On The Astros: A Second Look At 2017 Free Agent Relievers

Another perspective on prospective free agent relief pitching targets for the Astros this winter

Author’s Note: Yes, I’m aware that this topic was well-canvassed last week here on this site. In truth, Jimmy and I had the same idea at the same time and both wanted to write a piece about it, so here we are. Hopefully there is enough differentiation here to make the conversation worthwhile afresh, so the two weeks (whenever I had time) spent researching and writing this piece wasn’t wasted.


In case you missed it, make sure you go read Jimmy (AstrosFuture) Price’s piece about potential reliever targets for the Astros. This piece will attempt to piggy back off of some of the information about a couple pitchers mentioned therein, and ultimately add another couple of names to the list.

But first? First, we need to talk a little bit about who this writer does not think should make the list.

The No-Go List

No one on this list is a bad pitcher – in fact, a couple of them are currently premium pitchers who are about to command quite a payday. And in some cases, that may be why the Astros should avoid them.

Wade Davis

This is one of those instances where the pitcher is currently good, and there is quite a lot of public pressure (from many of the fans and the media) for the Astros to sign him. In my amateur estimation, however, the Astros should resist. Here’s why.

First, he is one of the preeminent relief arms on the market. He is going to ask for (and receive, probably from a large-market contender) a lucrative, multi-year deal that is based at least in large part on what he’s done in the league. And good for him, more power to him. I don’t think the Astros should go down that road for a couple of reasons: because of the cost-benefit analysis (he’s had one 3 win season as a reliever, one two win season, and otherwise has hovered around 1.1 fWAR) of the dollars spent and likely-lack of available surplus value in a proffered contract…and because I think the 32 year old right handed reliever is hitting the front end of his aging curve decline, and I am in the camp who believes that you sign a contract to pay a player for what they will do, not for what they did do in the past.

Over the last three years, his BB/9 rate has gone from 2.67 to 3.32 to 4.30 in 2017, for starters. Fine, BB/9 isn’t a great stat for indicating decline. In addition, his FIP has increased from 1.19 in 2014 to 2.29 in 2015 and 2016 before reaching 3.38 in 2017. His xFIP increases have been even more pronounced in that time frame – 1.93 in 2014, 3.07 in 2015, 3.68 in 2016, 3.57 in 2017. His SIERA has a similar look. He still has a solid WPA, RE24, WPA/LI, and Clutch score if you’re into those (you really should be at least glancing at these stats, especially for relievers, as a good barometer for past performance even if it isn’t terrible predictive…see this piece and this piece and this piece for more info about these stats) but they have diminished over his 2014-15 numbers as well pretty much across the board. His average velocity has diminished slightly each of the last two seasons as well. All of this to say that Wade Davis is obviously not a bad pitcher right now, today, but there are enough concerning indicators there (coupled with the likely cost both in dollars and years for Davis) to lead this writer to think that the Astros should (and probably will) focus their efforts elsewhere.

Greg Holland

It’s really hard (at least for this plebeian) to evaluate pitchers coming out of Coors Field, and even more so when it’s their first season back from Tommy John Surgery. That said, Holland at the very least falls into the “probably more expensive/more years than makes sense” camp even if the concerns over his injuries are allayed. Additionally, one would assume he (along with Davis, actually) would be expecting a very specific role in whatever bullpen they join, and I think I would avoid adding any pitcher who expects a specific role, at least this offseason. To the chagrin of many, I’m sure, the “Closer” job (the preferred nomenclature is “High Leverage Harry”, but alas, “Closer” remains the vulgar colloquialism) still very much belongs to Ken Giles, as far as I’m concerned…no matter who the Astros add this offseason.

As far as Holland’s performance is concerned, his arsenal appears more or less intact in terms of velocity and use percentages, his WPA and RE24 and Clutch numbers are all within an acceptable range of his peak years with the Royals, he struck out nearly eleven men per nine last year…there’s a lot to like. But his age and likely cost (not to mention the TJS history) are enough to encourage me personally to explore other avenues.

