On the surface, this is an odd deal. Alvarez has been the Angels’ most reliable reliever over the last few years, averaging 59 innings per season since 2015. Additionally, he was the only proven left-handed relief pitcher on the Angels’ roster, and he is coming off his best season, posting career bests in earned-run average (2.71), fielding independent pitching (3.05), strikeout rate (22.6%), and WHIP (1.16) in 2018.
Garcia, on the other hand, logged a 6.07 ERA in 2018 and owns an unimpressive 4.12 career ERA. Despite the bloated ERA, though, Garcia actually pitched quite well this year, recording a 3.51 FIP and striking out a quarter of his batters. Alvarez and Garcia have also had remarkably similar careers. The resemblance is especially pronounced over the last two seasons.
In addition to the nearly indistinguishable numbers, both Alvarez and Garcia are projected to earn $1.7 million in arbitration this year and are under team control through the 2020 season. But this doesn’t explain the trade; it merely makes it more confounding. Why would the Angels (or the Phillies, for that matter) be motivated to trade one player for another of such comparable talent? Perhaps, with the help of GM Billy Eppler’s comments, a look at Garcia’s career and repertoire can give us a clearer understanding of the Angels’ intentions.
After five seasons split between the Dodgers and Nationals organizations, Garcia was released in 2010 and proceeded to spend the next two seasons away from affiliated baseball. He signed with the Phillies in 2013, however, and made his major-league debut later that year.
His first extended exposure to the majors came in 2015, when he had moderate success in 66 2/3 frames (3.51 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 20.7% K%). Garcia spent most of the following season in Triple-A, but he rebounded in 2017 to post a 2.65 ERA and a 3.12 FIP across 71 1/3 big-league innings.
The most significant change for Garcia that year was the decrease in his walk rate; it fell from 12.2% in 2015, which was the eighth-highest mark among qualified relievers, to a better-than-average 8.8%. In 2018, Garcia maintained the improved walk rate and upped his 2017 strikeout rate (20.3%) almost five percentage points.
As alluded to earlier, Garcia was a victim of great misfortune this year. Eppler addressed this, telling The Los Angeles Times that “there’s components to him that lead us to believe the ERA was not indicative of his true talent level.”
For instance, Garcia allowed an above-average amount of soft contact, but only seven relievers with at least 40 innings pitched allowed a higher batting average on balls in play than Garica’s .354 and only six saw a higher percentage of their base runners cross the plate. Thus, much of Garcia’s run-prevention struggles were due to no fault of his own.
Notably, Garcia is one of baseball’s hardest throwers. The right-hander’s four-seam fastball averaged 97.8 mph in 2018, placing him in the 93rd percentile of relievers. Eppler noted that velocity was one of Garcia’s most attractive features for the Angels and said that they like Garcia because “he can miss bats.”
Garcia’s career-high 14.5% swinging strike rate this year was comparable to players including Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia, Felipe Vazquez, and Joakim Soria. In 2018, Alvarez’s fastball only sat around 92 mph, and he had just a 10.7% whiff rate, both of which were worse than the average reliever.
Eppler also said that the team was drawn to Garcia because “he keeps the ball on the ground.” Mostly due to his sinker, which made up 32.5% of his pitches this year and also averaged over 97 mph, Garcia has generated a 57.4% grounder rate during his career.
Conversely, Alvarez owns just a 44.4% mark. Presumably, the Angels viewed Garcia as a potential beneficiary of the club’s excellent Andrelton Simmons-led infield defense, and perhaps the Phillies thought that Alvarez’s fly-ball tendencies were a better fit for their defense, which was, as evidenced by Garcia’s poor batted-ball luck, of historically poor quality this year.
Also surely of interest to the Angels are Garcia’s secondary pitches, which are a slider and a splitter. The split-finger fastball is particularly devastating, as opposing batters hit just .118 against the 86.9-mph pitch and whiffed on 46.5% of their swings at it. He mostly uses his splitter to neutralize left-handed batters, who have totaled just six hits against the pitch since the start of 2017.
As far as his slider goes, Garcia really leaned into it this year. In 2017, he threw it 23.7% of the time, but 2018 saw him increase that number to 39.3%, making it his most-used pitch. In doing so, Garcia saw the pitch’s effectiveness drop somewhat, but it remained dominant, with the opposition managing just a .147 expected batting average and a 50.8% whiff rate versus Garcia’s slider, which averaged 84.8 mph.
Precariously, Garcia threw considerably fewer strikes this year than last. In 2017, 49.6% of his pitches were in the strike zone while only 43.8% were this year. Eppler said the team is aiming to help Garcia “continue to improve his strike zone ability,” which, paired with some better luck, he believes “can hopefully get him a lot closer to the pitcher he was in 2017.” The decrease in strikes was likely a side effect of the increase in slider usage, so perhaps we will see fewer breaking balls from Garcia next year.
So, there you have it. Garcia throws hard and generates a bunch of whiffs and grounders. As it turns out, Alvarez does not do any of those things, and, despite the similarities outlined previously, the two pitchers are actually quite different. The Angels just felt that Garcia was the better fit for their team, while the Phillies felt the same about Alvarez.
Only time will tell if either team is right, but Garcia’s high velocity is certainly in line with the Angels’ recent string of hard-throwing acquisitions that includes Ty Buttrey, Williams Jerez, and Hansel Robles. With Justin Anderson and Keynan Middleton also set to play important roles, the Angels will have an abundance of flamethrowers in their bullpen next year, as each of those six possesses a fastball that averages at least 95 mph. Just last year, for reference, the Angels had the third-softest-throwing group of relievers in baseball.
With that rather rapid transformation in mind, it’s clear that Alvarez no longer meshed with the philosophy of the Angels’ front office, so the team simply decided to flip him for a player who does.
Featured image via Ian D’Andrea/Flickr.