With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at outfielder Adolis Garcia.
I’ve been putting off doing Adolis Garcia’s year end review, because I struggle when I think about him to make sense of him. He was designated for assignment in February, 2021, by the Rangers and cleared waivers, allowing him to be outrighted — at the time, any of 29 other teams could have had him for the waiver claim price. He had a strong camp but didn’t make the Opening Day roster, in no small part because he wasn’t on the 40 man roster. He was finally called up in mid-April, immediately claimed a spot in the starting lineup and had a very good year, making the All Star team and finishing fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
Adolis Garcia was a remarkable success in 2021.
Adolis Garcia is also, however, someone whose future role is in doubt.
I remember, years and years ago, Bill James talking about how we, as fans, have a mental clock that we tend to unconsciously apply when evaluating players — when they get to the majors, they have two-three years to prove themselves, then (if they prove themselves) have a lengthy stretch of time where they will be established major leaguers, before eventually going into a decline phase. Bill was specifically talking about the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, who had a number of players (Cecil Cooper, Gorman Thomas, Mike Caldwell, for example) who emerged later than normal, and who as a result maintained (or would be expected to maintain) their success for a shorter period of time than what fans expected.
Which brings us to Adolis Garcia. Adolis Garcia was relatively old — 28 — for being a rookie last year. He turns 29 on March 2, 2022 — probably before spring training even starts, given the state of the CBA negotiations, I regret to say. He’s not your garden variety rookie performer.
The general consensus is that a player’s peak years are generally around ages 26-29. Aging curves can vary, players can peak earlier or maintain their peak performance later, but ones expectations should usually be that most players will fit the traditional aging curve. If Adolis Garcia does fit the traditional aging curve, he would currently be at the top of his game.
And if 2021 is the top of his game, well, he’s pretty damn good! He had a 3.9 bWAR and a 2.9 fWAR on the season, putting him in the comfortably above average category. He had 31 home runs, stole 16 bases, and played, according to the advanced metrics, terrific defense in the outfield. That’s a very productive and useful player on a championship team.
That said, there are also, as has been discussed around here, reasons for concern about Adolis going forward. His slash line for 2021 was .243/.286/.454 in 622 plate appearances. That equated to a 100 wRC+ and a 101 OPS+, which is perfectly cromulent for an excellent defensive outfielder, which Adolis graded out as in 2021 via UZR, DRS and OAA.*
* Adolis played a little more center field than right field, and all three metrics showed him as above average in center and elite in right.
As noted above, Adolis was one of three Rangers All Stars in 2021, and the only one to still be with the club at the end of July. The narrative has been that Adolis had a strong first half with the bat and then struggled in the second half, and one can look at his splits and see he had a .270/.312/.527 slash line in the first half and a .211/.256/.370 slash line in the second half. If we look at splits by month, however, we see:
Adolis had a solid April, an awesome May (which featured 11 home runs), and then was middling at best offensively for the rest of the season.
Looking at Fangraphs batted ball breakdowns shows that in May, Adolis had a 44.3% hard hit percentage — his highest for any month — as well as a 44.3% fly ball percentage. The combination of hitting the ball in the air a lot and really hard a lot means good things — like hitting 11 home runs in a month.
Adolis kept hitting the ball hard in June, with a 43.8% hard hit rate, but his fly ball rate dropped to 29.7%, with his infield fly ball percentage — which was 0 each of the first two months of the year — going to 10.5%. His line drive rate dropped from 19.0% to 14.1%, and his ground ball percentage was 56.3%. He was still hitting the ball hard — just not in the air (in a non-pop-fly fashion) nearly as much.
What caused the change in results, I don’t know — maybe it was a mechanical issue, maybe it was a change in the way he was pitched, maybe it was just the random fluctuations that occur — but Adolis never got back on track after that. His hard hit rate dropped after June, being in the mid-30s each of the next three months. He started hitting the ball in the air again in July and August before seeing it drop below 40% again in September. Balls that had been leaving the park instead becoming fly outs depressed his offensive performance over the final four months of the season.