Steve Cishek

Another veteran guy on the list with experience in high leverage situations, Steve Cishek is a pitcher who checks a lot of traditionally-minded boxes (2.01 ERA last year, 56.1 GB%, 8.26 K/9, etc.) but is a guy I would avoid, personally. His ERA has been good the last two years, but ERA isn’t a stat that is often recommended by SABR-minded folks (in my experience, anyway) as a particularly useful stat for relief pitchers because it usually takes more innings to stabilize than most relievers throw. A couple of indicators that draw the eye for Cishek are his BABIP numbers each of the last two seasons (.242 in 2016 and a miniscule .204 this season – both marks well, well below the average, more-sustainable mark for most pitchers, and well below Cishek’s career mark) and his FIP/xFIP numbers. In 2017, Cishek paired his 2.01 ERA with a 3.34 FIP and a 3.66 xFIP. The biggest issue I have with him, though, is that he appears to be a ROOGY to mine eyes. His handedness splits aren’t the most drastic I’ve ever seen, but they’re pretty extreme just the same. In 2017, he allowed a .663 OPS to left-handed batters compared to a .412 OPS versus right handed batters. In fact, FIP tells an even more drastic story: in 2017, Cishek’s FIP against left-handed batters was 5.08, and his FIP against right-handed batters was just 2.62 for the year. His career numbers definitely reinforce the idea that he’s more of a right-handed specialist, and while that kind of pitcher definitely has utility (see: Neshek, Pat) and should be a useful part of a Major League bullpen somewhere, I don’t think it will be in Houston.

Tony Watson

The perceived need for a left handed reliever is palpable among the fan base, and not without reason. Tony Sipp has had a rough two seasons since he signed a well-deserved three year contract following the 2015 season, and he enters his final year of the deal on the outside of the “inner circle” of trusted Astros relievers looking in. Francisco Liriano, who struggled initially as he adjusted to his very first foray into relief pitching as a professional, began to settle in more comfortably to the role of left handed relief specialist near the end of the year and in the playoffs. However, Liriano is now a free agent, and his return is in question…so a left handed reliever is a likely focus during the offseason, and Tony Watson (most recently of the vanquished Los Angeles Dodgers) is a fairly high profile name in that arena this offseason.

The Astros should avoid him, in my humble (and often wrong) opinion.

Between the fact that he’s likely to command a princely payday (and the nearly-bottomless pockets of the Dodgers are sure to be involved in any potential bidding war for his services) and the fact that he’s arguably not even the best left-handed relief option on the market this winter, it’s probably a fairly lukewarm take to suggest that the Astros should avoid him. If you need further convincing, he’s 32 years old and will turn 33 during the 2018 season, his FIP and xFIP have each been over 4.00 for each of the last two seasons, his SIERA was up over 4.00 for the first time this season, his WPA and his RE24 have both trended the wrong way each season since 2015, so on and so forth.

The Targets

That more or less sums up the higher-profile names that I believe should be avoided this winter…with that out of the way, who do I expect the Astros to at least kick the tires on this offseason? Let’s take a look.

Anthony Swarzak

Swarzak might actually be the most intriguing name on this list, from my perspective, because of what he might be able to offer for the cost it might take to get there. MLBTradeRumors projects him at two years, $14 million total, while mentioning that a third year is a possibility. If his performance in 2017 (2.33 ERA with a 2.74 FIP and a 3.48 xFIP, a 10.59 K/9, a 2.56 BB/9, a 3.02 SIERA, excellent Win Probability numbers, and a 14.0% SwStr% that’s well above his previous career marks in that regard) can be repeated, he could be a steal at that price. Certainly I have concerns about 32 year old pitchers, as evidenced elsewhere on this list, but the relatively inexpensive contract for Swarzak coupled with a belief that he might actually be able to replicate his performance for that lower cost has me quite intrigued indeed.

If one were to examine his pitch usage, the past two seasons stand out because he went from throwing anywhere from 66% to 72.2% fastballs each season at an average velocity of 92.2 miles per hour to throwing the fastball far more infrequently (right about 48% of the time each of the last two seasons) and also throwing the fastball harder (93 and 94 mile per hour average velocity each of the last two years) while upping his slider usage from around 27% each year to over 50% in each of the last two seasons. This shift in pitch usage seems to have aided quite a bit this season, and perhaps it did in 2016 as well, though the results on paper don’t look very good. In only 31 innings in 2016, Swarzak posted an ugly 5.52 ERA with a 6.11 FIP and a 3.86 xFIP. However, that small sample size also included a very unlucky (and untenable) 27.8% HR/FB ratio. Also, a small consideration that I would think would be a minor tic in his favor would be his finishing the season with the David Stearns-led Brewers (where he posted more than twelve batters struck out per nine innings) and, one would assume, that might lend itself to feeling a bit familiar with some of the ideas and principles Stearns learned in his time with the Astros under Jeff Luhnow, including (hopefully) a similar means of packaging information and delivering it in a useful, digestible way for the players.

