Spring Training is always magical, as optimism overflows on the backfields in Tampa, Fla. Possibility is a salvation. Hope is a drug.
Especially after the past year.
Looking back, the thing about 2020 is the thing about baseball: Even on those rare occasions when it was almost normal, it still insisted on surprising. At last, baseball returned in late July, and with it, the long-awaited Yankees debut of Gerrit Cole. But injuries once again compounded and forced the team into "Plans D through infinity." The Yankees, though, still clawed their way into the postseason, eventually bowing out in a series that, in the eyes of many observers, turned on a strategic ploy in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
Yet all the talk about the blueprint that called for employing an opener that night overshadowed the fact that 21-year-old Deivi García had become the youngest pitcher in Yankees history to start a postseason game. It was a big league run that began on Aug. 30, when the slight-bodied pitcher with the old-timer’s poise debuted in stunning fashion. By the end of the short season, despite some outwardly pedestrian numbers, García’s emergence was one of the year’s best stories.
“He’s out there with a lot of confidence,” catcher Gary Sánchez said last September. “He’s fearless. It feels like he’s been in the league for years. He’s able to attack and be aggressive, and that’s key for him.”
There’s almost nothing in sports that compares to watching a star prospect arrive and thrive. And when compounded with all the turmoil of last year, it’s hard to look at García’s 2020 as anything but an unmitigated success, even despite that short final outing.
“I think the year that Deivi had was better than any of us could have expected,” pitching coach Matt Blake said. “We had a couple of really big outings out of him, and that was a big energy lift for the team. I think that he sees that he can do that, and now it’s just a matter of consistency moving forward. And we can hold him to a really high standard of what that can look like.”
Yet the irony is that, for García to further refine his big league-ready game, it might mean spending less time in the Bronx in 2021. Fortunately, the pitcher has long-committed himself to waiting for the right moment. The hope of a new spring is fleeting; players and teams are judged on what comes afterward. Which suits García just fine.
“That patience, that calmness, it’s something that has been with me for a long, long time, ever since I can remember,” García said. “It’s one of those things that lets me concentrate, lock in and execute in certain situations that you’re going to find when you’re pitching.”
Blake might have been the perfect pitching coach for a year such as 2020, when the COVID-19 protocols scrambled all of baseball’s muscle memory. Unlike the veteran coaches who are set in their ways, Blake’s new-school ethos left him less beholden to the sacred cows of baseball order.
“I joked a lot about that throughout the course of the year -- I’m coming in with fresh eyes, regardless,” Blake said. “It was kind of, ‘OK, what were the parameters we were trying to work with here? Let’s start fresh and build something of a process and a plan, not having already scripted out five to 10 years of what it was supposed to look like.’”
Through that clean, clear windshield, Blake was able to observe a pitcher such as García, a young arm who made a remarkable impression in January 2020, when Blake accompanied manager Aaron Boone and several other coaches on a trip to the Dominican Republic. Right away, Blake noticed a kid who had an incredible ability to connect, communicating in ways that totally belied his years.
“Right from the get-go,” Blake said, “he was asking for help and almost instruction, so you knew he was going to be open to things, which is really interesting -- for a guy who had performed to that extent -- not to be guarded about what had gotten him there.”
The previous year, García had marched up the organizational ladder to great success and fanfare, but when he reached Triple-A in July 2019, the joyride stalled a bit. Perhaps it was fatigue, or maybe the differences with the actual ball, or it could simply have been the competition, but the fact was that García found himself struggling for the first time as a professional.
“Physically, I felt good,” García says now, describing the end of 2019, with assistance from Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. “To pinpoint something exactly, I just can’t. I felt good. I was playing with a lot of guys that I knew, a lot of guys that I felt comfortable playing with.”
But during a conversation with his agent, Jose Ramos, who had previously coached pitchers for the Brewers’ Dominican Summer League team, García mentioned the trouble he had been having commanding his fastball. Ramos noted that the way García was setting up -- almost to the extreme third-base side of the pitching rubber -- could be part of the problem, and suggested that he move toward the first-base side.
So after some more struggles in 2020 Spring Training, and upon being sent to the alternate training site once the sport resumed play following the hiatus, García set about working with Yankees director of pitching Sam Briend to make the change.
“I started to feel more comfortable on that side,” García said. “And I felt that I was executing pitches better. The adjustment definitely gave me a sense of comfort.”
García had previously enjoyed quite a bit of success with his delivery. He is generously listed at 5-foot-9, with a slight frame that has drawn comparisons (which García certainly enjoys) to Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez. So without the huge, intimidating stature on the mound, García has often relied on deception. The way his body turns away from the hitters in his windup had much to do with it, and the fact that he was so far over on the mound helped him hide the ball outside of right-handed hitters’ eyelines even more.
But from the extreme angle, Blake saw a pitcher fighting his own mechanics, striding across himself.
