Tigers' Bryan Garcia trusts new pitching coach will take him to next level
Detroit – Guess how many relievers in the major leagues last season inherited at least 11 runners and stranded them all?
That would be one. And he pitched for the Tigers.
It was quite a rookie season for right-hander Bryan Garcia. He posted a 1.66 ERA (four earned runs in 21.2 innings) – the 10th-lowest ERA for a rookie reliever (minimum 21 innings) in franchise history. By September he’d become the closer and finished with four saves.
“I just kind of proved to myself that I belong, and I can be successful at this level,” Garcia said Monday in a Zoom call. “You always tell yourself that, but it’s nice when you prove it to yourself.”
But just as he firmly got a foothold in the big leagues, the landscape shifted. There is a new regime in place for 2021, a new manager (AJ Hinch) and a new pitching coach (Chris Fetter). Garcia, like every other pitcher in the bullpen and player on the team, will have to prove himself all over again.
“I haven’t talked to AJ yet, but I’ve talked to Chris and he seems awesome,” Garcia said. “I’m very excited to work with him and get to know him. I want to get to know his philosophy and see what he has for me.”
Fetter is 34 and fresh from a successful run at the University of Michigan. This is his first big-league coaching job. His predecessor, Rick Anderson, just turned 64 and was a big-league pitching coach for 15 years. You get where this is going.
“Andy was older than Chris but Andy was great,” Garcia said. “We couldn’t complain about him one bit. He was so easy to talk to, very relatable. He kind of dumbed everything down and explained what he wanted from us.”
It was Anderson and bullpen coach Jeff Pico who helped Garcia make a slight mechanical adjustment in August that turned his season around.
In his first 12 outings, he allowed three earned runs in 11 innings, with opponents hitting .233 against him. After the adjustment, which helped him get more life on his sinker and slider and sharpened his command, he allowed just one run over his last 14 outings (covering 10.2 innings) while posting four saves and four holds, and holding opponents to an .211 batting average.
“For the first half of the season I felt like I was getting outs but I was getting away with stuff I shouldn’t be getting away with,” Garcia said. “But toward the end, maybe the last three or four weeks, I found something working with Pico and Andy.
“The way I pitched the last three or four weeks is the way I want to pitch for a full season.”
Garcia will certainly be an interesting case study for Fetter. Despite the low ERA and the low exit velocity on balls put in play against him (86 mph), and despite an elite slider than limited hitters to a .143 average, he only struck out 12 in 21.2 innings with a low 20-percent swing-and-miss rate.
Not the typical blueprint for late-inning, high-leverage relievers these days.
“I know I need to make my pitches better,” he said. “I need more strikeout pitches or put-away pitches.”
The spin rate on both his sinker and slider were down by nearly 100 rpms from 2019. Reshaping pitches is one of Fetter's fortes. It could be, too, that Garcia works too often in the lower quadrants of the strike zone with a sinker and slider. Maybe Fetter can get him to use his four-seam fastball more often.
"I am willing to do it," Garcia said. "It's just up to what Fetter thinks. I'm going to go with him. My slider needs work. I need to create just a little more movement. My change-up is where I want it. My fastball, does he think it can help me be more successful in the long run?"
He’s hoping Fetter can get him to that next plateau.
“My first impression is that he seems very excited and ready to get to work,” Garcia said. “He can help all of us improve and get better. The Tigers have been making that move to being more analytical and I think he can be that final piece.”
Though he’s yet to speak with Hinch, Garcia has done his homework on his new manager.
“I was pumped when he was hired,” he said. “I mean the guy has won a World Series. He’s got a little baggage people would say (Astros cheating scandal), but I’ve only heard good things from people around baseball about him.”
One thing Hinch has said is that he likes his relievers to be able to go multiple innings and he’s not a fan of hard-and-fast roles.
“Don’t get too rigid in the use of your bullpen,” Hinch said last month. “Whoever you name closer, you might need him in the seventh or eighth inning. I’ve shown myself to do that in the past.”
That’s OK with Garcia. He just wants to earn Hinch’s trust. He wants to be among the Tigers’ late-inning weapons.
“I’m just going to show up in spring training trying to win a job in the bullpen,” he said. “I feel like AJ is going to be the kind of manager who wants his relievers to be ready at all times. So I just want to win a spot in that bullpen and be ready to go on opening day.”