The Nucleus of A Pen Moving Forward
by Jim Silva
It wasn’t that long ago that closers were thought to be magical creatures who had special abilities not possessed by mere mortals. It wasn’t just that they had a big fastball or some other swing-and-miss pitch, it was more about a certain look or perceived mental toughness. What this means was that once a pitcher was labeled a closer once, he would forever wear the label much like your tattoo of Daphne from Scooby Do – once marked, always marked. I’m not saying that this perception has completely left us, but there is more change in the role these days and managers don’t seem to be as afraid to swap out a guy part way through the season as they used to be. That said, the Red Sox are considering re-signing Jonathan Papelbon which leads one to head scratching. But the Astros have now changed course a couple of times with their pen in an effort to find the magic. Their new/old closer is Ken Giles. To be fair, he was never the anointed closer, although that is clearly why the Astros gave up a lot (five prospects) to get him. Do you think Houston wouldn’t like to have Vince Velasquez back right about now? Let’s take a look at what the Astros are dealing with currently to see why there has been some shuffling in their relief corps this season.
Ken Giles is the classic two pitch closer with a hard fastball – and by hard I mean it averages 96 MPH and touches triple digits – and a slider. He strikes out everyone, and yes, even their brother. In the 11 innings since Mr. Giles was anointed as the team’s closer he has allowed four earned runs, two home runs, eight hits, and two walks while striking out 16. That is essentially what the Astros thought they were getting when they traded so much to get him – a guy who will blow you away with his heat and finish out the game without too much excitement. The home run rate is way up from his usual numbers and if I were the Astros I would be a little worried. One of the benefits of the current closer model where you only see the closer at the start of the 9th with the bases empty is that if the closer gives up the occasional home run, it shouldn’t hurt you too much as long as he doesn’t walk many guys or give up a lot of hits. A solo homer won’t usually lose you the game. So Giles should be fine as long as his control stays sharp – it doesn’t hurt that he fans almost 14 batters per nine either!
When Giles arrived, it was initially assumed that he would displace the incumbent closer, Luke Gregerson. Gregerson is not your typical fire-balling closer. His fastball came in at just over 89 MPH on average last season and he throws it more often than his slider. The reason the 6’3” former 28th round pick is so effective is that he has excellent control and sinks the ball, inducing grounders (over 60% of the time last season). This season has been an odd one for Gregerson. He made it clear after the Giles trade that he still wanted to be the closer and he got his wish at least to start the season. The righty from St. Xavier University has seen his strikeout rate skyrocket to 10.4 per nine, up from his career rate of 9.0, while walking more than a batter an inning more than last season. At 2.6 walks over nine innings, Gregerson is just 0.1 over his career walk rate and he still keeps the ball in the park (0.7 home runs per nine) and batters off the bases (a WHIP of 0.89 so far). So why is he no longer the closer? Gregerson lost his role partly because of an ill-timed ankle injury, partly because of a streak of blown saves, partly because of a prejudice against closers who don’t throw super hard, and partly because of the effectiveness of Giles. When your team trades valuable parts for a guy to pitch in relief and that guy throws five MPH faster than you on average, the writing is on the wall. There is no way the Astros were going to leave Giles in the setup role after trading away good players to get him. You could certainly make the argument that Giles is more valuable pitching with men on base in arguably higher leverage spots than coming in to pitch the 9th with nobody on and a lead, but closers have a magical aura to them, and finishing out games when you have a lead in the 9th is psychologically important to a team, or so they say. Either way, Gregerson will now pitch the 7th or 8th, making him arguably more valuable than Giles although his agent will have a hard time selling that to a general manager.
The other guy in the Astros pen who has garnered a goodly number of save opportunities this season is Will Harris. Harris was unbelievably difficult to hit last season allowing only 5.3 hits per nine innings. With a career strikeouts- per-nine-innings average of 9.4, it wasn’t too surprising that he became the main closer for most of June and July. Most teams would be thrilled to have a guy like Harris, who throws pretty hard – a fastball averaging around 92 MPH, and who mixes in a curve about 20% of the time with good swing and miss rates. Ok, so maybe Harris has had a wee home run problem in the past. By wee, I mean he averaged one homer per nine innings pitched last season, although this season he has kept the ball mostly in the park allowing only 0.5 long balls per nine innings. Harris appeared in the All Star game this season, has managed a career best strikeout to walk ratio of 6.00 and could close, but lost the job likely due to a stretch of three blown saves in five appearances in July. Those were his only three blown saves of the season so Giles mostly just supplanted him and will be given more chances to fail than the 32 year old journeyman reliever. Harris is now the 7th inning guy who hands the ball to Gregerson, the 8th inning guy, who hands the ball to Giles, the closer. Those three make for a nice end game strategy for the Astros.
