Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Fragile Pysche of Matt Garza

When the Twins selected Matt Garza, then a junior out of Fresno State University, they selected a pitcher on the rise.  Entering college, Garza admitted his arsenal was limited to a 90+ fastball which was feasted upon and began developing supplementary pitches. "I came into college with one pitch," Garza told La Velle E. Neal with the Star Tribune in 2005, "A fastball I could not control too well.  I was kind of fed to the wolves that year." In his first two seasons in the Western Athletic Conference, Garza had thrown 133.1 innings while posting a ho-hum 98/65 K/BB and allowing 20 home runs.  By his junior season however, Garza emerged as a preseason All-WAC member and the ace of the Bulldogs with his mid-90s fastball in conjunction three other pitches (curve, slider and changeup) that he could throw for strikes.  Now armed with the necessary breaking and offspeed stuff, the 20-year-old dominated the competition, striking out 120 in 108.1 innings – averaging nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings.  Furthermore, Garza demonstrated command of the strike zone by walking just 37 in his 19 games and only surrendered five home runs.  For this performance, the WAC named Garza Pitcher of the Year in 2005. 


In June of that year, the Minnesota Twins made Matt Garza the 10th pitcher chosen (25th overall) in a solid draft class.  Topping the list were future All-Star candidates in Justin Upton (ARI), Alex Gordon (KAN), Jeff Clement (SEA), Ryan Zimmerman (WAS), Ryan Braun, (MIL) and Troy Tulowitzki (COL).  The Twins and Garza agreed on a $1.37 million bonus, which inspired the 21-year-old pitcher to tell the Fresno Bee "I'm ecstatic.  Any time someone says you're going to be a millionaire and they make it happen, you've gotta be happy."




Garza was shipped to Elizabethton, where his transition to pro baseball was seamless. In 19 innings Garza posted a 25/6 K/BB ratio (striking out 34% of batters faced).  Following a nine strikeout outing in six innings against Houston's Appalachian League affiliate, Greenville, the Twins opted to move Garza to single-A Beloit to replace Anthony Swarzak in July 2005.  There in 56 innings of work, Garza maintained a 64/15 K/BB ratio (27.2% k%).  Garza finished his professional debut with 76 innings and a 3.57 ERA split between two levels.  


But when the baseball season concluded, the NCAA found Fresno State in violation of the league's new academic measures.  The collegiate governing body stripped equivalent of one baseball scholarship from the program as five Bulldog players were cited for failing marks.  Garza was one of the perpetrators.  Apologetic, Garza called from Florida to offer support to the teammates in California he left behind.  Whereas Garza's low grades cost his former squad a premier player via scholarship, 2005's 2nd round choice from Winthrop University, Kevin Slowey, carried a near-perfect 3.96 GPA with him in his three years at school.  This is an interesting contrast between two of the most highly touted Twins pitching prospects - one being described as "temperamental" and the other being labeled "a student of the game".  What his educational makeup or character says about Matt Garza's development as a pitcher is debatable, but it speaks volumes towards Matt Garza as a team player. 


Nevertheless, with academic strife now clearly behind him, Garza focused on his blossoming professional career.  Because of the World Baseball Classic - which took several of the Twins' pitchers out of spring camp in 2006 - Garza was given the opportunity to pitch in front of the Major League coaching staff.  "Garza did fine," said manager Ron Gardenhire after one outing in the spring, "He's got a nice-looking arm. He's going to be a nice-looking pitcher. It's nice to get to see the young man throw the ball." 


