CHICAGO -- When the Cubs acquired Matt Garza through a blockbuster offseason trade, the belief within the organization was the team had added front of the rotation starter. Opinion was divided, however, on just how good he would become. Dissenters claimed that Garza relied too heavily on his fastball, gave up too many home runs and didn’t get enough swings and misses for a power pitcher.
The latter two issues likely were a direct result of Garza’s reliance on his fastball. In Garza’s three seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, he threw his fastball more than 70 percent of the time.
With that, Cubs’ pitching coach Mark Riggins has worked on with Garza throughout the season, trying to make him a more well-rounded pitcher.
“I got a feel for him after three or four games and what his style is, even though I did see the numbers,” Riggins said, referring to Garza’s constant use of his fastball. “[We] just let him do it, the hitters were hitting him a little bit and we make the adjustments along the way. Now he’s becoming a more polished pitcher with his pitch selection.”
Riggins said Garza’s original style wasn’t working very well. They decided to manipulate his method and mix in his change-up and curveball a bit more than Garza had in years past.
Garza's newfound approach to the mound led to another successful start Friday when he pitched nine innings and surrendered three runs in a game the Cubs won on Marlon Byrd's 12th inning infield single.
Coming into Friday's start, Garza’s fastball use has dropped all the way to 53.1 percent this season, and he’s using his slider, curveball, and change-up more than in any previous season in which he has been a full-time starter. The results are proof that the changes are working. After compiling a 6.27 ERA in his first three starts, Garza’s listened to Riggins’ recommendations and he’s compiled a 3.19 ERA in the 26 starts since.
“[He was] very receptive [to the advice], because the hitters were telling him that he needed to make a few changes,” Riggins said. “It’s always easier to let a guy fail a little bit and then when you come to him with a different plan, he accepts it a lot more than just telling him the plan right away.
“I just think he’s gonna be much better for the future. He does have some things to get better at. He has the pitches now, it’s the consistency of throwing those when he needs to throw them in the counts and executing the spots with those pitches.”
The inconsistency Riggins mentions leads to Garza’s sometimes-high walk totals, but while his 2.97 BB/9 is on the high side, it’s not currently a big issue. So far this season, Garza is delivering career highs in strikeout rate (8.85 K/9), home runs allowed (0.69 HR/9), and his ground ball percentage, through Friday, of 46.2 is second to only the 47.7 percent he posted in 2007 in only 15 starts.
Riggins attributed the improved performance to Garza’s changed approach. The fact that he’s using a sinker a bit more instead of leaning on his four-seamer has led to more groundouts. More groundouts has meant less fly balls and thus fewer home runs. The best things about it, says Riggins, is that in the end Garza throws fewer pitchers, which will allow him to throw more innings.
Of course, sometimes Garza’s competitive nature still gets the best of him, like it did on Friday against the Houston Astros. Garza gave up a game-tying two-run homer to Carlos Lee in the ninth inning, Lee’s second home run of the day, both of which came on four-seam fastballs. Garza shook off his catcher Geovany Soto twice, choosing to challenge Lee with his bread and butter, rather than go away with the fastball or a slider.
“It’s one of those situations where I said, ‘here’s my best, whaddya got?’ and he guessed right and beat me” Garza said. “I knew where I had to put that pitch for him not to hit it, but I just left it up and in and he got it. It’s tough to tip your cap, but you have to.”
Though it sometimes leads to trouble, it’s the bulldog like attitude that Riggins and many of Garza’s teammates love. Even on his days off, Garza’s infectious exuberance is displayed at the top step of the dugout, as he leads the cheers for his team.
“We love having him here every day, he’s our future,” Riggins said. ‘He brings enthusiasm to the park ever day, when he takes the mound we expect to win every time that he goes out there. We know that he’s going to bring his best effort and it actually brings the team up a little bit when you got that guy really committed to winning every time he goes out there.”