Analysis Editorials White Sox

White Sox’s Leury Garcia More than Smoke and Mirrors

Leury Garcia is finally transforming into the super utility player that Rick Hahn envisioned in 2013.

It’s easy to gloss over Leury Garcia. The 5-foot-8 outfielder plays on a rebuilding club, has experienced coma-level prospect fatigue, and it’s not like his stock was ever that high in the first place. He’s not even having the most significant breakout season among Chicago White Sox players named Garcia.

That designation goes to Avisail Garcia (.902 OPS), another 2013 acquisition who is finally coming into his own. Ditto Matt Davidson (.820 OPS), who has put two abysmal minor league seasons in the rearview mirror. It’s ironic or even poetic that the original trio sparking Chicago’s first reshaping process is suddenly showing life among the ruins of a teardown precipitated by their own deficiency. Party like it’s 2013 anyone?

For Leury Garcia, his 2017 season is a confluence of events that have given him an opportunity despite the clock looking like it had run out. It’s given his career a jolt, no more than a jolt, a bona-fide career revival.

Garcia was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Texas Rangers in 2007 as an international free agent. He worked his way through the Rangers’ system on the strength of his speed and defense, earning a short stint with Texas at the major-league level in 2013.

Garcia was Chicago’s sole return in a 2013 waiver wire deal that sent outfielder Alex Rios to the Lonestar State. It sure had the looks of a salary dump at the time of the transaction, as the Rangers ate the entirety of Rios’ remaining deal. Rick Hahn painted Garcia as a super-utility player with plus-plus speed and a versatile glove that could transcend across the diamond. His light bat dictated the reality that he was a low ceiling guy. However, it looked like he had a stable enough floor to provide at least some utility.

The speedy infielder was given an opportunity with the big league club in 2014 but scuffled to a dismal .166/.192/.207 line, striking out 31.0 percent of the time and showing almost nonexistent power (.041 ISO). He ended the season at -1.3 fWAR, well below unplayable territory. It wasn’t surprising then that in a win-now 2015 Garcia was relegated to Triple-A Charlotte.

He put up respectable numbers there with a .298/.340/.395 line but cratered during a September call up later in the year. Garcia had a strong showing as a 25 year-old in a reprise season at Charlotte (.313/.367/.426) but continued the formula of disappearing at the major-league level. Garcia had the textbook look of a quad-A player who had floorboard tools but little ability to cut it against big league pitching. His career was all but on life support.

A massive rebuild on the South Side gave Garcia a glimmer of hope for a final shot. His “break” came from a different type of “break” for Charlie Tilson. After recovering from a torn hamstring, Tilson was sidelined with a stress reaction in his right foot ahead of spring training. The odds on favorite to start in centerfield, Tilson’s injury paved the way for Jacob May to take the reins. It also enabled Leury Garcia to grab the last roster spot because of his defensive versatility as an infielder and outfielder. Jacob May was overmatched out of the gate, which caused Rick Renteria to start sprinkling Garcia into the line up more liberally.

Instead of being a blackhole himself, Garcia looked like an entirely different player. He parlayed a hot start into even more playing time when May was optioned and has now carved out a greater niche in the wake of Tyler Saladino‘s struggles and subsequent back injury.

So what is different about Leury Garcia, the guy with the super-utility ceiling who had essentially played past his expiration date?

It’s all about increased contact. Any player with a speed based profile will see a trickle down effect from putting bat to ball because it allows them to tap into their primary tool. Garcia is currently slashing .296/.343/.469 in 177 plate appearances, which already removes some of the salt from a “small sample size” narrative. Usually the next metric to support a mirage is a high BABIP, but in this case Garcia has a reasonable .326 mark.

It’s not just luck either. While his hard contact is around career norms, his soft contact is just 23.6%. Compare that to 31.4% and 28.6% soft contact rates in 2016 and 2015 respectively and the implication is clear. Garcia is squaring up the ball quite a bit more. So not only is the BABIP sustainable but invariably so is the high average.

But any sustainable start has to be driven not just by substance in balls in play but an ability to consistently put balls in play in the first place. Garcia is thriving there as well. He has cut his strikeout rate from alarming levels to just 15.8 percent in 2017.

That’s fueled by a 90.3 percent contact rate in the zone and an 82.5 percent overall contact rate.

Even more surprising than Garcia’s newfound plate discipline is his sudden power surge. Garcia’s .295 average has been far from empty. He’s compiled eight doubles, a triple, and six home runs over 49 games which has given him a .173 ISO. That’s a 20 home run pace for someone who’s mostly resembled a slap-hitter in prior seasons. Garcia’s 20.7 percent HR/FB ratio is unsustainable but he’s pulling the ball 41.4 percent of the time and generating most of his power from the left side.

While he’s hitting better as a lefty, he’s still showing strong contact rates as a righty so he’s been a competent switch hitter thus far. Pair that with above average defense in center and an ability to play passable defense up the middle and Garcia has morphed into a solid regular. He’s a hair behind Avisail Garcia for team leader in fWAR, at 1.6. That’s good for 7th overall among centerfielders and 19th among outfielders, wedged between names like Justin Upton, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton. So yeah, Leury Garcia has been something of a revelation.

With Tilson still sidelined, Garcia looks like he’ll continue to work in an everyday role. He’s been moved to the leadoff spot and is a good bet to lock that down for the time being. He’s hit .268/.342/.437 as a table setter and has the speed to make an impact up top.  He leads the team with five stolen bases in seven attempts.

Hot starts are often blurred by a smoke and mirrors effect, but there is true fire behind Garcia’s surge. While he may never be a regular on the next good White Sox team, he’s certainly making a case to be the super-utility player Chicago envisioned back in 2013. Controlled through 2020, Garcia has a chance to flip the script. Maybe one day we’ll refer to that four year-old deadline swap as the Leury Garcia trade. 

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