Meet The Newest Houston Astro: Ryan Rowland-Smith

What do you come to TCB for? If you answered "exhaustive profiles of new acquisitions who may or may not impact the 25-man roster next season," you'd be correct. With the news that the Astros reached an agreeement with left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith on Thursday, the Winter Meetings finally closed with some transactions. Granted, they may not have been the transactions you all wanted, but it gives us something to talk about. I have some general thoughts about the Astros haul up on SB Nation Houston, but for now, let's focus on Mr. Hyphen.

Rowland-Smith will be 28 next month and is a native of Sydney, Australia. The 6-foot-3, 240 pounder was signed by the Seattle Mariners as an international free agent back in 2000. He made his major league debut on June 22, 2007 against the Cincinnati Reds at Safeco Field. He threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings, giving up one hit and striking out two. In his four year career, Rowland-Smith (nicknamed "The Hyphen") has pitched in 115 games and started 47. He's also finished 17.

After the jump, we'll get into Rowland-Smith's career, his pitching repertoire and what to expect out of him next season...

Macro Stats

Rowland-Smith has a career ERA of 4.57 and a career FIP of 4.97. In 362 2/3 innings, he has struck out 220 and walked 134. Clack showed you his breakdown of strikeout and walk percentages for the his career on Thursday, so I won't bore you with that again. But, I will point out that Rowland-Smith had ERA+ over 100 in his first three seasons.

Sure, he tanked really hard last season, with a 58 ERA+, 6.75 ERA in 109 1/3 innings with 49 strikeouts and 44 walks. In fact, Rowland-Smith has never had great strikeout numbers. In the minors, his strikeout rate hovered around 7 K/9, but he never really threw enough innings to be sure. What was telling is that even in his long minor league career, Rowland-Smith had a BB/9 rate of 3.2 and only posted season totals under 3.0 three times. Twice that happened in the past two seasons, after he had made his major league debut.

But, low strikeout totals are to be expected from a sinkerball pitcher. We'll get into why he's a sinker guy in a minute, but, as clack also showed, he's had pretty good ground ball rates too. According to FanGraphs, his groundball rate has hovered around 37.7 percent for the past three seasons. That's much lower than you'd expect from a guy who primarily throws a two-seam fastball, but you also have to take his home ballpark into account. Rowland-Smith played in a ton of games at Safeco field, with it's expansive outfield and great outfield defense (Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez). He might have tried to pitch for pop-ups, but we can't know for sure.

What we do know is that Rowland-Smith was incredibly luck on balls in play for his first three seasons. He had BABiPS under .300 in each season from 2007-2009. Last year was the first time he had a year over .300 and he submitted his worst season as a pro. Even then, it's not like he was unlucky at .309. It was just about 40 points higher than his totals in the previous two seasons. That's a big reason why his FIP is higher than his ERA.

Projections for 2011

Bill James has already submitted his forecast for Rowland-Smith for next year, and he's been pretty bullish. James has him only pitching 70 1/3 innings, but lowering his walk rate, raising his strikeout rate and seeing pretty significant dips in both his ERA and FIP.

The only problem with that is it was based on him pitching in Safeco for most of the time with a different infield defense. Minute Maid Park plays pretty neutral, but it's going to be a change from the pitcher-friendly environs he was used to. Will the change from the American League to the National be enough to even that out?

For his career, Rowland-Smith has an ERA almost two full runs higher when pitching on the road than he does at Safeco. His opposing OPS+ was 30 points higher on the road and he had five more home runs allowed in about 30 less innings. He has never pitched in Minute Maid Park before, nor has he faced the Astros in a game, so it's hard to predict how he'll do in Houston.

Backstop Help

What is significant is his ERA with different catchers behind the plate. In all his innings, the only catcher where Rowland-Smith has consistently had good ERAs with was Kenji Johjima. Coincidentally, the Mariners jettisoned the Japanese backstop after the 2009 season and Hyphen went on to have a horrible season on the mound. 

I'm not saying that Jason Castro or Humberto Quintero can be the answers for Hyphen. But, I will note that Johjima was considered a defense-first guy just like Q and Castro. The guys Seattle had at catcher last season? Decidedly less defensive wizards. 