“It made it hard for him to execute pitches on the plate at a consistent level,” Blake says. “Moving him over to the first-base side gave him more room for error with his misdirection of his stride. Even if he was a little bit across himself, he wasn’t going to block a lot of his pitches out arm-side from that position.”
It’s a Band-Aid fix, Blake notes, and it comes with risks. A young pitcher who had enjoyed great professional success, albeit at the Minor League level, was being asked to change his targets and visuals, with the consequence of giving righties a better look at his grip and the ball during the delivery. But as Yankees coaches in the Bronx received regular reports from the alternate training site, it was clear that the change was working.
“He was getting into the zone around the plate where we needed him to,” Blake said. “It was giving him a better chance to execute pitches when he was fatigued. He wasn’t losing as many pitches arm-side.”
Meanwhile, García kept working on other parts of his game. He was determined to use his right leg more, to get more leverage from the pitching rubber. He also wanted to add more bite to his curveball, to execute his slider better. He just wanted more control.
“When things are going well for me,” García says, “it’s about control. Control, executing my pitches, control over the opposing team. Seeing how they’re reacting to certain pitches. How I can use that against them.
“It’s always about learning.”
García has been an exciting prospect for a few years now, a name that was familiar to even modest prospect-watchers before the 2020 season. Back home, he has been a known commodity for much longer, a kid who was drawing attention from every Major League organization as he trained around his home of Bonao, a city of almost 130,000 residents near the center of the island. Obviously, he wasn’t a big kid, and initially he didn’t have any interest in pitching. The only time, he recalls, that he got any enjoyment on the mound when he was growing up was when he would get to throw some innings while his team was losing. With the outcome decided, he could just unleash his hardest fastballs and nastiest curveballs.
Even as he reluctantly gave in to the many talent evaluators who wanted to sign him only as a pitcher, his game developed with an intelligence and maturity well beyond his years. At every step along the Minor League ladder, his results could have spoken for themselves, but no one stopped there. It was impossible to ignore his poise, the way he could understand situational pitching at such a high level.
Erik Kratz -- who caught García in Triple-A in 2019, then acted more like a father figure than a catcher as the two celebrated García’s sensational big league debut in 2020 -- compares the pitcher with the big, smart bats in the Yankees’ lineup, the guys who consistently wear down opposing pitchers. From his perch behind the plate, Kratz has watched García do the same thing in reverse.
“It’s 0-1, 0-2, 1-2 -- you’re always ahead,” he said of catching the young Dominican. “Now, all of a sudden, it makes hitters try to swing at your stuff. Try to be aggressive to the things that you are doing as a pitcher. That’s what he’s able to do.”
Even still, García was taken aback during a dugout conversation last year with Cole. In any normal season, a young, curious pitcher such as García would have taken as much time as possible with a baseball mind of Cole’s ilk, part of the pack mentality that defines the best pitching staffs. But even as the COVID-19 protocols made mentoring much harder than usual in 2020, García still tried to pick the veterans’ brains to the extent possible, and during a chat with Cole, in which the three-time All-Star tried to impart wisdom about tunneling and release points, one topic really stuck with García.
“I asked Cole how many changeups he threw in a particular game,” García said. “And he was very specific on telling me the number that he threw. That was surprising, because if you ask me how many curveballs, changeups, sliders I threw, I wouldn’t be able to give an answer. That gave me a sense of the attention and level of detail that he brings to his starts. That taught me something valuable about what level of concentration is needed when you’re starting.”
Rare and difficult as they were to come by, those mentoring experiences were among the positives of 2020. Spring Training didn’t go great for García, and he showed up to Summer Camp a bit raw, having had less opportunity to hone his craft during the hiatus than some of the players who remained stateside. But in a season that saw García spend time both at the alternate training site and then in the Majors, the pitcher was able to get the necessary developmental work in, as well as experience actual competition in the second half of the year, something that many of his peers lost out on without a Minor League season.
“If you send a player back to Triple-A, he’s still competing,” Blake said. “He’s still toeing the rubber against another lineup. If you send him to the alternate site, it’s a construction zone very focused on development. You’re trying to replicate competition as much as possible in a very sterile, very unenergized environment.
“It definitely gave us more flexibility to have a development plan and execute it and not just say, ‘You’re going to pitch every fifth day in Scranton against another team.’”
“I understood the changes that we were implementing at the time,” García adds. “It was going to take time. I felt that it was part of the process to go through the changes and focus on the things that we were working on and expect better results as time was going by.”
You never want to say that a 21-year-old is a finished product, and García has miles to go before he can sleep, but you have to like what you see at this point. The fastball doesn’t wow you with its velocity or its spin rate, but Boone and the rest of the coaches laud the way that the pitch holds its height, as well as the deception that García has maintained even with the shift on the rubber. His curveball has a lot of depth and great shape, and his slider and changeup can turn at-bats around.