At the end of a nearly un-hittable 2014 season where Tony Sipp only allowed 5.0 hits every nine innings he pitched, the then 30 year old reliever found himself relied upon to pitch the 8th and to sometimes close the game for the Astros. It was the peak of his career to date. Sipp was looking like a possible closer and the Astros were about to get good. It isn’t that Sipp began a wicked steep decline or anything but he no longer has a clearly defined role. Sometimes he pitches the 7th, sometimes the 5th, and sometimes he comes in to get one guy. This has been a rough year for the unpredictable lefty as his ERA has jumped to 5.65 while he has allowed almost 12 hits per nine innings and 2.9 home runs per nine. The Astros are losing faith in Tony Sipp and he is going to have a hard time regaining it as younger harder throwing cheaper pitchers move up from the minors. If the Astros sneak into the post-season it is unclear whether Sipp will even make the playoff roster as he has allowed five home runs in his last 10 appearances.
One of the most valuable arms out of the Astros pen this season has been rookie Chris Devenski. The 2011 25th round pick has started five games and relieved in 10 posting a WHIP of 0.918, and ERA of 2.13, while striking out 4.53 hitters for each man he has walked. Devenski vaulted over triple-A from Corpus Christi of the double-A Texas league after putting together a good season in 2015 but his stats did not portend what he has done in 2016. Since 2014 the 6’3” righty from Cal State Fullerton has demonstrated excellent control, and that is when his overall numbers started to make him look like a viable prospect. So how to use him? In four of his five starts in the bigs, “The Dragon” pitched well. His control was excellent in his starts as it was in his relief appearances. Interestingly, in his starts he appeared to get tougher to hit as the game went on. When batters faced him a third time their batting average dropped to .059 and they slugged .059. Yes, these are small sample size warped stats, but if I am the Astros and my rotation is a mess I want to stretch Devinski out and see if he can maintain those numbers with more starts. When you cherry pick stats it is easy to make almost any point you want and there are certainly numbers that support Devinski coming out of the pen, but his OPS allowed as a starter is .672 versus his OPS allowed as a reliever – .517. Most pitchers will see a statistical benefit from getting to go max effort for a short stretch, but not that many pitchers can succeed as starters. The Astros should consider moving Chris Devinski to the rotation.
Pat Neshek has found himself at 36. I don’t mean that in the breathy, spiritual way, although I’m sure the Neshek family is quite lovely and enlightened. Neshek has found his control and a team that values him. This is Neshek’s 5th team, which isn’t surprising considering his funky delivery. (See the clip below.)
Teams are reluctant to risk taking on players with unorthodox approaches like Neshek’s. At the first sign of trouble they tend to cut and run, which in baseball means trade the guy or let him sign elsewhere. What Neshek currently (and apparently every other season – only the evens – since 2012) offers to a team is low hit totals, currently 5.9 hits per nine innings, low walk totals – he has allowed 1.7 per nine so far, and an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio which is currently at 4.88 to 1. Neshek does get touched by the long ball from time to time, but this season he has kept that at a reasonable 1.0 home runs per nine innings pitched. With an ERA of 2.51 and a WHIP of 0.837 he looks, from his numbers at least, like a closer but has had zero save opportunities with the 2016 Astros. I’m not suggesting that the Astros need to unseat Giles or Gregerson and install Neshek and his whip weirdness, but sometimes oddness blinds teams to results and that has mostly been true with Neshek who has never really had a shot to be the closer for a team beyond 10 save opportunities he experienced with St. Louis in 2014. That is not likely to change for the 36 year old and that’s too bad because it would certainly be entertaining to watch someone like Neshek come in to close out a big game in the playoffs or World Series.
Michael Feliz is an intriguing arm who was mostly a big, hard-throwing starter with decent control as a minor leaguer. What’s not to like there? A mid-90’s fastball and a strikeout to walk ratio in the majors of 4.18 this year working out of the pen to go with his 13.3 strikeouts per nine makes for a compelling package. He is only 23 and only has two games pitched at triple-A so working from the pen is probably a solid plan at least for now, but if you are struggling to find viable options for your rotation why not give Feliz a shot? It is spilt milk now, but why didn’t the Astros stretch him out and try him in the rotation? They have mostly used him for an inning or two at a time (20 of his 44 appearances have been for more than an inning) and, especially in the second half, low-leverage situations. It appears that the Astros don’t really trust him and that may have come from a rocky start to the season where he got lit up in his first two appearances. Felix then went 19 and a third and only gave up one earned run in a stretch that took him to early June. His ERA got as low as 3.23 but is now sitting at 4.62. It will be interesting to see what Houston does with Feliz next season. They aren’t lacking young, hard-throwing pitchers coming through the system, but their view of Feliz will determine whether or not they give him a shot at their rotation going forward.
Putting together a viable pen to get you to and through the post-season is complicated and the Astros pen has been in the middle of the pack. With Giles under team control through 2021, Harris until 2020, Devenski still a rookie, and Gregerson around at least through next season, the Astros don’t have to panic about their pen in the off-season. There is a fair amount of talent in the Houston pen, and if they can figure out a way to get to the pen with a lead – and that is mostly on the rotation, the Astros will be contenders to unseat the Rangers as soon as next year.