a mouthful, and you may be wondering how does he decide how and when to use all of those pitches? Worry not, Garza Jr. has a very specific attack plan.
Versus righties, Garza Jr. is essentially a two-pitch pitcher. Last season he used sinkers 45.5% of the time to righties and sliders at a 48.1% clip to righties (per Baseball Savant). Those two pitches totaled up to 93.6% of all of his pitches to right-handers, with Garza Jr. also mixing in an occasional cutter.
Against lefties though, Garza Jr. breaks out the kitchen sink. Last season he used 52.6% four-seams, 24% changeups, 14% cutters, and 8.8% curveballs. You may notice that there are no sinkers or sliders in his pitch mix to lefties, which means he has essentially molded himself into two completely different pitchers depending on batter handedness. His sinker and slider are exclusively used to righties, while his other four offerings are exclusively used to lefties.
Garza Jr. is not the only big league pitcher who drastically alters his pitch mix to batters of different handedness. Ryan Yarbrough is a good example of a Rays pitcher who does this same thing. The reason Garza Jr. is unique though is that he completely changes his arm-slot, and not just his pitch mix, depending on batter handedness.
Let’s take a look at some video to see these different arm slots in action. First, here’s a sinker to a righty:
Notice that submarine arm slot? Now let’s look at a four-seamer thrown by Garza Jr. to a lefty:
This time he comes in from a straight-over-the-top arm slot. Garza Jr. used these distinctly different arm slots all season long, and we can see that in his release point plot. The coordinates of Garza Jr.’s release points on every pitch he threw in 2021 are plotted in the chart below:
The stark disparity in his releases is something that we don’t see very often in the major leagues, and is something we can actually measure. Versus lefties, Garza Jr. had an average release height of 5.81 feet above the ground. That figure drops all the way down to an average of 4.55 feet against right-handed hitters.
The difference between both of those release heights is 1.26 feet, which is the largest difference among all pitchers who threw at least 100 pitches to both righties and lefties. No other pitcher even comes close to Garza Jr. in this regard either, making him somewhat of a unicorn.
Because of this, Garza Jr.’s arsenal contains the best of both worlds as far as attacking hitters goes. Right-handed hitters see an east-west approach from him, as his sinker gets good run in on the hands of hitters while his sweepy slider falls off of the outside corner. This is no accident either, the Rays have targeted this style of a pitcher a lot lately. Free agent signees Brooks Raley and Corey Kluber both possess these similar sinker and slider traits, except their arm slots are a bit higher than Ralph’s.
Against lefties, Garza Jr. has the completely opposite game plan, which is a north-south approach. Four-seams up in the zone coupled with off-speed down is his usual attack method there, which also mirrors the style of many pitchers currently on the Tampa Bay staff (think Fairbanks, Feyereisen, Springs, etc.).
As for his results, Garza Jr. was a bit more effective to righties last year, mostly due to better strike throwing. He posted a 8.9 BB% against righties compared to a 14.6 BB% against lefties. The plots below show the location of all of Garza Jr.’s pitches from last season:
This is not a perfect science, but we can quickly look and see that he doesn’t have the tightest clusters of pitch locations. The plots of his sliders, curveballs, and changeups in particular are all over the place and not all that close to the strike zone.
One common trend we see with Tampa Bay pitchers is that they often are able to cut down their walk rates after arriving here. It shouldn't be shocking if that is a development we see with Garza Jr. too.
Rays beat writer Adam Berry wrote an excellent story last year about the key to the Rays pitching success. It largely focuses on how the Rays are constantly harping on the importance of strike-throwing and will often simplify a pitchers pix-mix in order to help them do just that. Ralph Garza Jr. looks like another prime candidate to follow this exact path.
This past Friday, Garza Jr. made his first appearance with AAA Durham as he fired one scoreless frame and induced a strikeout. Hopefully it’s not too long before we see baseball’s funkiest reliever in St. Petersburg.