Bass, a Starting Pitcher? Keuchel the Astros' Best?

Rick Yeatts

Anthony Bass matches the profile of other Astros' starting pitchers and might fit the rotation better than the bullpen. Also, Dallas Keuchel might be the Astros' best starter next year.

Last night, the Astros traded a PTBNL, presumably tied to the Rule 5 draft on Thursday, to the Padres in exchange for pitcher Anthony Bass.

Because 57 of Bass' 75 MLB appearances came out of the bullpen, including all 24 in 2013, the automatic reaction I read here at TCB and on Twitter is that this was a move to bolster the relief corps, which we all readily acknowledge needs a-bolsterin'.

But...

Are we sure that Bass is going to be in the bullpen? Reeeeeeeally sure? Take last year's rotation:


Dallas Keuchel - 153 IP
Lucas Harrell - 153 IP
Erik Bedard - 151 IP
Jordan Lyles - 141 IP
Bud Norris - 126 IP
Brad Peacock - 83 IP
Jarred Cosart - 60 IP

Three of those guys are gone, leaving Keuchel, Harrell, Peacock, Oberholtzer, and Cosart. Now look at their xFIP's. (See Glossary Below)

Keuchel - 3.58
Harrell - 4.97
Peacock - 4.44
Oberholtzer - 4.27
Cosart - 4.68

Are we, the writers of TCB, unintentionally falling into the same "small sample" trap we warn others of when we presume that the 2014 rotation will definitely include three or four of these guys? Bass, who will be but 26 on Opening Day (and doesn't turn 27 until next November), has started 104 games in his professional career so far. In fact, his minor league ERA was a very pretty 3.48, despite spending two full seasons in the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League. Look at this:

Scott Feldman xFIP = 3.96
Anthony Bass xFIP = 3.95 as a MLB starter in 2012.

Both Bass and Feldman can be reasonably (but not certainly) expected to perform better than any of the remaining 2013 Astros starters, according to xFIP and their peripherals, excepting Keuchel.

How about GB% and GB/FB?

Keuchel - 55.8%, 2.41
Harrell - 51.5%, 1.88
Peacock - 36.8, 0.83
Oberholtzer - 35.6%, 0.84
Cosart - 54.5%, 2.23
Feldman - 50%, 1.58
Bass (2012 SP) - 48%, 1.53

See what I'm getting at? Two of these just aren't like the others. Two of these just don't belong. It's become clear that the front office values high-groundball starting pitchers. But Peacock and Oberholtzer, they don't seem to fit the mold. Likewise, I think Harrell will need to fight his way back into the rotation, just because he pitched so dismally last year.

Based on that (and I'm not predicting this, just saying it wouldn't surprise me), I could envision the Astros starting rotation:

Feldman
Cosart
Bass
Keuchel

And the 5th spot manned by whoever performs best this spring out of Peacock, Oberholtzer, Harrell, or (dare I say it?) Appel. Or, another player acquired via trade or free agency, which would surprise me even less at this point. I actually feel more confident in this rotation than I would feel with one manned by so many of the pitchers who last year put up decent ERA's over a short sample, but with peripherals of foreboded doom.

Finally, inning counts are going to be a problem for the Astros this year. Cosart, Oberholtzer, Keuchel, Peacock, and Bass will probably all be on strict inning-watch because none of them pitched much more than about 150 innings last season. I doubt the Astros will go with a 6-man rotation or tandem starters, but I bet we'll see a lot of "spot starts" for whoever the long-relief-slash-swing-man is designated to be. Bass definitely helps with rotation depth, and fits the new "Astros" mold.

A Related Thought About Keuchel:

One last thing: are we negligent in not talking more about Dallas Keuchel, just because he's been around a couple seasons and wasn't a top prospect? In 2013 (only his first full season), he vastly improved in every metric there is. He posted a 4.25 FIP (3.58 xFIP), but get this: He had a .340 BABIP - well above league average, which means he was unlucky. Oliver (the projection system, not my dog) projects a 4.11 ERA in 173 IP next season for Keuchel, with a low 2.65 BB/9.

This deserves its own paragraph. Among the 96 pitchers who tossed over 150 innings last season, Keuchel had the highest GB/FB ratio. He did that by posting the lowest fly ball ratio among that sample, and the third-highest ground ball rate. Just spectacular.

We writers, readers, and commenters may be making a mistake when we dismiss him as "maybe the 5th starter, or perhaps the long-relief swing man." If he improves even slightly over 2013, he could be the best starter on the club this coming season.

Glossary:

xFIP - "expected" Fielding-Independent-Pitching. FIP is calculated using HR allowed, strikeouts, and walks, and then converted to a scale that resembles ERA. xFIP changes HR-allowed to the league average HR-allowed rate. This is useful because, for individual pitchers, HR-allowed is extremely volatile but the league average stays pretty constant. Thus, xFIP is more predictive of next-season results than either FIP or ERA, under the assumption that a pitcher's HR-allowed rate is likely to regress towards the average.

IP - Innings Pitched

GB% - The percentage of batted balls allowed that are ground balls, instead of fly balls or line drives. Safe to say that anything above 40% is above-average. 50% is reaching "extreme ground ball pitcher" proportions.

GB/FB - Ratio of Ground Balls to Fly Balls. Generally speaking, higher is preferred, though some pitchers are successful with high fly ball rates. Among 276 pitchers who tossed 60+ innings last year, Cosart and Keuchel are both among the Top 30 in this stat. Among starters who pitched 150+ innings, Keuchel's was tops.
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