It's almost amusing to watch Garza take the mound, and certainly not in a bad way. At first glance, Garza might not look like much. He's just 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, so the immediate thought isn't that you're about to see a big-time pitcher. At TCU last weekend, professional scouts in attendance didn't even have radar guns in hand when Garza took the mound. But things quickly changed when the talented right-handed pitcher began to warm up.
Garza showed a smooth arm motion and began to raise some eyebrows when his warmup pitches came in at 90, 91, and then a 92. Without hesitation, one scout leaned over to me and said, "Hey, who is this guy? What classification is he?" Though happy to give Garza an introduction to the fine folks in the Lone Star State, it was easy to let the right-handed hurler do the rest of the work.
From the first inning on against Texas Christian this past weekend, Garza pitched more like a seasoned junior All-American than he did a smallish freshman from Ontario, Calif. (Bonita), just 45 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
"He just pounded the strike zone against TCU. He was throwing four pitches, and he was pretty much ahead of every hitter out there," Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said. "He dominated out there. He just completely dominated."
The Horned Frogs certainly won't dispute Vanderhook's claim that Garza was masterful in only his second collegiate start. The right-hander was stellar from start to finish against the Horned Frogs, recording five strikeouts (walking none) and allowing two runs (one earned) on five hits in 7 1/3 innings of work. He also threw 86 total pitches, 56 strikes.
"He's obviously really good, and he's really aggressive," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "We knew he had a great arm, but we also knew he wasn't a very big guy. Usually guys at that size and arm angle tend to have the ball rise up the zone. He did a great job of keeping the ball down in the zone. He really just did a heck of a job against our team."
But even more impressive than his numbers against the Horned Frogs was his maturity, poise and overall stuff. Given the fact he's always had to answer questions about his size, dating back to the beginning of his high school career at Bonita High School, Garza is seasoned at overcoming the odds.
Garza was one of the top pitchers in California out of high school. He was a consistent face on the Perfect Game Showcase and Tournament circuit, earning plenty of accolades, and doing well enough to earn the No. 170 national prospect ranking as a high school senior. He continued his impressive pitching at the Perfect Game WWBA Championship in Jupiter, Fla., two summers ago, getting up to 92 with his fastball and sitting mid 70s with a curveball, 78 with a changeup, while with the ABD Bulldogs.
Come MLB draft time last summer, Garza's big-time arm simply wasn't enough for scouts to ignore his lack of prototypical size, as the talented right-hander was drafted in just the 26th round by the Cleveland Indians.
"Obviously with my size, people always pretty much doubted me right away. I just didn't and still don't let that type of deal affect me," Garza said. "I have heard everything you might imagine about my size. Some have said I can't pitch or that I'm just too small. I just use that as motivation. It's great."
In an interesting turn of events, the talented righty continues to rise up the charts in terms of freshman pitchers for the 2015 MLB draft. But the truth is he hasn't changed much since his high school days outside of a couple of tweaks. Garza was up to 91-92 out of high school, and has increased his arm strength a bit, consistently sitting 91-93 against the Horned Frogs, touching some 94s. Also impressive is that Garza still was sitting 92-93 with that fastball in the sixth inning, and up to 92 in the eighth inning.
As for Garza's secondary stuff, it's still a work in progress, but still very solid with a plus changeup. Garza threw a mid 70s curveball in high school, but has since dumped that pitch for a changeup sitting 79-81 against TCU, while also dominant. Meanwhile, he continues to flash a cutter sitting 83-85 with just enough break to make it an effective pitch.
"That change is really, really good, and that cutter is becoming pretty good, too," Vanderhook said. "He's everything that was expected. There aren't many teams out there playing this well with a pair of freshmen leading their weekend rotation. The big thing about Justin is he doesn't give away free bases."
As impressive Garza has been so far this season, he's not the only weekend starter who has been dominant. Fellow freshman right-handed pitcher Thomas Eshelman, who has become Garza's bullpen pal, also continues to rack up amazing numbers. Through two starts this season, Eshelman, who also has a fastball in the 90s with good overall stuff, has yet to allow a run in 11 2/3 innings of work. He also has recorded 14 strikeouts and walked no one.
"They compete against each other like most pitchers do. Both Eshelman and Garza just do a great job of throwing all of their pitches to different spots," Vanderhook said. "No matter what we're doing, those two will continue to compete with each other. We've still got a long road ahead."
As for Garza, after his TCU start, he now has a sensational 0.68 ERA in 13 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 11 batters and walked just one batter, while holding teams to a low .146 batting average.
Though Garza may not yet be a household name across the country, that will soon change, along with any remaining doubt that his size is an issue at the next level.