What He Throws

That's right, let's delve into the Pitch F/X data on him. This is Hyphen's pitch selection chart for 2010:

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FT 996 55.2% 63.7% 45.1% 2.6% 19.6% 22.9%
CH 414 22.9% 60.6% 50.0% 9.9% 16.7% 23.4%
CU 216 12.0% 62.5% 40.3% 6.0% 14.4% 19.9%
SL 140 7.8% 62.1% 53.6% 15.0% 17.1% 21.4%
FF 37 2.1% 73.0% 54.1% 0.0% 21.6% 32.4%
FA 1 0.1% 100.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

The two-seamer is his bread and butter, as he works off that most of the time. Interestingly, he already throws his pitches for a pretty high number of strikes. Every one of his significant categories had a percentage of strikes over 60. Compare that to another control-challenged Astro in Bud Norris, who routinely had fastball strike rates around 55 percent.

The problem last season for Hyphen were people just didn't swing at his two-seamers. When they did, they put it in play almost all the time. A 2.6 percent whiff rate isn't as terrible as you'd think for a sinker, but it's still really bad. His change was fairly effective, as was his slider. If I were predicting what Brad Arnsberg might emphasize in spring training, it'd be upping the number of sliders he throws to both improve on that 15 percent whiffs and the lowered In Play percentages.

Going backwards, here's the chart showing what Rowland-Smith's pitches actually do:

Type Count Selection Velocity Vertical Horizontal Spin Angle Spin Rate
FT 996 55.2% 88.3 9.69 5.73 149 2,167
CH 414 22.9% 79.7 8.49 7.62 138 1,977
CU 216 12.0% 70.8 -6.74 -5.62 319 1,345
SL 140 7.8% 78.3 1.00 -3.29 256 710
FF 37 2.1% 88.8 10.22 6.46 148 2,315
FA 1 0.1% 88.1 6.94 8.60 129 2,092

His two-seamer does have pretty good sink to it, as anything with less than 10 inches of vertical drop is pretty good. I'd rather it be around 7 or 8, but that's just me. It's also hard to tell if Hyphen just gets natural sink on his fastball, because Pitch F/X named those 37 four-seamers even though they have a pretty similar to his two-seamer in movement. Is that because all his fastballs have that sink to them, or is it just having a hard time categorizing what his pitches look like?

What we can tell is why his change can be so effective. It's got nearly identical drop to his two-seamer with a little more horizontal movement in on the hands of a left-hander. But, it's also got a nearly 10 MPH drop in velocity from his fastball. Couple that with the spin rotations being so similar and those two pitches must look very similar coming out of his hand. If sequenced right, they could be death to lefties.

His slider could be pretty useful against right-handers, as it and the curve are his only two pitches that could get inside on a right-hander and make them uncomfortable. If you look at his strike zone chart for the pitch, you'll see used it almost exclusively on the left side of the plate, never throwing it inside to left-handed hitters.

Hyphen_slider_location_chart_medium

Most of those sliders in the middle of the zone were ones he threw to right-handers. If anything, getting him to control that slider better and target the bottom outer half of the zone more effectively will probably be a talking point for Brad Arnsberg next season.

Relief Matters

Okay, so let's say Arnie can't get Hyphen to throw more changes and sliders and he bombs out of the fifth starter race. Does he have value as a left-handed reliever?

Yes, yes he does. This is a pretty good reason for the signing. If you look at Hyphen's career splits, he has much better control and more strikeouts against lefties than right-handers in his career. With a reasonable salary next season, he could be used as a LOOGY next season pretty easily.

Overall Conclusions

Yes, his peripheral stats are bad. If he allows fewer home runs, though, he could have a decent season and he's a good candidate to slip over into the bullpen. If Arnie gets him using his slider and change more, a la Brett Myers, he could also be a pleasant surprise and bring some stability to the rotation/bullpen. 

All in all, it's a low cost move with some upside. I'm not totally on board the Hyphen Train yet, but I can see why he'd be an intriguing guy to target for this coaching staff.

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