What Lights Matt Garza’s Flame? | The Process Report

What Lights Matt Garza’s Flame?

By R.J. Anderson //

Of Matt Garza’s five career complete games, two have come against Roy Halladay. It seems Garza has an obscene obsession for facing Halladay, as some of his best starts have been against the future Hall of Famer. In three starts, he’s compiled 25 and two-thirds innings, 12 hits, 2 earned runs, 1 walk, no homers, and 20 strikeouts. Garza has averaged a WPA of 0.491 in starts against Halladay; or almost half a victory in Win Probability Added all by himself. Just a startling total from a non-elite pitcher. Those performances have led some to label Garza as a big game pitcher.

The idea of a big game pitcher always presented itself as a rumor rather than a reality for the Rays (are any games all that big when you average 90-plus defeats annually?), although James Shields has the moniker and holds the lone victory in Rays’ World Series history while holding the crown as the franchise’s best homegrown talent, he’s not the one most people look at as the true limelight lover. Garza is in third place in franchise history for games started and claims that title. He is the one who won Game Seven with a thrilling performance that tantalized of future dominance. The image of Garza sitting n the dugout shooting finger pistols while listening to Tupac is an everlasting one, but the effort that followed has yet to translate on a routine basis.

Garza recently threw the first no-hitter in franchise history and shortly after Jonah Keri offered a question that went something like: “Does Matt Garza only pitch well when he’s facing a good starter?” It sounds odd because Garza has no interaction with the opposing pitcher except for the rare interleague affair on National League soil. Insanity is the only thought until memories of Garza out-mastering Halladay buoy, followed by the times he’s gone blow for blow with CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, and Cliff Lee amongst others who would fill up a rotation comprised of “The Best of American League Starting Pitchers”.

Maybe the perception is correct. To test it, I gathered each opposing starting pitcher since Garza became a member of Tampa Bay’s rotation along with his line in that game and his opposition’s ERA and FIP for the season. Why ERA? Assuming Garza looks at who he’s facing – and I have no way of knowing whether he does or does not – he’s probably glancing at their ERA on the scoreboard. Here is the correlation between opposition’s ERA and Garza’s WPA in that particular game:

Well, no correlation is actually listed because there’s not one to be had. It doesn’t take a Statistics degree to realize that’s a pretty random cluster. Let’s try something else and look at Garza’s average WPA based on opposition’s ERA, separated by top and bottom 16% as well as middle 68%:

Cat      n	ERA	WPA
Top 16%	14	3.01	0.102
Mid 68%	57	4.25	0.029
Bot 16%	14	6.01	0.044

This supports the premise better. How about a more detailed ERA breakdown though?

<=3.00	7	0.282
<=3.50	9	-0.108
<=4.00	17	0.014
>=4.51	31	0.026

Again, supports the premise that Garza is a loon who does his best when the stars surround him. The second row blows the idea out of the water. Garzas is at his worse when facing above average but not-elite starters. That doesn’t make a ton of sense. Looking at the dates of the games that dragged Garza’s average WPA down brought a realization: most of the explosions occurred before Garza’s blowup with Dioner Navarro in Texas during 2008. After that start, Garza began to see sports psychologist Ken Ravizza and credited him for helping to focus his energy. Sure enough, if you take those previous starts out of the equation and focus on the post-Ravizza era only, Garza’s average WPA is essentially 0.000 against above average but non-elite starters.

The data is murky enough that it’s impossible to say one way or the other, but on average, Garza is at his best when throwing against the best.

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