And Adolis needs to hit home runs to be a productive offensive player. He swings a lot and misses a lot — he’s in the bottom 6th percentile in chase rate and whiff rate, per Statcast. That results in him being in the 5th percentile in strike out rate, and the 6th percentile in walk rate, a problematic combination which resulted in Adolis striking out 194 times in 2021 (3rd in the majors), while walking just 32 times.
Now, as we have discussed before, you can be a productive offensive player while still striking out a whole lot — Shohei Ohtani was 4th in the majors in Ks, while Joey Gallo led the majors, and I think everyone agrees they are very good offensive performers. But Ohtani and Gallo both walk a lot, which brings their OBP to much more respectable levels. Even if you hit a lot of home runs and have a good BABIP, it is extremely difficult to have a good OBP if you strike out a ton and don’t walk much.
And when it comes to striking out a lot and not walking, Adolis is an outlier even among outliers. I did a search on B-R for players since WWII who 1) qualified for the batting title, 2) struck out at least 30% of the time (Adolis struck out 31.2% of the time in 2021), and 3) struck out at least six times more often than they walked.
There were only 12 such players, only two of whom — Butch Hobson* and Kurt Abbott — were from seasons prior to 2010. Miguel Olivo accomplished this feat in 2011, Chris Johnson in 2014, and Tim Anderson in 2017. Then we had seven players over the last three years — Danny Santana in 2019, Javy Baez, Adalberto Mondesi and Erik Gonzalez in the truncated 2020 campaign, and Adolis, Baez and Salvador Perez in 2021.
* Butch Hobson was sort of a proto-Dean Palmer. He was a righthanded hitting third baseman who hit for power, struck out a ton, and was awful defensively. His 1977 season — his first as a regular — qualified, and because he had 112 RBIs he received a couple of down ballot MVP votes that year. He had an .899 fielding percentage in 1978, committing 43 errors, and while I think fielding percentage is pretty useless, a fielding percentage below .900 is still pretty noteworthy.
Adolis’s 101 OPS+ is tied with Butch Hobson for fourth best, behind Perez (126), ‘21 Baez (117), and Santana (112). All three players homered at a higher rate than Adolis did — Perez, of course, led the A.L. with 48 home runs in 2021, with just 33 more plate appearances than Adolis did. Baez and Santana each had a BABIP north of .350. And Baez and Perez were each HBP’d 13 teams, providing a boost to their OBP that way.
While one may say, well, Adolis is obviously unique, given that data set, its worth noting I limited the search to players who qualified for the batting title. If we change the parameters to 300 plate appearances, we get 53* players, almost all of whom are in the 21st century. Only 11 of them had an OPS+ of 100 or better, including the immortal Rolando Roomes, who had a 100 OPS+ on the button. Looking at those who had an OPS of even 90 or better, most of them have BABIPs higher than .330, with Chris Johnson in 2010 having an incredible .387 BABIP in his fluky 362 PA season.
* The 2020 seasons drop off since none of them reached 300 PAs in 2020.
So the sort of K rate and walk rate Garcia sported in 2021 is not unheard of. Its just there’s a selection bias issue with using a “qualified for the batting title” sample size, since most of those who put up those sorts of rates don’t hit well enough to stay in the lineup long enough to qualifying for the batting title.
So Adolis Garcia has very little margin of error right now, given his approach. As it is, he outperformed his xwOBA (.302) in 2021, putting up a .314 wOBA. A 12 point wOBA drop just from reversion to the (expected mean), along with a slight increase in his K rate, a slight decrease in his walk rate, a small drop in power, and all the sudden we have a player who looks a lot like D.J. Peters, who is going to spend 2022 in Asia playing ball.
Which isn’t to say that Adolis is doomed to mediocrity. ZiPS projects a 96 wRC+ for Adolis in 2022, which, with his defense, is plenty good enough for him to be a starting caliber outfielder. And, of course, he made big strides just to have the sort of season he had in 2021, and it is certainly possible that he will improve in 2022 as well.
But...as noted above, he’s about to turn 29 years old. He’s at an age where it is much more likely he will be getting worse going forward, not better. Its fair to wonder if, at the end of the day, he’s just a guy who had a brief, incredible stretch of a month or two where he was lights out, and other than that, will be what he always seemed to be prior to that — a Dave Hostetler for a new generation.