Pushed by Minor League Director Jim Rantz, the Twins advanced Garza through the system aggressively.  After just eight starts in the Florida State League - in which Garza threw 44 innings with 53 strikeouts - the organization promoted him to AA New Britain.  Garza was now in a league where he was significantly younger than the competition but continued to thrive throwing 57 innings and striking out 68 with a WHIP of 0.95.  He had yet to be challenged.  By mid-July, Garza found himself in Rochester, making five starts and tossing 34 innings while striking out 33 and walking just 7.  Even before the conclusion of the month, former manager Tom Kelly and general manager Terry Ryan were monitor Garza's starts in person trying to determine if the raw but dominate right-hander could help the Twins in the near future.  Because of injuries to Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke, Garza's major league debut was accelerated.  On August 11th, 2006, Matt Garza took the mound at the Metrodome against the Toronto Blue Jays.  Garza would barely last long enough to hear the echoes of the National Anthem cease as the Blue Jays scored seven runs on eight hits in 2 2/3 innings. "It was a little more than I expected," Garza said of his debut. "I tried to play calm, but when I got out there and heard the crowd, the adrenaline got going really high, really fast and that's when the nerves kicked in. I couldn't stop shaking after that first inning."  In his ten appearances in 2006, Garza did nothing to solidify his position on a postseason roster, often appearing "jittery" in his starts.  So when the decision to retain Glen Perkins, Willie Eyre or Garza on the roster, it was Perkins that was chosen and Eyre and Garza the odd men out.




As the rest of the Twins shamefully went three-and-out against the Oakland A's in the ALDS, Garza was honored in the offseason.  USA Today named him the Minor League Player of the Year in 2006 and earned the praise of his manager.  Ron Gardenhire told the newspaper "He's confident in his ability, but not to the point where he doesn't want to listen to anybody. He takes everything in. He understands that no one knows too much in this game. He knows he still has a lot of things to learn even though he's had a lot of success in the minors.  That's pretty special in a young player."


When spring camp began in Fort Myers before the 2007 season, it was assumed that Garza would be a part of the rotation.  "They say there is a spot open, so I'm pitching my [behind] off to get it," he said. "They said I'm not ready, but if I'm in Triple-A, I'm going to do what I did last year. So I'm coming out of the gate firing." But Garza was experiencing lingering neck problems, unable to pitch off of the mound for the first-half of March, which sidelined him for a period of time.  Predicated on this, the decision was made to send Garza to the minor league camp and allow veteran Sidney Ponson to hold the fifth spot in the rotation much to Garza's furor.  Reports said that Garza was visably "upset when he arrived in a golf cart at the minor league complex".  By mid-May, Garza was at full boil over mode, disgruntled with the amount of pressure applied to make him hone his seldom used off-speed pitches.  "I know how to pitch," Garza said [to Pioneer Press reporter Kelsie Smith] by phone. "I didn't get up here because I don't know how to pitch. I said (to Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn), 'Just let me pitch. You guys just relax. Yeah, I was in a funk for April. My bad. I'm sorry I didn't deal with disappointment the way you guys thought I was going to.  I know I can throw my off-speed pitches for strikes. It's just that I was pressing because I was trying to make them happy, and I can't be that guy anymore. ... I told my pitching coach, and I hope he relayed the message (to general manager Terry Ryan and director of minor leagues Jim Rantz), I said, 'I can't do it, man. I've been scratching my head and not sleeping well at night because I'm trying to be something I'm not.' "


In the same tirade, Garza blamed his poor results at the end of 2006 on a "dead arm", mostly due to his lack of conditioning in the previous offseason.  Rantz, who was instrumental in bringing Garza up to the big club in 2006, responded to these claims by saying "If you had a dead arm, I would think that your velocity would really show that.  He threw hard, so if that's what he said, that was his thinking. We didn't think that." According to Fangraphs.com, Garza's fastball while with the Twins was averaging 94-mph, far from a telltale sign of fatigue. 


As the Twins tried to keep pace with the front running Indians and Tigers in 2008, Garza was recalled from Rochester, who in 16 starts with the Red Wings had thrown 92 innings while striking out 95 and walking 31.  On the last day of June, Garza rejoined the team in Detroit, but had some explaining to do about his earlier comments.  "Being sent down was the best thing for me, just for the fact that it helped me gain trust in my pitches. I'll throw a changeup (on a) 3-2 count, and not say, 'Oh my God, maybe maybe maybe,' " he said. "I want to be the best pitcher I can be. If that means I have to take a couple of steps back in order to go forward, they know what's best for me."  In all, Garza pieced together a good development season, throwing 175 innings between Rochester and the Twins, striking out 162 and walking 63. 


