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Matt Garza and the Brewers Pitchers Who Were ‘Just Working on Stuff’

Mar. 20, 2017
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It’s been a long time since Matt Garza has had to compete for a job, and maybe that explains why it doesn’t look like he’s competing this spring.

After a couple of partial MLB seasons, Garza made 30 starts for the Rays in 2008 as a 24-year-old and has been a big leaguer ever since, spending the next eight spring trainings largely assured of a role on an Opening Day roster and free to spend his exhibition outings more focused on preparation for Opening Day than results.

When veteran pitchers put up poor numbers or have lackluster outings in spring training, we often hear that they’re “just working on stuff.” If that’s to be believed, then Garza has worked on a lot of stuff during his Brewers tenure: Over the last four years he has a 6.75 ERA in Cactus League games, allowing 1.88 combined walks and hits per inning. This year the results haven’t looked much better: Opposing batters are hitting .376 off of Garza this spring and, as Jim Goulart noted on Twitter, he has yet to record a strikeout in his four outings. Last week he told the Associated Press that he “could have gone through that lineup with my heater,” but opted instead to continue throwing his off-speed pitches while allowing four runs on five hits over 3 1/3 innings against the Diamondbacks.

Garza’s struggles aren’t unprecedented, of course, but his 2017 numbers (8.31 ERA as of Monday) do line him up to be in some relatively rare company. With a minimum of ten innings pitched, here are the Brewers’ spring training ERA laggards since 2010:

Chase Anderson, 9.82 ERA in 2016

Anderson started his Brewers tenure off with a series of clunker outings last March, allowing at least four runs in each of his final four spring training starts while never pitching beyond four innings. Opposing batters hit .409 off of him in the Cactus League and he posted a 2.11 WHIP. The only nice thing to say about Anderson’s 2016 spring is that he threw strikes, going 10 2/3 innings without walking a batter before his last outing.

The good news is that Anderson was able to “flip the switch” and get off to an effective start once the regular season was underway, pitching eleven scoreless innings over his first two outings that counted. The bad news is that he allowed 24 earned runs over 24 1/3 innings in the month that followed, digging a statistical hole that he spent the rest of the year attempting to dig out of.

Matt Garza, 8.80 ERA in 2014

This might be the biggest cause for optimism: Garza has pitched this poorly in the spring before, and in one case he did recover from it. Garza opened his first season as a Brewer with three consecutive poor outings in 2014, including a 1 2/3 inning, ten-run disaster that led to him skipping a turn in the major league camp rotation.

Garza turned things around that spring and opened the regular season strong, pitching eight innings and allowing just two hits in his April Brewers debut. The season had its ups and downs but, by both traditional (3.64 ERA, .268 opponent batting average) and advanced measures (2.7 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs), it was easily his best as a Brewer.

Randy Wolf, 8.74 ERA in 2011

None of Wolf’s Cactus League starts in 2011 were disastrous, but none of them were very good, either: There was only one case in his six outings where he allowed less than three earned runs (and he gave up two in that game). He didn’t record his second strikeout until his fourth outing, and generally looked like a guy that didn’t have much left in the tank for his age 34 season.

Wolf did, however, have one solid MLB season left in him. Despite the fact that the 2011 Brewers had Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo, Wolf actually led the team in innings pitched (212 1/3, a number no Brewer has reached since) and did so with a 3.69 ERA, which was significantly below league average. Wolf’s performance fell off in 2012 and led to his Brewers release, but it’s probably a good thing they didn’t give up on him a year earlier.

Jeff Suppan, 7.71 ERA in 2010

And, on the opposite side of that coin, we have Jeff Suppan. “Soup” was coming off a poor season in 2009 and that momentum followed him into camp in 2010, where a series of poor-but-not-terrible outings made it an easy decision for the Brewers to allow him to open the season on the disabled list with a stiff neck he acquired while sleeping on a rolled-up towel instead of a pillow.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any better for Suppan upon his return: Despite presumably having access to a normal pillow at home he made just two starts for the 2010 Brewers before being relegated to the bullpen and had a 7.84 ERA when the Brewers released him in June. He eventually landed with the Cardinals and was better there, but was still largely done as a major leaguer following the season.

So there you have it: I think we can safely assume that Matt Garza’s 2017 season will probably land somewhere between 2011 Randy Wolf, one of the most quietly valuable in recent Brewers history, and 2010 Jeff Suppan, whose season highlights were a bizarre injury and his performance after being released. The Brewers have about two weeks and at most three more spring starts to determine if they want to keep him around and see how this plays out.

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