How Robert Garcia could fit in the Nationals’ plans

After Robert Garcia was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2017, his coaches offered a quick reality check: He couldn’t survive in the minors — let alone make the major leagues as a reliever — by featuring a fastball and change-up to both right- and left-handed hitters. He had to have a slider. It had to be nasty.

And oh yeah, he needed to upend his arsenal right now.

Garcia, a lefty, was a 15th-round pick. Who was he to push back, to trust himself, to say the change-up was what got him through two seasons at the University of California-Davis, when he had zero feel for whatever breaking pitch he tried? The path to the majors is often littered with opinions, flying like arrows from all directions. But after taking that advice for five years, Garcia sat across from Scott Aldred, the Miami Marlins’ pitching coordinator, and everything changed.

“We’ve been looking at your metrics and what you do with your change-up, and it’s elite,” Garcia recalled Aldred telling him last fall, almost a full season after the Marlins swiped him from the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft. “You’re making an elite pitch your third pitch.”

Until that point, no one had explained Garcia’s change-up to him in those terms. But when it clicked, he accepted Aldred’s challenge of throwing it at least 15 percent of the time. This was back in the spring, before the Marlins cut Garcia and the Washington Nationals scooped him off waivers. And ever since, he’s flashed his potential in Washington’s bullpen, posting a zero in 14 of his 19 appearances.

His 4.68 ERA was bloated by a six-run outing against the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 17. On Tuesday in Pittsburgh, he walked the first batter he faced before escaping a jam. On Wednesday, he recorded six outs and struck out three, allowing no base runners at PNC Park. Still a rookie, still feeling his way through the biggest challenge of his career, the 27-year-old is not a finished product. But his plus change-up, the pitch that attracted the Nationals in the first place, has limited hard contact while intriguing the front office and coaching staff.

He has a 40.7 percent whiff rate when opponents swing at it. In a small sample of 25 innings, he’s thrown it 28.1 percent of the time (108 change-ups compared to 188 four-seam fastballs and 89 sliders, according to Statcast). And the change-up usage is even more stark when broken down by right- and left-handed hitters.

Entering Thursday, Garcia had thrown 109 change-ups, 107 fastballs and 33 sliders to righties. With lefties, he almost exclusively throws fastballs and sliders. Yet that plan shifted when Garcia faced the left-handed Luis Arráez, his former teammate, in late August. In a 1-2 count, catcher Keibert Ruiz called for a low change-up, confusing Garcia amid a two-inning appearance. He had already shaken to a slider when Ruiz tried this against lefty Kyle Schwarber earlier in the month. He had never thrown a change-up to a lefty in the majors.

But this time, he trusted Ruiz and threw one in the dirt, getting Arráez to swing and miss for strike three. Garcia has struck out Arráez, who has a league-best strikeout rate of 5.8 percent, in both of their meetings. He remains the only pitcher to strike out Arráez twice in 2023.

“His change-up, man, it’s so good,” Ruiz said. “We know Arráez hits breaking balls really well. And the change-up looks like fastball and then drops a lot. Arráez probably saw it as a fastball until it was too late. We went with his best pitch.”

“It’s going to be a big offseason project for me, working on the pitch so I can throw it more against lefties,” Garcia explained. “But even seeing that one result against Arráez, that gave me confidence that I’m well on my way to figuring that out. I watched the whole at-bat back a few times — okay, maybe more than a few times — and really liked what I saw.”

Generally, change-ups are the hardest pitch to analyze and understand on their own. As the Marlins first told Garcia, his change-up grades well with advanced metrics, mainly with its vertical movement (a lot more drop than his fastball and most other change-ups). But more than anything, a change-up thrives when it plays off a well-commanded fastball with a good shape.

When assessing a change-up in relation to a pitcher’s fastball, three key components are the velocity difference, vertical movement and horizontal movement. Nailing down two of those three characteristics is usually the recipe for a solid change-up. Garcia, then, has velocity and vertical break going for him. So when the Marlins designated Garcia for assignment in late July, just two weeks after his debut, Washington pounced.

“His arm action is really good,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Garcia’s change-up. “It comes out just like a fastball and there’s a lot of deception in that. I really believe what makes him effective is that he’s not afraid to pitch in, either. When you have a left-hander who can pitch in to righties and utilize the change-up the way he does, that’s really effective. He’s done well for us. That was a great pick up.”

Since the Nationals’ first deadline sell-off in 2021, waiver claims have become a regular part of their roster-building strategy. Hunter Harvey, perhaps the club’s best reliever, has been the most fruitful claim. On the flip side, Rogelio Armenteros and Mike Ford never appeared for Washington — and Lucius Fox, Patrick Murphy, Jake McGee or Francisco Pérez didn’t exactly work out. Players are available on waivers for a reason, meaning the whole process is a bit of a coin flip. But there are constant opportunities to find diamonds in the rough.

The current roster includes four players claimed off waivers: Garcia, Harvey, outfielder Alex Call and lefty reliever Joe La Sorsa. And at the moment, it seems Garcia and his change-up have the best shot of joining Harvey in the Nationals’ plans.

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