A quick peek at his velocity and (pretty good, especially the slider) RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) measurements from Baseball Savant:

Brandon Morrow

Morrow is the most borderline in my mind of all the pitchers on this list as far as teetering between “target” and “non-target”. On the one hand, he’s thirty three and does not exactly have a great track record of success in the Major Leagues. Kind of like Brad Peacock didn’t before this year, either, except Morrow is older. On the other hand, he acquitted himself well during the 2017 season for the Dodgers and pitched in all seven World Series games against the Astros, performing as well as it might be expected when battling extreme fatigue and facing one of the best offenses in recent history. Over the last two seasons Morrow has added a cutter to his repertoire and he’s gradually phased out a curveball and a change up, leaving him with a power fastball, a slider, and a cutter. This season, a big part of his success has been massive velocity gains – he’s added three or more miles per hour on his average velocity for all three pitches. Depending on his contract demands and the market for his services (will Major League teams be willing to gamble that the 45 elite games he pitched for the Dodgers in 2017 is the real Brandon Morrow now?) he could go either way, as a guy to call or a guy to avoid.

Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio has quietly averaged right at 10.00 K/9 over the last three seasons, and done so pitching for four different teams in that time. After flirting with starting in each of his first six major league seasons, Nicasio was utilized exclusively out of the bullpen in 2017, and his results improved quite a bit. His WPA (1.09) and RE24 (14.34) numbers both jumped this year. His fastball averaged a robust 95.4 miles per hour in 2017 and appears to hold life well as it increases in velocity over shorter (read: non-start) appearances. He throws quite a few pitches (including a change that is pretty firm and is probably not a great pitch, an interesting sinker that misses bats quite well, and a cutter…all three pitches are pitches he almost never throws, but he does have them in his bag) but primarily relies on the fastball and a slider that averages 88.5 miles per hour. BrooksBaseball.net has this to say on Nicasio’s player card about his slide piece:

“His slider is thrown extremely hard, generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sliders, has much less depth than expected, generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ sliders and has primarily 12-6 movement.”

Here are a couple of movement charts from Brooks Baseball for Nicasio’s two primary pitches, for those who are interested:

Additionally, here’s some information from Baseball Savant on his velocity and Revolutions Per Minute (RPM):

I personally tend more towards focusing on left handed relievers, but if a right handed reliever is on the wish list and the Astros are not as bullish on Swarzak as I am, then Nicasio would seem a fine replacement target, from my perspective. Perhaps not a late-inning arm – the spin rates on his pitches are solid but they aren’t premium – but definitely a capable middle inning arm with excellent velocity and tilt.

Boone Logan

Here we reach the top of my personal wish list, as an Astros fan. I love what Boone Logan brings to the table as a LOOGY specialist.

Here’s a look (powered by Baseball Savant – if you’re not familiar with Daren Willman’s work there, it is one of the best sites on the web and you should check it out. Also, follow him on twitter – @darenw is his handle. His tweets are the nectar of the Baseball Gods, and their sweet, supple countenance will make you sound smart with your friends) at how Boone Logan stacks up in average exit velocity against Jake McGee, who is my second favorite left-handed reliever on this year’s market:

Again, that’s a comparison from Baseball Savant. They rule, go check them out. Here’s more ooey goodness from them. Because charts. We need charts!

And then, the Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) chart for Logan – always a go-to chart worth checking out for pitchers, in my opinion. You’ll note that his slider and his four seam fastball both hover around the 2500 RPM mark, and his two seam fastball hovers around the 2250 RPM mark…I know that the two fastball colors can be a bit difficult to make out, but they’re there. For context’s sake, other left handed pitchers on this list (well, specifically Jake McGee and Brian Duensing, since we already established that other factors besides spin make Tony Watson a less than desirable target) have either a fastball that spins at around 2500 RPM or a breaking ball or two that spin at that rate, but of the triumvirate, only Boone Logan has a breaking ball and a fastball that both spin at or around 2500 RPM. Here’s the chart:

Additionally, Logan hovers at or around a 50% ground ball percentage, which is well above league average, and his peripherals in 2017 (his “escape from Coors Field” year, with the Cleveland Indians in what might be the second best offensive home park in baseball, depending on who you ask) show a 3.16 FIP/3.11 xFIP against an ERA that was inflated by a slightly elevated HR/FB rate and a .353 BABIP in a pretty small (21 innings) sample size. He has succeeded in striking out 11 or more batters per nine innings in each of the last six seasons, including a new career-best mark of an even 12.00 K/R in 2017, his slider held opponents to a 57 wRC+ in 2017 compared to the 51 wRC+ it’s held hitters to over the course of his career, and this is his career split line against left-handed batters, which is the primary need to address in the Astros bullpen this offseason:

Jake McGee

Jake McGee might come across as maligned in this piece, but that hasn’t been my intention. I find him a quite-alluring left-handed reliever who would be a great pivot option if Boone Logan doesn’t work out for some reason.