The 2007 season concluded with a whimper and without a postseason berth for the Twins.  Moving towards 2008, the team readied themselves for a rebuild mode, as newly annoitted General Manager Bill Smith allowed Torii Hunter to depart through free agency and dangled Johan Santana in front of several suitors.  With what appeared to be a surplus of pitchers, Twins began looking to flip one of them for an offensive addition.  Ot appeared obvious that Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey, two highly regarded prospects, were the commodities that would acquire the largest returns among all of the prospects in the system.  As Garza's ascension was at the forefront of Twins fans' attention, Slowey was putting together a good minor league portfolio even if his major league debut was met with less fanfare.  In 353 innings at five different levels, Slowey had struck out 342 and walked just 48.  In the end it would be Garza, possibly because of his history of butting head's with the coaching staff, that would be the candidate to headline a six-player trade with Tampa Bay that netted the Twins Delmon Young.




His initial review of the Tampa organization was also a not-to-subtle jab at Minnesota's ability to play tug-o-war with prospects:  "The best thing about this is that there's absolutely no pressure," Garza said during spring workouts. "I've got the No. 3 job, I know when I'm toeing it up and all I have to worry about is getting ready. Last year, I was kind of fighting an uphill battle. Here, I'm not fighting anything; I'm just going out there and pitching, and it's been one heck of a ride. It's been a blast."   


Later, Garza would remark that his tenure with the Twins was "disappointing. They kept a couple guys I felt I was, I could have done maybe, probably, even better than. It was a rude awakening, a humbling feeling.  My whole mentality was, 'Win a spot, win a spot, win a spot.  Now it's more get ready for that spot and take it to the next level. Try to be that guy. Everyone wants to be that (Johan) Santana. I want to take it to the next level." 


It is nothing new for a former Twins player to take the opportunity to vent about their experience as a Twins prospect.  After Todd Walker was traded he told the media that "I think [manager Tom] Kelly can go to the extreme when he talks about what a guy can or can't do.  Especially what he can't do."  More recently, David Ortiz told the Boston Globe "Something in my swing was not right in Minnesota.  I could never hit for power.  Whenever I took a big swing, they'd say to me, 'Hey, hey, what are you doing?' So I said, 'You want me to hit like a little bitch, then I will.'"  There seems to be a limitless amount of former players ready to opine about the franchise's policy of driving the ball to opposite field, becoming more focused on glove work or obtaining consistency with an off-speed pitch (as was the case with Garza) isn't beneficial to how the individual plays the game.  To some, these complaints are justified as evident by Ortiz's 40-plus home run seasons.  When Garza did it, it comes off prima donnaish. 


In just Garza's second start as a Ray, he left a game against the Mariners experiencing pain in his throwing elbow.  He would wind up on the 15-day DL with a radial nerve irritation, an injury that Garza insinuated began while pitching with the Twins last year.  The Twins manager was befuddled at these claims.  "He never missed a bullpen [session] or a start [here]." said Gardenhire, "I don't know what he's saying. I haven't read it and don't plan on reading it, just based on what you said. Everything was documented on Matt Garza and there were no injuries here."


On June 8th, Garza and catcher Dioner Navarro were face-to-face in the dugout tunnel at the Ballpark at Arlington and had to be physically separated by manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.  This was a continuation stemming from heated words exchanged on the mound during the game.  The battery mates ironed out their differences prompting Rays general manager Andrew Friedman to referred to Garza as a "recovering emotionalist."  Since the altercation, Garza began having "heart-to-hearts" with manager Joe Maddon and visiting a Cal State-Fullerton sports psychologist, Ken Ravizza, to address his issues dealing with his emotions and "accepting input from others".


Two big victories against the defending champion Boston Red Sox got Garza rewarded with the ALCS MVP following a 2-0 record and allowing just two earned runs in 13 innings while striking out 14.  No longer is Garza the number three guy avoiding pressure of big games by ducking the number one label, as he proclaimed when he arrived to the Rays camp in the spring - he will be thrusted into the bright lights of the World Series, squaring off with the likes of Cole Hamels.  Which Matt Garza will show up to the World Series? Will it be the one that went toe-to-toe with the Red Sox Nation?  Or the one that came toe-to-toe with Dioner Navarre?   Has all of the turmoil Garza's been through made him the John Smoltz type pitcher that he is so often compared to since Game 7 or will his emotions get the best of him?