Rockies' Garcia building on career season

Hawaii native blossoming into one of Colorado system's top arms

Rico Garcia is looking to become the second Hawaii Pacific alumnus to reach the Majors. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

By Andrew Battifarano / MiLB.com | May 15, 2019 11:00 AM

Sitting at home in Hawaii in early June 2016, Rico Garcia didn't have any expectations on the final day of the Draft. As he watched one of his favorite movies -- "Lean on Me" with Morgan Freeman -- his dad napped while his mom watched TV in another room. Garcia had an offer to continue his baseball career in Germany, which he was only beginning to mentally prepare for. 

"The coach in Germany kept contacting me," Garcia said. "And I was like, 'I'll let you know. I'll wait until after the Draft is done,' just to see if I got drafted or not." 

With the selections ticking into the 28th round, Garcia finally heard his phone buzz. The Rockies would pick him two rounds later. Instead of traveling thousands of miles to another continent, he'd be finding his way to Boise to join Colorado's Class A Short Season affiliate. For a pitcher who was undersized, overlooked and given one legitimate offer to play collegiate baseball, this was the opportunity of a lifetime -- an unexpected chance to prove that the stuff he showed at Division II Hawaii Pacific University was for real. 

"I listened to my pitching coaches, my teammates, absorbed all the information around me," Garcia said. "Piece by piece, it kind of helped me become the pitcher that I am today. It didn't really come over night. ... It's an accumulation of all this information that I've gathered." 

Video: Garcia's 11th strikeout for Hartford

The Rockies scouting department recognized that studious mind-set early. Even though Garcia was a late-round pick, Colorado's expectations weren't any lower, according director of player development Zach Wilson. 

"Whether it's a first-rounder or 30th-rounder, our perspective is that they're all future Major Leaguers and it's our job to create that," Wilson said. "It starts with our scouting department, who identified Rico, who went later in the Draft and had significant upside." 

And with that upside, Garcia has emerged three years later as one of the top performers in the Double-A Eastern League. Pitching for Hartford, the Rockies' No. 21 prospect is second on the circuit in strikeouts (50), third in ERA (1.69) and seventh in WHIP (0.94). But as Garcia noted, this wasn't a process that happened in the blink of an eye.

It's taken years of absorbing and applying information to get him to this point. And it all began back on the fields in Honolulu, where Garcia had dreams of making it big like some of his Hawaiian predecessors. 

"Guys like [Benny] Agbayani, Shane Victorino, Brandon League -- he was with the Dodgers when I went up to see him play," Garcia said. "It's kind of why almost all Hawaii athletes are proud of each other when they make it out, just because we all know it's not the easiest to make it out of there."

Playing in paradise 

Growing up in the sunshine of Oahu, Garcia had aspirations to make it to the highest level but never really stressed about what would come next. He was always "going with the flow," even if that meant changing what people called him on the diamond.

While playing Little League and travel ball, Garcia -- born as Joshua Rico Garcia -- encountered a small issue.

"Growing up, there were always, like, two or three different Joshes," Garcia said. "My dad [Eddie] was the coach and he just started calling me Rico and it just stuck with me in sports. Teammates knew me as Rico, but all my classmates knew me as Josh, so that was kind of funny."

And the use of his middle name led to Garcia's nickname, Rico Suave. With his calm demeanor, aptitude for pitching and insatiable drive to improve, Garcia thrived as a youngster and moved on to the Saint Louis School, where Agbayani and League had played before him.

Rico thrived and racked up both conference and state accolades during a solid high school career on the hill and at third base. But as his time in high school was nearing a conclusion, Garcia didn't have much in the way of offers to keep playing the game he loved. At 5 feet, 11 inches and lacking an imposing frame, he was too small to be a strong NCAA pitcher -- at least in the eyes of most recruiters.

But then-HPU head coach Garett Yukumoto took a chance on the right-hander and offered him a spot on the Sharks, the same team that retired Agbayani's uniform. With Garcia coming from a tight-knit family, pitching in front of the people he's closest to made his college experience even more special. 

"Almost every kid's dream out of high school is to play Division I baseball," Yukumoto said. "And not having that opportunity to do Division I baseball, we were fortunate to have him sign with us. He had a lot of innings, he had a lot of opportunities to be seen and got some exposure that would help him meet his goals. That always stuck with him."

Yukumoto characterized Garcia as a "student of the game" who was willing to listen to the staff and do whatever was needed, which was evident from the first day he stepped on campus. Garcia led the team with five complete games his freshman year, but he was just getting started.

In his sophomore campaign, he set a program record with 74 punchouts. The next year, he fanned 87 for a new record. And as Garcia continued to excel, he learned from all of the data and reports that were thrown his way.

"He's a sponge. He soaks up all the information, almost like taking a big exam," Yukumoto said. "Before taking a big exam, he wants to make sure he studies. That way he can execute the game plan against his opponents." 

By the time he won six ballgames during his senior year, Garcia wasn't really thinking about what was next. The Draft was far from his mind, as was the future in general. It was all about finishing the year on a high note, which he did with a 3.39 ERA in 77 innings. 

"I just wanted to give it all I had for my coach and teammates, because [Yukumoto] was the only one who had faith in me outside of high school," Garcia said. "So I really wanted to just go out there and give it my all. If I got drafted or not, I was happy with how I went about my senior year."

It was enough to get the attention of the Rockies, who took Garcia with the 890th overall pick. In another parallel with Agbayani, Garcia was also a 30th-round selection.