My biggest knock on McGee is a personal quibble more than anything else, and it’s my perception that he relies on his (very, very good, in fairness) fastball too much. There’s a meme floating around that suggests that McGee has leaned on his fastball more while in Coors Field, but actually his fastball usage percentage by year has looked like this since 2012:

2012 with Tampa – 87.2% Fastballs
2013 with Tampa – 93.0% Fastballs
2014 with Tampa – 96.4% Fastballs
2015 with Tampa – 92.7% Fastballs
2016 with Colorado – 84.2% Fastballs
2017 with Colorado – 93.5% Fastballs

So in actuality, his single lowest percentage of fastball use in this rather extensive data set came in his first season in Colorado…before he went right back to throwing almost exclusively fastballs in 2017. And he’s met great success with throwing almost entirely fastballs throughout his career, thanks in part to velocity:

(courtesy of Baseball Savant again)

And also thanks to the life (presented here in one of many qualification forms as RPM, there are many other ways to examine the life on his pitches) on his pitches, particularly the fastball:

(Baseball Savant, again)

Honestly, McGee probably makes up a bit for fastball reliance by being pretty good against both right-handed batters and left-handed batters, but as mentioned above, he still falls slightly below Logan for me because Logan has two different good-spinning pitches that he can work off of. It would be nice, were the Astros to sign him, to see him tighten up a slider that can get a bit slurvy at times.

Honorable mention: Brian Duensing

There’s nothing really wrong with Duensing at all, he represents a third pivot point in my mind beyond Logan and McGee. Here are his graphics from Baseball Savant:

The Sleepers

So far, we’ve discussed guys you’d want to take and slot right into your bullpen if you signed them. Bonafide Major League bullpen pieces.

This section is to take a look at a couple of other quirky options and possibilities, just for fun. Neither of these guys should be expected to make a huge impact in 2017 at all…but if the stars align and fill a glass bottle somewhere on the fifth floor of Union Station with lightning, they could be bargain bin bullpen bolsters.

Glen Perkins

This is a name that should sound familiar to most baseball fans who have been following the game for at least a couple of years – Glen Perkins, erstwhile Minnesota Twins closer, who quietly logged three straight thirty save campaigns for the Twins from 2013 through 2015 before injuries and the onset of age sapped him of several miles per hour off of his average fastball velocity (where it was averaging around 94-95 miles per hour at his peak, it has fallen to a 90.3 mile per hour average in 2017). Meanwhile, Perkins has still been throwing his fastball quite a lot (67.5% of the time in 2017) despite its clear degradation, all while sitting on a slider that has some truly outstanding spin rate to it. Here’s a look at the RPM of his pitches, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

It’s a pretty nasty pitch. Check it out, here’s a video clip (again…you guessed it, this is a youtube version of a clip I first saw on Baseball Savant) that includes a brief Stat Cast look, from a game against Oakland in 2015:

So, why does he still pitch primarily off of a degraded fastball instead of pitching off this far more nasty pitch more often, and perhaps in lower leverage or LOOGY situations?

Why, indeed?

I say he’s a great target on the cheap (after missing 16 months due to injury, being generally ineffective in his fastball-laden return and subsequently released by the Twins) as a reclamation project. Invert (or nearly so) his pitch usage percentages (read: have him pitch off the nasty slider a lot more) and see how this bulldog-minded former closer reacts to a paradigm shift in an effort to resurrect his career. The Astros are known to prefer breaking balls and missing bats from their relievers – if the opportunity presents itself, I hope they’re able to bring Perkins onboard in a short, incentive-heavy contract to see what he can do. If it doesn’t work out, okay, but it seems worth a look.

Trevor Rosenthal

This is a name which needs no introduction around these parts. Trevor Rosenthal has, when healthy, been an extremely effective pitcher since Jeff Luhnow drafted him for the Cardinals in the 21st round of the 2009 Amateur Draft. The Cardinals granted him his unconditional release this winter after Tommy John Surgery ended his season back in August, and he will likely miss the entirety of the 2018 season. Several teams will be in contact with the former All Star closer in the hopes of signing him to a cheap contract with an option for 2019, effectively paying him for his rehab in the hopes of a low-buy relief ace in 2019. I hope Jeff Luhnow reaches out to his 27-year-old former draft gem and extends a warm, fair-market invitation to join the World Champions, personally.

The Conclusion

If it wasn’t clear, there are a lot of very interesting relief pitching targets on the free agent market this year for the Astros to pursue. I have taken the liberty of compiling stats from my personal favorites, and arranged them in the priority order I would pursue them in:

I hope you enjoyed the piece, and please feel free to weigh in below in the comments.

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