When Avisail Garcia first came up with the Tigers in 2012, he was immediately compared to Miguel Cabrera. Like Cabrera, Garcia is big and is from Venezuela, and there was enough facial resemblance that some fans called out for Cabrera when they spotted Garcia. Teammates nicknamed him Mini Miggy.
The comparison was unfair. As much as scouts loved Garcia’s talent, he didn’t produce. The Tigers traded him to the White Sox, and as a regular in 2015 and 2016 he hit .252/.308/.374. He had a low average, a low OBP and didn’t hit for much power. He was essentially a replacement-level player.
The White Sox gave him another chance in 2017, mostly because they didn’t have anybody else to play in the outfield. Because this is baseball and these things happen, Garcia is not only outhitting Cabrera but also leading the American League with a .342 average heading into the weekend. With 11 home runs, he’s just two shy of his career high.
Garcia has attributed his success to more experience and a better pregame routine. The advanced stats don’t suggest he’s made any changes in his approach. He’s still very aggressive, with one of the highest chase rates in the majors (in fact, he’s swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than in 2016). He’s still an extreme ground ball hitter (top 20 ground ball rate among qualified hitters). His hard-hit rate is up, leading to a few more home runs and doubles, but it seems the primary reason for his .342 average is a little thing called good luck. His average on balls in play is an unsustainable .413, compared to .320 and .309 the past two seasons.
So Garcia is probably ripe for decline. Still, his hot start may land him on the All-Star team. Here are some other starts that you may have overlooked so far:
It will be difficult to leave Knebel off the NL All-Star team: He has a 0.96 ERA with 65 strikeouts and a .147 average allowed, a dominant season lost only in the excellence of Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. Knebel has at least one strikeout in each of his 38 appearances and is 12-for-14 in save opportunities since taking over as closer.
He throws 96-97 mph with a wipeout curveball. He had great stuff last season, but his strikeout rate has improved from 26 percent to 44 percent. The key has been a higher spin rate on his fastball; high-spin fastballs, because they create the illusion of a “rising” fastball, have a higher swing-and-miss rate. If he keeps that going, expected continued dominance from Knebel.
There was a day or two a couple weeks ago when Cozart led the NL in WAR. Yes, Cozart can someday tell his grandkids that at one point he was the best player in the league. Cozart should be back soon from a short stay on the DL, but for a six-year veteran, his sudden emergence (.320/.404/.562) is certainly one of the season’s big surprises. And no, this isn’t simply a ballpark thing: He’s slugging higher on the road than at the Great American Ball Park.
It seems unlikely that Cozart has actually transformed, after over 2,500 plate appearances, into one of the best players in the league. He has always been an excellent fielder — he’s never won a Gold Glove, but has had a positive defensive runs saved total each season in the majors — but has generally been a below-average hitter. One improvement this year has been a career-high walk rate, as he’s dropped his chase rate, so swinging at strikes has certainly helped. His exit velocity, however, remains below league average. Basically, he’s hitting much better than you would expect given his contact authority. An impending free agent, Cozart will be an interesting trade target, but any acquiring team should be prepared for a drop in production moving forward.
General manager Jerry Dipoto acquired Gamel last August for a couple of 18-year-old minor league pitchers. He fit the profile of a fourth outfielder: not enough power to start, not enough speed and defense to overcome the lack of power. He actually began the season in Triple-A Tacoma, getting called up only when Mitch Haniger landed on the DL.
All Gamel has done is hit. In fact, with a few more plate appearances, his .352 average would lead the AL over Garcia’s mark. Gamel is about seven plate appearances short of qualifying, so he could join the leaderboards sometime late next week (you need 3.1 PAs per team game played to qualify). Heading into the weekend, he has hit .444 over his past 15 games, including 10 multihit games.
Gamel has absolutely destroyed fastballs, hitting .470/.562/.640 against them — yet pitchers keep throwing him fastballs. Among 204 players with at least 200 plate appearances, Gamel ranks 26th in percentage of fastballs. Let’s see if pitchers start making adjustments and throw him more off-speed stuff.
This is a little bigger name than the others on the list, as Ozuna was an All-Star last season. He then had a terrible second half, hitting .206 with six home runs. A wrist injury may have played into that. He’s here because it’s worth pointing out he’s had an MVP-caliber first half, hitting .325/.390/.588 with 20 home runs and 53 RBIs. He entered the weekend tied for third with Joey Votto among NL position players in FanGraphs WAR, just ahead of Bryce Harper. Ozuna should receive a second straight All-Star trip … and then has to show he can do this for six months instead of three.
The Brewers lead the NL Central, and these two have been a big reason why. Anderson ranks fifth in the NL with a 2.92 ERA and Nelson 12th with a 3.50 ERA. Nelson has always been a breakout candidate but has been held back by control issues. He led the NL last year in walks and wild pitches while averaging 4.3 walks per nine. This year, he’s cut his walk rate significantly, from 10.7 percent to 6.3 percent.
Anderson, meanwhile, is riding a streak of six straight quality starts in which he’s posted a 1.33 ERA while holding batters to a .153 average. His velocity is up from last season, and he has cut down on his walks. Both have done an excellent of suppressing home runs, no easy feat in Milwaukee, where the ball flies. I don’t know if they can keep this up, but there’s nothing in the numbers that suggests something fluky going on here. They’ve been good and could continue to be good, which means the Brewers have a chance to keep this going in the NL Central.
If only the Nationals had a hard-throwing lefty reliever to help solve some of their bullpen issues … Rivero, acquired from the Nationals for Mark Melancon last year, has allowed three earned runs in 40 innings with 43 strikeouts, nine walks and a .137 average allowed. Oh, and he averages 98 mph with his heater. What makes this even more painful for the Nationals is that when the Dodgers scored four runs in the seventh inning to win Game 5 of last year’s NLDS, Nats manager Dusty Baker used five relievers — BUT NOT MARK MELANCON. So the Nationals ended up giving up a stud reliever for a closer they didn’t even use with their season on the line.
Logan Morrison, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
Let’s see. He hit 14 home runs last year in 353 at-bats. In 2015, he hit 17 in 457 at-bats. The year before that, 11 in 336 at-bats. You want me to continue? In 2017, he has 22 in 244 at-bats, hitting .250 with a .582 slugging percentage. It seems he is a prime beneficiary of the lively ball, but Morrison has had a slight change in his approach. He’s swinging less often — his chase rate has gone down — but he’s missing more often. Two years ago, his swing-and-miss rate was 18.5 percent; this season, it’s up 26.0 percent. His fly ball rate has gone up from 32 percent to 45.8 percent. In other words, swing hard, hope you hit the ball in the air, and watch it go over the fence. He is one of the early home run leaders and may continue his pace.
After Friday’s start, Wood is 8-0 with a 1.96 ERA on the season. He doesn’t have enough innings yet to qualify for the ERA title after missing a couple weeks with inflammation in his SC joint. Friday’s turn came on six days of rest, and maybe that’s one key to his dominant numbers: Of his 10 starts, only three came on four days of rest, one of those following a two-inning relief appearance. Before Friday, with an extra day or two of rest between starts, he has held batters to a .178 average and just two home runs. The rich just got richer.