Mitch Garver Has to Look Beyond the Groove
Image courtesy of © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsAccording to Baseball Prospectus, Mitch Garver has a 61 DRC+ through the first 30 percent of the Twins’ season. For DRC+, 100 is average, and higher is better. Garver’s award-winning 2019 campaign saw him post a 149 DRC+. Even granting that this is a small sample and a bizarre season, this slump is a red flag for a player who acted as a linchpin to the Bomba Squad last year.
If you ask an average Twins fan what they know about Garver, it might be that he hit 31 homers last year, or it might be that he walks to the plate to “Shining Star,” by Earth, Wind & Fire. If you ask an average Twins Daily reader the same, they might mention Garver’s approach. Famously, he waits for his pitch, works for it, and then tries to crush it. He came in for lots of love for that throughout 2019, and with good reason. When that kind of approach is working, it can be a thing of beauty.
As it happens, though, the average fan’s observation and the analytically-savvy one share something important: grooviness. There’s no denying that “Shining Star” is a groovy song, but Garver lives deep in the groove even at the plate—as in, he has a grooved swing, and he finds all of his success within it.
It’s not the case that Garver only hits mistakes. Rather, he tries to use good plate discipline to force pitchers into situations wherein even when they execute a pitch well, he can hit the ball hard. That’s a good approach, when he’s going right. When he’s executing his swing well, that approach will lead to plenty of walks and hard contact, and that will make up for a large number of strikeouts.
However, Garver will always strike out, because that approach and that swing are not designed to hit pitches outside the zone, or even in certain areas within the zone. Since the start of last season, 297 batters have amassed at least 300 plate appearances. Among them, Luis Arraez has the highest contact rate when swinging at pitches outside the zone, at 87.9 percent. Garver ranks 279th, at 42.1 percent.
That’s a notable number by itself, but we can make it even more telling. Inside the strike zone, Garver’s contact rate since the start of 2019 is 85.2 percent, which is exactly average. As you might guess, it’s unusual to be average in one of these numbers, but extreme in the other. The correlation factor between in- and out-of-zone contact rates in the sample is 0.71, which is very strong. Here are the players with the largest ratios between the two rates.
Highest Ratio of In-Zone to Out-of-Zone Contact Rate, 2019-20 (min. 300 PA)
- Luke Voit 2.63
- Aaron Judge 2.51
- Miguel Sanó 2.43
- Hunter Dozier 2.21
- Joey Gallo 2.20
- Chris Taylor 2.04
- Mitch Garver 2.02
- Jorge Soler 2.02
- Chris Davis 2.01
- Adalberto Mondesi 1.98
- Fernando Tatis, Jr. 1.97
- Brandon Lowe 1.97
- Michael Chavis 1.97
- Tim Beckham 1.96
- Kole Calhoun 1.94
The tier just below them, however, is almost as homogenous, but more interesting. Soler and Garver have obvious similarities: Soler was as selective and ruthless last year as Garver was. However, Taylor is a hitter of very different physical stature, with a different plan at the plate. Mondesi and Tatis are comparatively free swingers.
Even within the group, Garver belongs to a select company. The only hitter in the set who has made contact on a higher percentage of swings within the zone than Garver is Dozier. No one on the list has swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone, so in that way, Garver’s creating fewer whiffs that most of the others on this list. The ratio of his swing rate within the zone to the same outside the zone is seventh-highest in baseball, and the highest in this group of 15.
That, though, might be part of the problem. Garver might be so patient as to interfere with his own consistency at the plate. Because he swings so little, even within the zone, pitchers can too easily get ahead of him in the count. Because he shrinks his zone to certain parts of the actual strike zone in most situations, he can be pitched too safely in other areas of the zone.
Contrast him with Tatis, who is also right-handed, has all-fields power, shows good plate discipline, and has a nearly identical ratio of in-zone to out-of-zone contact rates. Garver swings at just over 53 percent of pitches within the zone. Tatis swings at 70 percent of such pitches. His swing, like Garver’s, has holes, and pitchers have found them at times. However, even when he’s not fully locked in, Tatis can be lethal to opposing pitchers. His aggressiveness lowers his risk of getting into deep counts, where his lowish contact rate becomes a real liability, and allows him to tap fully into his power.
For Garver, the approach that brought him such success in 2019 was the result of years of professional evolution, of becoming a more complete and intelligent hitter. If a radically simpler, more primal approach were viable for him, he probably would have found it sooner. It’s unlikely that he can simply flip a mental switch and become a clone of Tatis at the plate, and of course, Tatis’s superior athleticism allows him to do some things Garver couldn’t do even if he perfectly matched that approach. Still, there’s always another difficult adjustment ahead for a big-league hitter, and for Garver, the tricky thing will be threading the needle between getting his pitch every time and not letting it go by when it comes—even if that means widening his definition of what ‘his pitch’ is.
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