“A lot of his pitches play north and south,” Blake said, “but he can also throw some pitches that cut to the glove side and fade to the arm side. Most pitchers are either one side or the other. He’s really balanced.”
At the alternate training site, García was well aware of what was happening in the Bronx. Injuries had the "Scranton Shuttle" in full effect, and each pitcher wondered when it might be his turn. When García got word on a Saturday that he was going to start against the Mets in the second game of a doubleheader the next day, focus turned immediately to his family back home in the Dominican Republic.
As for the actual phone call? That, too, would take some patience.
His mother’s phone wasn’t working. Neither was his brother’s.
“I got a hold of someone, I can’t remember who it was, to get them a message,” García says, laughing.
The news got through in time for the family to watch a livestream, but like all the players who debuted in 2020, García dreams of the day that his family can watch him pitch in person.
If the unusual empty stadiums unsettled him on the mound, though, García never showed it.
“He’s just got such a good feel out there and mound presence and moxie,” Boone said after García earned his first win on Sept. 9. “Man, he just demonstrated a really good feel for pitching.”
The manager’s praise was particularly precise. García hadn’t been dominant in the start; he was smart, which was even better. A third-inning at-bat drew particular notice from Boone, as García labored with two outs, already 50 pitches into the outing. Behind in the count, 2-1, to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and with a runner on first in a 2-2 game, García challenged the slugger with a changeup right down the middle of the plate. Guerrero swung through that offering, then whiffed at the next pitch, a 95 mph fastball on the outside corner.
“He’s unflappable,” Boone continued. “He’s confident. It doesn’t mean he’s not going to have an outing where he struggles or whatever. But it won’t be because the moment’s too big for him. I’m confident in that.”
For García, though, every trip to the mound was another day in the classroom. He learned from successes, such as the impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first go-round in the Majors, much as he learned from the 4.98 ERA that didn’t really tell the story of its component parts. Everything was useful. Everything was a lesson.
“Experience of battling, facing teams, the good energy that I’ve gotten from my teammates,” García said. “Those were stepping stones that will be important in my career, and that I will never forget.”
In the 2020 ALDS against the Rays, García started Game 2, but already in the first inning, J.A. Happ was warming up behind him. The Yankees had chosen to strategically stack the two pitchers in the game, and it didn’t work. García pitched just the one inning, and the Yankees lost the game, and eventually, the series. Speaking in January about the team’s game plan on that October night, general manager Brian Cashman said it's like picking at a scab.
But the general manager’s point about García is clear: “There’s comfort that he got out of the gates in his Major League debut and had success. So from our standpoint, there’s less curiosity about what he is at this level, or what he can be, because we’ve had a chance to visualize what he can be.
“He even started a postseason game. All those things, in theory, should serve him well as far as building a foundation of experience at the Major League level that he can rely upon.”
The question is how much the Yankees plan to rely on García in 2021. The team has added two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to the staff and traded for starter Jameson Taillon. Both pitchers are coming off injuries. At best, both can be elite. And if they are, then the question will once again arise about the best way to deploy a talent such as García.
It’s not an easy one to answer, but much like the 2020 season, there’s hope on both sides. In the shortened season, García managed just 34 1/3 innings with the big league club, plus the equivalent of another 20 or so at the alternate training site. He added a handful more in the Dominican Winter League, pitching for Licey. The Yankees would likely remain cautious about penciling in the young, exciting starter for anything resembling a full year after that. And the reality is that, should the Yankees finally get to experience a year in which they don’t need a constant influx from Triple-A to handle one injury or another, then that’s a best-case scenario. If Cole, Kluber and Taillon dominate, if Jordan Montgomery meets the moment, if Luis Severino and Domingo Germán return strong from their own absences, then no one should worry about giving the still-very-young García the development time that he lost in '20.
“The younger players can fill in when necessary, or take from somebody if that occurs,” Cashman said of his hopes and aims for a healthy 2021. “Rather than going in to Spring Training relying on them right out of the gate to be a third, fourth or fifth starter.”
And the flip side is that García has already shown that he can be that fifth, fourth, third or even second starter. Whatever the drama, he’ll stand there and face it, stoic and proud, with a maturity that stands much taller than he, himself, does. García has come around on pitching, on the art and the craft and the beauty. And he has found a way to do it that matches his personality.
“When it falls on you as a starting pitcher, for you to carry your team, or give your team a chance to win a ballgame, that’s where my love is when pitching,” he said. “You have a chance to help your team. It’s kind of like somebody makes a phone call, and they’re calling for you, and it’s your chance now to give your team a chance to win a game.
“I think baseball is a beautiful game. You have to enjoy it. Moments like that, you have to be mindful of the moment and enjoy it. I’m pretty sure I’ll have other opportunities like that.”
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the magazine’s Spring 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at: yankees.com/publications.