"Our guys not only work to get really talented players at the front end of the Draft, led by [vice president of scouting] Bill Schmidt and the rest of his staff," Wilson said. "But they're looking for these types of guys, whatever you want to call them, diamonds in the rough or whatever. They're looking for the best possible guys in the later rounds, too, because you never know where Major League players are going to come from. ... Obviously, they were able to get us a very good pitcher in the right mind-set into our system."

After signing on June 14, Garcia had a quick turnaround to head from Hawaii to Idaho. There was a family get-together and hectic last few days at home before Garcia flew out to the Northwest League, ready to make his first impression as a professional.

Soaking up the information

After a whirlwind couple of days, Garcia settled into his new digs in Boise and the NWL. In his first taste of pro ball, however, he hit his first rough patch, struggling to a 6.37 ERA and 1.90 WHIP with the Hawks. The rocky outings of 2016 kept him in extended spring training the next year until he got a ticket back to Boise.

"Being a 30th-round pick and having the first season that I did and going to extended and back to Boise, it was kind of a downer," Garcia admitted. "But I'm not the type of guy who will put my head down and be quiet. I'm going to continue gathering all the information that I can. I just talk to my teammates and coaches. That's probably been the biggest part of my journey so far." 

The way the Rockies saw it, the struggles only made Garcia study even harder at how to get pro hitters out with his three-pitch combination. 

"Every case is different, but his was, 'OK, I can't continue to be who I was in college in this game. I have to do things better that allow me to compete here and execute pitches better here,'" Wilson said.

"He was able to take those lessons early and make adjustments and apply them early in his career. ... I'm for all of our players -- on both sides of the ball -- to run into significant adversity at the Minor League levels and figure out how to get through that, because it'll definitely happen at the Major League level. If you have a tool bag that gets you through that, it's an important part of the process." 

Garcia lowered his ERA by nearly three runs that year, which started a string of three consecutive seasons in which he's kept his ERA well under 4.00. Even last year in the hitter-friendly California League -- where his home games were in homer-happy Lancaster -- Garcia held a 3.42 ERA while striking out 101 hitters in 100 innings before a promotion to Hartford.

Looking back on his debut season, Garcia sees where things have gotten better and where they can improve even more. The tough times were especially on his mind when he was at his first big league Spring Training this year, working with the likes of starter Jon Gray and catcher Chris Iannetta.

"Honestly, I think about it every day. I thank God for the ability to experience this and be out here," Garcia said. "Just being here and seeing where I came from that kind of motivates me every day. My family's a big part of it, too, so it's just a great experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

A second home in Hartford

Eddie Garcia was born in Puerto Rico and spent his childhood between there and Connecticut. So when Rico Garcia found out last summer that he was going to be pitching in front of family again -- this time relatives on his dad's side -- his July promotion to Hartford meant even more.

"It's a great feeling. Back home in Hawaii, my mom's family got to watch and now my dad's family gets to watch," Garcia said. "It's great having family everywhere. Family is the biggest thing for me, regardless if I'm doing good or bad."

2019 MiLB include

And so far -- whether he's been in front of his other relatives or his dad, a retired U.S. Army veteran who flies to the East Coast when he can to see his son pitch -- it's been a spectacular season for Garcia. With an uptick in his fastball velocity and a deceptive changeup that he throws in all counts, he's made quick work of Eastern League opponents in 2019.

Through his first seven starts (and four wins), Garcia has attained his best strikeout-per-nine ratio at 12.05. He's also done a stellar job at limiting hard contact, holding hitters to a .250 BABIP and 0.48 homers-per-nine. 

All these improvements have come from a set of incremental adjustments that the Rockies began implementing with Garcia when he turned pro three summers ago.

"The changeup, in the last two years in particular, has taken a giant step forward," Wilson said. "We were also able to do some minor tweaking with his delivery, which has allowed him to stand over the rubber a little bit more and use his lower half a little bit more and ultimately led to a velocity increase, but also better command of the baseball. It's been great to see the process work, and we've got a track record of the over the last several years with our pitching, and Rico fits right in with that track record."

Despite all the physical adjustments, Garcia's mental game has stayed the same for some time.

"Honestly for me, it hasn't really changed. I kind of kept with my approach from when I was in [Class A Advanced]," Garcia said. "I just kept the same approach, didn't really change anything. Yeah, the hitters are a little better. But at the end of the day, it's what we do with our approach that really matters."

The results? This year, Garcia's made six starts in which he's allowed one run or fewer, including two scoreless outings. Yukumoto, who stays in contact with his former pupil as much as he can, isn't surprised by Garcia's progress. Having played with Agbayani and coached Garcia, Yukumoto believes they share personality traits that have allowed them to succeed. And, if all goes to plan, Garcia would follow in Agbayani's footsteps as the second Major Leaguer produced by Hawaii Pacific.

"He makes not only me proud, but the program proud as well as the state of Hawaii in his accomplishments," Yukumoto said. "I think for him, he has a bigger goal. That motivation for him to reach that made him work hard, strive for more and try to get something bigger."

With the numbers he's posting in Double-A, Garcia will inevitably take the next step to the Pacific Coast League at a date still to be determined, according to Wilson. When he gets there, the righty will test his fastball command against more patient hitters, many of whom have of Major League experience. 

"It's about experience. It's about reps," Wilson said. "It's about facing different types of hitters right now. Once he gets to Triple-A, which eventually he will, much like he will eventually pitch in the big leagues, [he'll face more and more advanced hitters]."

With such a hot start to the year, it might be easy to lose perspective on what's gotten him to this point, but Garcia has maintained the sharp focus and doesn't intend on losing it any time soon.

"It's been a great journey so far, but I wouldn't say it's done or close to done," Garcia said. "That's not for me to say or know, but from the time I got drafted, I fully bought in."

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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