He’s been a favorite whipping boy for a few years now, as poor plate discipline, an inability to make contact, a surprising lack of power despite his 6’4” 240 lb. build, poor instincts on the basepaths and terrible defense have led to negative two wins above replacement for his career.
The White Sox tried all winter to replace him and the signing of Austin Jackson relegated Garcia to a platoon DH role. However, LaRoche’s sudden retirement forced Avi into a full-time role. Despite a red-hot Spring Training where he hit a team-leading 5 homers, through the first three weeks of the season his batting line stood at an atrocious .135/.224/.269 with a 31% strikeout rate.
Jerry Sands was starting to get more and more playing time, and it looked like it might finally be time to cut Avi loose.
However, in the last two weeks Garcia has completely turned his season around, batting a blistering .467/.528/.800 over that period, bringing his season batting line up to a more than respectable .256/.340/.463. Yes, it covers only 9 games and all of 36 PA, but there is reason for optimism. This isn’t the same old Avi we’re seeing here, he’s taking a different approach, and this goes beyond just the past two weeks. There are several things that Garcia is doing differently than before, and if he can keep it up, then there are reasons to believe he could continue to be a positive contributor going forward.
Garcia has always been a free-swinger, as he has a career O-Swing% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) of 43%, which is up there with notorious hackers like Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval. He’s especially struggled with pitches low and away outside the strike zone. Pitchers have taken notice, and as you can see in the chart below, he gets more pitches in that location than anywhere else, with the percentage increasing every year.
This year, Garcia's O-swing% is down to a career-low 35.6%, which is down ten percentage points from 2015. Over the past two weeks, his O-Swing% is a well-below league average 21.5%, as over this period he’s swung the bat just 41% of the time, almost 20% below his career average. Again, this is a very small sample size, but in 2015 Garcia never had a two-week stretch with an O-Swing% below 38%, so this is encouraging. A look at his swing heat maps from 2015 and 2016 offers more encouraging news.
Here it’s clear that Avi had a big problem with pitches outside the strike zone, particularly the low pitches, as he swung at over 50% of pitches in that location. Let’s compare to this year.
It’s immediately apparent that Avi has cut down on the problem. His swing-rate on pitches outside and/or low are down considerably from last year. In fact, his swing-rate is down considerably even on the low pitches that end up in the strike zone.
Approach at the Plate
Avi has always displayed a disappointing lack of power for a hitter of his size. A large reason for this has been his approach at the plate. When he hits the ball in the air, he’s demonstrated the ability to make loud contact, unfortunately he has been unable to consistently lift the ball. Garcia has a career 52% ground-ball rate, so much of the loud contact he has made has been nullified by hitting the ball into the dirt. He has hit fly-balls just 27% of the time in his career, but in 2016 he’s increased his fly-ball rate to an above league-average 36%. This isn’t just a trend that started this year either. In 2015, his two months with the highest fly-ball rates were August and September at 32.6% and 35.4% respectively, so this is something Garcia has been doing since the All-Star break last season. Another look at the swing heat maps reveals a noticeable and important difference - at the same time that Garcia is swinging less at pitches low and outside, he is swinging more at pitches up and inside, including pitches outside of the zone. This indicates an effort to swing at the pitches that will result in more fly balls and fewer grounders. Another of Avi’s problems in the past has been his inability to pull the ball, and his increased aggressiveness on inside pitches in 2016 has led to a career-high Pull%, and has helped him to generate more power.
Garcia has shown the ability to make loud contact when he hits the ball in the air. The good news is that this year he’s gotten even better at it. His average exit velocity on line drives/fly balls is a scalding 97.8 miles per hour, similar to the likes of feared hitters such as Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, Manny Machado, and Yoenis Cespedes. This has led to him hitting a home run on 18.2% of his fly balls. While this is 4% above his career average and in the realm of elite power hitters, if he can continue to hit the ball in the air with similar authority, then it’s not unreasonable for that rate to continue.
For an example of Avi’s hard contact, check out this 113 mph rocket off the bat against Henry Owens.
Obviously, with less than 100 PA under his belt so far this season, it’s way too early to suggest that Avi has figured things out. But after never coming close to posting a positive WAR season in his career, he’s currently on pace for a 3 WAR season with career highs in walk rate, slugging and isolated power despite a BABIP below the league average, so at least a little optimism is warranted. Even if he does end up falling off a bit, if he can perform well enough to allow Rick Hahn to devote more attention to the team’s other holes, then that would be a big win. Avi has had his hot streaks before, but this current streak appears to have more solid legs to stand on.
Want to read up on the White Sox farm system and stars of tomorrow? Check out Future Sox.
Want to know right away when we publish a new article? Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. Our list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.