Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Ralph Garza Jr..
The Question: Does Ralph Garza Jr. have a role in a major-league bullpen?
We’ve talked here, and others have talked about it elsewhere on the interwebs, about the shortened spring training this year leading to pitchers who are not as prepared for the regular season, and in turn the need that will create for more pitchers who can eat up innings in the bullpen. Put another way: Pitching depth is at a premium right now. We’ve seen the Red Sox target a bunch of fringy starters and/or long relievers on minor-league deals over the last couple of months, and they’ve also made a few moves on the waiver wire. They tired to claim Kyle Tyler and sneak him right back through waivers, though the gambit failed when he was claimed by the Padres. The reason Tyler was put back on waivers in the first place was to make room for another pitcher in Ralph Garza Jr..
Garza, a right-handed pitcher entering his age-28 season, started his professional career in the Astros organization as a 26th round pick back in 2015. After a long journey through the system, serving almost exclusively as a pure reliever the whole time save for three starts the summer he was drafted, he finally made his big-league debut last season. The righty made nine appearances with Houston before being designated for assignment and subsequently picked up by the Twins, where he made 18 more appearances out of the bullpen.
As far as his success when he was at the major-league level, it depends largely on how you evaluate pitchers, I suppose. If you are just looking at the pure results, the righty did pretty good for his first taste of the highest level. Garza finished his 30 1⁄3 innings last season with a 3.56 ERA. However, the peripherals were less kind, with a roughly average strikeout rate paired with a high walk rate and five homers, leading to a 4.88 FIP. With the Red Sox in a position where they’re likely going to need to make at least one or two 40-man moves for their Opening Day roster to open up spots for guys like Travis Shaw, Derek Holland, or Rob Refsnyder, Garza could suffer a similar fate to Tyler in being designated for assignment shortly after being claimed in an effort to keep him in the organization as depth without taking up a 40-man spot.
Whether on the roster or not, though, it’s worth wondering if there even is a role for Garza at any point besides an emergency call up in the event of a lot of injuries happening over a short time. Looking at his numbers, he doesn’t really stand out in any way. The strikeout stuff is fine, but unspectacular, and the quality of batted balls he allowed in his major-league stint last season was a bit worse than average, but not terribly so. However, when those qualities are paired with a ton of walks — he had an 11 percent rate in the majors, and his minor-league career suggests it wouldn’t be unfair to expect that to remain his norm moving forward — it’s clear that a step forward somewhere is going to be needed for him to carve out any sort of consistent major-league role.
That leads me to look at his arsenal and wonder if there’s something he can tweak there to change his profile up a bit. The good news on that front is he has a good pitch on which he can lean with his slider. This was his most-used pitch while he was up in the majors, per Baseball Savant, as he threw it 31 percent of the time, and typically with great results. A sweeping slider with a ton of horizontal movement, the offering induced a wOBA of .173 and expected wOBA (based on plate discipline and batted ball numbers) of .168, while also inducing whiffs on over 30 percent of swings. It’s a dangerous game to lean most heavily on a slider with that much movement, and is likely how Garza walks so many players. But at the same time, to succeed as a reliever in today’s game you really need a clear out pitch, and this slider is that.
The issue, however, comes when you look at the fastball, which is also a pitch that everyone needs. It’s the fastball that, at least in an ideal scenario, is setting the table for the rest of the at bat for a pitcher to then drop in the slider and get those whiffs and weak contact. But Garza’s fastball was just incredibly ineffective last season. In fact, both of his fastballs were. The righty throws a four-seam and a sinker, both of which sit in the low 90s, and both of which allowed wOBAs and expected wOBAs over .400. Those numbers are on an OBP scale, to give some context for how poor that really is. Too often he leaves those pitches in the middle of the zone, and there’s just not enough velocity to blow today’s era of hitter away.
We are, of course, dealing with a relatively small sample here looking at these numbers, but at least based on what we saw in that major-league stint last year, I would probably zag a bit away from the conventional thinking of today’s hitters. That is to say, I think he should lean more heavily on his sinker, and put all of his efforts into consistently getting it into the bottom of the zone. Last season, Garza’s sinker had plenty of vertical sink — 17 percent more sink than the average sinker, per Baseball Savant — but it was kept at the middle of the zone. A sinker with that much drop should result in ground balls, especially when you’re also throwing a ton of sliders, but Garza’s ground ball rate was below 40 percent.
It’s easier said than done to consistently get better location on your pitches, especially when you’re constantly changing coaching staffs as Garza has the last couple of years being in his third organization since August 1 of last year. But at 28 years old, he’s approaching his last chance to really stick in the majors. As things stand, there’s nothing really to set him apart and I’d be surprised if he was still on Boston’s 40-man roster on Opening Day. But if he can show in the minors that he does have a nice, and to me that niche should probably be a ground ball pitcher who throws mostly sinkers and sliders, then he can get a chance in some organization and stick at least for a few years as a middle reliever.