As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to get too attached to young pitchers. They flame out, they get hurt, they will disappoint you. But since rules are made to be broken, y’all should know that I irrationally like Amir Garrett.
It’s not that the rookie Reds left-hander is going to win any Cy Young awards down the line; his ceiling is probably somewhere around mid-rotation innings eater. In his first two big league starts — 12.2 innings, two earned runs — Garrett has thrown in the low 90s, and he doesn’t have an unorthodox, eye-popping off-speed pitch, like Jharel Cotton’s demon changeup. If anything, Garrett’s a refreshing change in a day and age when it seems like every top pitching prospect is a 6-foot-4 right-hander out of Dallas with a 97 mph fastball and a bastard slider. There’s a billion of them because they’re grown in test tubes on a farm, and they’re all named Logan.
In fact, much of what I like about Garrett has little to do with his game. For starters, “Amir Garrett” is a really great name; it’s what you’d name the outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold protagonist in a basic cable space Western. Garrett also has a really cool dog that gives us a pretty good idea of what Kyle Schwarber would look like if he were an animagus.
But the first thing everyone knows about Garrett is that he used to play basketball. And not just in the sense that he was a multisport athlete in high school, either. He played 55 games at St. John’s, where he averaged 6.2 points per game. Here’s Garrett’s highlight reel from a high school dunk competition, which not only shows the caliber of basketball player Garrett was (that’s future Houston Rockets guard Nick Johnson playing the Allen Iverson to Garrett’s Andre Iguodala on the under-the-backboard dunk), but proves that dunk contests get better and more creative the further you get from the NBA’s prop comedy circuit.
When the Reds drafted Garrett in the 22nd round in 2011 and handed him a $1 million bonus, it was with the understanding that he’d be allowed to play basketball in college, which he did for two years before he committed to baseball full time in 2014. It’s cool enough when someone plays two sports at a high level, but basketball also has a lot to do with what makes Garrett an interesting baseball player.
For starters, Garrett’s basketball career has done some interesting things to his developmental curve. Garrett, who turns 25 next month, was a consensus top-100 prospect this past offseason (Baseball Prospectus was the highest on him, placing him at no. 32), which is unusual for a pitcher his age who was drafted out of high school and had no real injury history to speak of, but had yet to make his big league debut; normally a pitcher that talented would’ve been in the big leagues for years if he hadn’t run into any developmental issues. But Garrett also didn’t play baseball full time until his age-22 season, which means he’s still making refinements to his delivery and secondary offerings that he’d have taken care of years ago if he hadn’t been playing basketball half the year.
This background benefits Garrett in two ways: First, it means he’s got more upside than your average pitcher who debuts in his age-25 season. Second, it means he’s got a fresher arm. Despite going to high school outside of Las Vegas, a warm-weather baseball hotbed (the list of ballplayers who were born in 1992 and grew up in the Las Vegas area includes Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper), Garrett missed out on the elbow-shredding grind of year-round youth baseball. He didn’t reach full-season ball until he was 21, but by the time he was asked to take on a grown-up workload he was actually a grown-up, and Garrett has thrown at least 133.1 innings in every full minor league season.
The other way Garrett’s basketball background shows up is his athleticism. Garrett is 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, with arms and legs like a squid and shoulders like Alain Bernard’s. I went back and watched Garrett’s first two starts of the season, then turned on a Mariners-Rangers game and caught myself staring at Cole Hamels, who’s 6-foot-4 and 205, and thinking, “Wow, what a tiny man.”
Not that he’ll need to throw down a windmill dunk off the mound, but the attributes you need to do that — strength, balance, body control — also help you repeat a delivery. Scouts look for those attributes when projecting how amateur pitchers will develop physically. The big question with Garrett going forward is whether he’ll put all that together, because right now his motion’s a little messy.
Looking at Garrett, you’d expect him to throw a little bit like another tall, long-armed lefty, Toronto’s J.A. Happ. Happ comes in from a high three-quarters arm slot and uses long levers to release the ball relatively close to home plate — the so-called “tall and fall” delivery. For a pitcher that big, depending on what the fastball does out of his hand, he can either work up in the zone if the ball has a lot of spin and try to get strikeouts and pop-ups, or he can throw down — get plane on the ball — and try to induce ground balls.
Garrett’s arm slot is lower than Happ’s without being sidearm, and he throws across his body, which means he gets some extra arm-side tail on his fastball, but he loses some of the downward plane and can have trouble hitting his spots. (Garrett walked the first big league batter he faced, Dexter Fowler, on five pitches, all fastballs, and his career minor league 3.7 BB/9 shows he still has some room to grow.)
Big pitchers generally have trouble repeating when they’re young, just because a body as big as Garrett’s is tough to govern through a motion as violent as pitching a baseball, but pitchers with Garrett’s athleticism often learn to control their bodies as they enter their mid-20s. FanGraphs lead prospect writer Eric Longenhagen called Garrett a “late-bloomer command candidate” and later compared him to longtime Cubs pitcher Jon Lieber, a comp I love because it transcends both race and pitching hand.
When Garrett can keep his delivery together, he’s the pitcher who threw 12 scoreless innings to start his major league career. Garrett uses his fastball (110 of his 163 pitches this year have been heaters) to set up a slider with two-plane break that comes in about 10 to 12 miles an hour slower than the heater, almost slurve velocity. Here’s Garrett in his debut, sweeping the slider away to lefty Kolten Wong and back-footing right-handed batters with it.
That’s a textbook two-pitch combination, and it’s nice if you can locate it, but it’s not going to get big league hitters out three times through an order. That’s why his third pitch, the changeup, is so exciting. A work in progress heading into the season, it looks really good so far. The change is 10 or 11 miles an hour slower than the fastball, but it has exactly the same hard arm-side movement. And when I say “exactly the same,” I mean it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a fastball-changeup combo track this closely.
Garrett hasn’t thrown a single changeup to a lefty so far this season, because the changeup’s arm-side run makes it a perfect weapon against right-handed batters. That changeup could be the difference between Garrett sticking in the rotation and not, because, judging by last year’s leaguewide splits, for every lefty Garrett faces, he’ll face 2.6 right-handed hitters.
When Garrett is on his game, he’s not sending slack-jawed hitters back to the bench with no idea what happened; he just makes sure the ball is a little off from where the hitter expects it to be — a little lower, a little off the plate, a little faster or slower than it ought to be. The result is a lot of groundouts and medium-depth fly balls. And because Garrett works on such a fast tempo — he’s tied for being the fourth-quickest pitcher from pitch to pitch among starters who have thrown at least 10 innings this year — his string of outs just blurs together. A good Garrett start feels like falling asleep for an hour and 20 minutes and waking up in the sixth inning with no runs on the board.
The best version of Garrett is probably a poor man’s Mark Buehrle, adjusted for era and with better post moves. That might not sound as exciting as the next Noah Syndergaard, but only 15 pitchers threw 200 innings last year — Buehrle alone had 14 200-inning seasons in his career. If Garrett turns into that kind of pitcher, there will be a lot of reasons to like him, most of them rational.