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Jaime Garcia and the Holy Trinity (of Pitching)

Can you feel the season getting closer? I sure can. This week has been filled with invitations to recurring Yahoo! leagues, talks of draft dates and keeper deadlines -- all sights for sore off-season eyes. Even ESPN has put up their 2012 draft kit (if you're into that sort of thing), and they're usually the last holdout. Two weeks from today, Oakland and Seattle will play the first actual spring training game. Life will once again make sense.

Last week in this space, I went negative on Ian Kennedy, so in order to maintain my karmic balance, this week I'm going to explain my affection for Jaime Garcia. The #3 starter on the World Champion Cardinals is an undervalued commodity heading into drafts and I think a lot of it is due to the fact that he's not a sexy name. The rankings here at Fake Teams (which, don't get me wrong, are extremely well done) have Garcia as the #48 SP for the upcoming season. This is quite a bit different than my personal list, where he occupies the #33 spot. Fortunately, I'm here to explain his sexiness in full -- and along the way, we'll get into my personal beliefs about pitching and it's holy trinity.

Let's start the analysis by debunking the biggest myth about Garcia -- that he's at least partially a creation of his pitcher friendly ballpark. Last season there was a pretty big deal made of his home/road splits, especially as St. Louis embarked on its improbable run through the playoffs. This was not helped by the fact that Tony LaRussa, the "genius" that he is, went out of his way so Garcia could make 4 of his 5 playoff starts at home (which is impressive since St. Louis did not have home field advantage at all in the post-season). Of course, Garcia rewarded him by giving up 6 runs in his one road start, but that's neither here nor there. If you were watching TV during the playoffs, you'd see these numbers come across the screen:

Jaime Garcia @ Busch Stadium: 9 wins and a 2.55 ERA in 15 starts

Jaime Garcia on the road: 4 wins and a 4.61 ERA in 17 starts

Pretty alarming, right? But what happens when we move away from the McCarver/Buck stats and delve into something a little more meaningful:

Jaime Garcia @ Busch Stadium: 3.34 xFIP, 18.9 K% and .265 BABIP against

Jaime Garcia on the road: 3.29 xFIP, 18.9 K% and .369 BABIP against

Now that looks, well, what's the word I'm looking for which is the opposite of meaningful? I'm sure I'll remember it later. The point is, he's actually very consistent at home versus on the road when you take into account what he can control himself. Same goes for his splits against righties/lefties which is something that was a bit of a knock against him when he was coming up through the minors. The further development of his changeup (and its usage against said righties), has brought his splits to the point where his xFIP of 3.29 and K% of 19.0 were both better than his numbers against lefties (3.42 xFIP and 18.2 K%).

Which brings us to the holy trinity of pitching and how this in turn relates to Jaime Garcia. There are three ways for a pitcher to make himself valuable both from a real-life and fantasy perspective without the baggage of luck or surroundings. First, he must be able to miss bats -- this obviously brings strikeouts from a fantasy perspective, but also helps reduce ERA. Second, he has to limit his free passes -- this has a large effect on a pitcher's WHIP and wins as a by-product since it will allow him to go deeper into games. Finally, he has to keep the ball on the ground -- fewer fly balls = fewer HR allowed and more double plays = better ERA and chance for wins. Any pitcher who does at least one of these things well can be a major leaguer. Just two of these qualities is enough to be a star, but the pitchers who can do all three are the ones who are special because they have the most amount of control over their downside risk.

If we use round numbers to determine these basic parameters (and who doesn't love a good round number), we can see how small the group of pitchers demonstrating all three of these skills is. For the purposes of this exercise, we're going to use a BB/9 rate of 2.5, a K/9 rate of 7.0 and a ground ball rate of 50% to signify a pitcher who is "above average" in these pitching segments. Here is the analysis I did when I covered Jaime Garcia's keeper value at Roto Hardball back in October:

Of the 94 starters who qualified for the ERA title, Garcia finished 30th at 2.31 BB/9. Using 2.5 BB/9 as a cut-off point, there were 41 pitchers in 2011 who exhibited this level of above average control. Next up, missing bats. How many of those 41 pitchers showing above-average control had a K/9 rate of 7.0 or higher? The answer is 21 -- and yes, Jaime Garcia was one of them (7.21 K/9). Finally, keeping the ball on the ground. Using a GB rate of 50% (Garcia's was 11th among ERA-qualifiers at 53.6%), that list of 21 becomes something quite a bit smaller. In fact, it becomes a list of 3 pitchers, Jaime Garcia and two others you may recognize: Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels.

I'm not saying that I'd rather have Garcia than Halladay or Hamels, but I am saying that Garcia's awesomeness is vastly underappreciated.

One more point about Garcia's 2012 outlook before I wrap things up here. The Cardinals defense as a whole is going to be improved next season as their top three offenders as measured by UZR will be either with another organization or moving to a more comfortable position. For starters, with Albert Pujols leaving town, they will be able to move the cardboard cutout of Lance Berkman (he who accounted for a -8.9 UZR patrolling RF in 2011) back to his natural position of first base. Additionally, the two other largest offenders from 2011 -- Colby Rasmus in CF and Ryan Theriot at SS -- are no longer Cardinals. Do we know if Rafael Furcal and Jon Jay will be substantially better? No, but they would be hard pressed to be worse.

If I haven't convinced you by now that Jaime Garcia deserves your love and attention, it's probably just not in the cards (pun intended). Every year there's one or two players who I end up getting in more or less every draft of mine, and based on how the generally accepted rankings and mock drafts are shaking out so far, it looks like Garcia is that guy for me in 2012. The only remaining question is, who's with me?

My 2012 Jaime Garcia prediction: 15 wins, 3.35 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 166 K's in 203 IP