It took a little bit of waiting, but the Brewers' biggest offseason acquisition is finally making his mark.
On Saturday, Matt Garza fired a two-hit shutout to lead Milwaukee over Cincinnati 1-0. Garza, who didn't allow a base runner until the fifth inning, walked two and struck out nine, including Joey Votto three times. That effort snapped a four-game losing streak for the Brewers and improved the team's winning percentage to an NL-best .591.
It was a much-needed performance for the Brewers and Garza. The 30-year-old Garza, who was signed to a four-year, $55 million deal in the offseason, got off to a rocky start. Despite a strong first start — eight innings with one run allowed and seven strikeouts — Garza ultimately posted a 5.00 ERA in April over 36 innings. Things got marginally better in May, as Garza posted a 4.65 ERA over 31 innings and five starts. But since the start of June, Garza has looked far more like the top-level starter the Brewers paid for: a 2.38 ERA over 49 2/3 innings, along with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 34/12 and just one homer allowed.
What's interesting about Garza's improvement is that it's not the product of increased strikeouts or better luck on balls in play:
As you can see, Garza's strikeouts have actually gone down since his rough April, and his BABIP has barely changed all season. What's really helped is a marginal cut in walks allowed and in homers allowed. Garza gave up seven homers in his first 11 starts and 67 innings, but has let a hitter leave the park just once since. That last homer came on a three-run shot by Adam LaRoche in the third inning of a 3-0 loss to the Nationals on June 23. That snapped a homer-less innings streak of 29 1/3 innings for Garza.
Looking at Garza's pitch selection, he's made only one notable change since the season's start, increasing the usage of his curveball at the expense of his fastball. That wasn't the case on Saturday against the Reds, however; Garza threw 88 fastballs among his 111 pitches and went to the slider more than the curveball (14 to 7). That curveball has been a valuable tool -- batters are hitting just .177 against it -- but it hasn't been a put-away pitch. Instead, the right-handed Garza has used it as a first pitch to set up left-handers, and rarely deploys it against same-side hitters.
Instead, what Garza has done is stay more outside the zone to limit hard contact.
In line with Garza utilizing his curve more often and going to his fastball somewhat less, his zone percentage has decreased since April and his outside swing and contact percentages have also risen (albeit not by a substantial amount). That's helped Garza cut down on the homers, which has helped him survive a drop in his strikeout rate.
It's unlikely Garza's homer rate will stay this low. It's currently at 0.62 after Saturday's start compared to his career average of 1.0, but the decrease in his walk rate is a good sign that his June and July turnaround is a better sign of his future performance than April's bad start. Even in that first month, when his ERA stood at 5.00, his peripherals suggested he was doing better under the surface; his FIP was a much more manageable 3.89. In June, Garza's output matched his peripherals almost perfectly, as the drop in homer rate led to a 2.94 FIP that wasn't far off from his 2.88 ERA during that month.
That performance turnaround is a welcome sight for the Brewers, who are atop the NL Central by five games after Saturday's win, but could use some better rotation work. Since hurling a complete-game shutout on June 1, Kyle Lohse has given up 18 earned runs in his last 36 innings with just 22 strikeouts. Likewise, Wily Peralta went from a 2.73 ERA over his first 11 starts to a 4.38 ERA in six starts since the beginning of June. Yovani Gallardo has posted a 3.41 ERA since the start of June, giving the Brewers a good 1-2 combo with Garza, but a third starter to take the pressure off Milwaukee's top two would go a long way toward cementing the Brewers as World Series contenders.