GLENDALE, Ariz. — Is Avisail Garcia’s torrid start to spring training a sign of things to come or a desert mirage?
That’s one of the more pressing questions to be answered not only over the remainder of spring training, but once the White Sox regular season begins in just under three weeks.
Garcia bashed his way to a .435 batting average and 1.393 OPS with two home runs over his first eight Cactus League games entering Tuesday. The 24-year-old right fielder tweaked his batting stance to bring his hands lower and closer to the strike zone, which he said has allowed him to identify and react to pitches better. Coaches and scouts are seeing his bat stay in the strike zone longer and be on a better plane, too.
All of it adds up to an encouraging narrative surrounding a guy who limped his way to a .675 OPS and -1.4 WAR in 2015.
“You work for something,” Garcia said. “I think if you want to get better you have to adjust and try to be focused when you do it. I think that’s the case.”
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Hitting coach Todd Steverson is less concerned about the results and more focused on how the hulking Garcia approaches each swing, at-bat and game. It’s still early in the process — eight games does not mean a change will work — but Steverson is looking for consistency in Garcia’s approach to see if the tweaks to his stance will stick long-term.
But getting results, even in the laid-back atmosphere of spring training games, can help prove to Garcia that the changes and suggestions thrown at him by the coaching staff are worth it.
“I think for him, he’s encouraged by that and I think the numbers and what he’s done in the spring back it up,” manager Robin Ventura said. “To me, he looks different. There is something there that is a tangible change that his swing’s different.”
If anyone needed a change from his 2015 results, it was Garcia. His approach was often dreadful — he swung at the third-highest percentage of pitches among qualified hitters last year (60.2 percent) but had the eighth-worst contact rate (70.6 percent). Those offensive issues, plus some defensive headaches, meant by WAR Garcia was rated as the third-worst everyday player in baseball.
Taking a laissez-faire approach, then, wasn’t an option for the White Sox toward Garica’s development. By having his hands closer to the strike zone — “last year was too far,” Garcia said — he feels like he’s far more comfortable at the plate. It’s shown through both of Garcia’s spring home runs being to left field, and that’s he’s not just swinging to make contact, but swinging to make hard contact.
“I think he’s changed his approach in the right way,” third baseman Todd Frazier observed. “He’s calm, he’s nice and smooth at the plate. It looks like he’s stretched free. I don’t know how pitchers feel when you see a guy who’s nice and relaxed. It’s kind of tough.
“He looks great up there at the plate, he’s determined, he wants to bounce back and have a great year. I can see it in his eyes. It’s a lot of fun to watch so far.”
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But the positivity surrounding Garcia often hits a roadblock when the “it’s just spring” realization hits. In 1,098 major league plate appearances, Garcia has a .264 batting average and .696 OPS; his minor league line is only a little better (.291 batting average, .736 OPS in 2,407 plate appearances).
Garcia’s 24 spring plate appearances would represent 2 percent of his major league total and .05 percent of his plate appearances as a professional.
Garcia’s defense remains insufficient, too; both defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating have him costing his team more than 20 runs over his four seasons in the major leagues.
“I think he’s always going to be a big kid out in the outfield,” Ventura said. “That part, you can’t just make him a track star out there, so there’s going to be some that he doesn’t get to. But if he can catch the ones that he gets to he’s going to be all right.”
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The one positive to go in the face of Garcia’s history is one echoed by both Steverson and Ventura: Sometimes, things just click, and it’s not necessarily easy to know when they will. Garcia turns 25 in June and has been praised for his raw potential for years. Somewhere in that 6-foot-4, 240 pound frame that could be mistaken for an NFL linebacker might be a consistent, productive hitter.
At least, that’s what the White Sox are hoping for.
“It’s probably too early but I like the mechanical changes that he’s made,” Ventura said. “Part of that becomes his confidence and how he feels. I think he’s starting to understand what we’re talking about, and he can see it, feel it, and I think the numbers are there to back it up. Spring’s always, to me, if a guy has a good spring, it’s nice, but it doesn’t really mean anything.
“I think for him, making noticeable changes that we know he’s making, he’s receptive to it. That’s part of going through this. I think you’re encouraged by all that.”