SAN JOSE – You’re not supposed to be able to pitch well in the Cal League, and you’re certainly not supposed to be able to pitch well in Lancaster.
The Hangar, home of the Lancaster JetHawks, is the second-most offensively charged ballpark in the most offensively charged league above Rookie ball. Batting lines are boosted by warm summer temperatures, wind that gusts towards the outfield, and a ballpark that’s nearly a half-mile above sea level. Pitching stats are inflated accordingly—over the last five years, only 25% of qualified pitchers in Lancaster have an xFIP under 4.00.
But don’t tell that to Rico Garcia.
The unheralded 30th round pick from Division II Hawai’i Pacific University is dominating the Cal League this year. In 55 innings, Garcia has a 3.44 ERA and a 3.62 xFIP. He’s struck out 9.33 batters per nine while walking only 1.80—good for a 5.18 K/BB—and opponents are hitting just .262 against him.
To put Garcia’s numbers in perspective, only one pitcher in the last five years has a higher K/BB in Lancaster with over 50 IP: Chris Devenski, who did it on his second tour in the Cal League. Before 2017, Lancaster was affiliated with the Astros, but neither Devenski, Josh Hader, Lance McCullers Jr., or Vince Velasquez had an xFIP as low as Garcia. Neither did Peter Lambert (4.02 xFIP), the Rockies no. 4 prospect, who put together what was widely considered a very successful season in Lancaster last year.
“I’m just focused on the here and now,” said Garcia in an interview with Purple Row last week. “I just continue to work as hard as I can every day to be the best teammate I can be.”
It’s not hard to be a good teammate when you’re putting up numbers like Garcia, who has actually improved each time he’s been promoted in his minor league career:
Rico Garcia, 2016-2018
“When I first got drafted, mechanics-wise, everything wasn’t together” Garcia said. “But I just like being with the Rockies because they really preach fastball command. As the years go by, I just continue to work and trust the whole process.”
Garcia sports a healthy four-pitch mix. He throws a four-seamer, a two-seamer, a curve, and a change-up. “My curveball has always been my best put-away pitch,” said Garcia, who also notes that he’s been focusing on his change-up this year. Scouting reports have mentioned a cutter, but Garcia says that his two-seamer often gets confused for a cutter because of its natural movement.
That movement is amplified by his throwing motion, as Garcia tends to throw across his body. “I’ve tried to go forward in a straight line from the mound to the plate but it just felt awkward. I don’t cross over as much as I used to, but right now I’m in that medium where I have command but also natural movement.”
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Rico Garcia has been defying the odds at Lancaster, but that’s not exactly uncharted territory. Garcia is from Hawai’i—he went to the same high school as Marcus Mariota—and only had two offers to play baseball after high school, neither one at a Division I school.
At Hawai’i Pacific, Garcia was First team All-PacWest and put up gaudy numbers. But he wasn’t following the draft—he “didn’t want to get his hopes up or anything”—so he initially missed the call from the Rockies, which came to his home phone. Garcia hadn’t known he was being scouted by the team prior to that day.
Garcia is listed at 5’11’’, which may be generous. “I think about it every day,” says Garcia. “I’ve been the shortest pitcher since, like, freshman year of college.” Even so, Garcia—whose fastball sits in the low-to-mid ‘90s—notes that he can throw the same speed as pitchers much taller than him. “They have the better angle,” admits Garcia, “but that teaches me that I have to stay even more down in the zone. It’s nothing bad. It’s just extra motivation to show people that I can still compete.”
A 5’11, 30th round pitcher from a Division II school on an island not known for baseball—yep, it’s an uphill battle. But at each level, Rico Garcia has continued to impress, and at this rate, he could be in line for a mid-season promotion.
So, is he worried about Double-A, which many consider to be the biggest jump in the minors? “No,” he says. “This could all end any day, so I try not to look too far forward.”