Five years, five different closers led the Oakland Athletics in saves from 2001 through 2005. Since then, the A's have seen seven different players save at least 10 games in a season, trading away multi-year closers like Huston Street and Andrew Bailey in the process.
Everyone kinda knows that Billy Beane thinks closers are somewhat fungible, and he likes to trade them off rather than pay them big money. It seems like the Houston Astros are following that same path under Jeff Luhnow, developing a strategy for flipping closers in trades and then developing new ones.
At first, it was Mark Melancon getting traded for two nice MLB pieces in Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Next, he flipped Wilton Lopez to the Rockies for Alex White and a minor leaguer (Alex GIllingham). Now, the Astros have signed Jose Veras, a guy who never has gotten a chance to close with the seeming intent to turn him into the next Flip-A-Closer project.
It may not work. Veras has control problems and goes through maddening stretches where he can't find the strike zone. Other times, he's just overpowering, using a 94 MPH fastball to dominate hitters, along with an array of offspeed pitches.
Will Luhnow be successful in taking a spare part on the open market and converting him into a tradeable closer by midseason?
The 32-year old played in 72 games last season for the Brewers and the Astros will be his fifth team in as many seasons.
Veras is a very good strikeout pitcher, averaging 10.6 Ks per nine innings last season and 9.4 K/9 in his seven year career. In 138 innings the past two seasons, Veras has struck out 158 batters, but has also walked 74 over that same stretch.
Because of that strikeout rate, Veras has been able to limit home runs to under 1.0 per nine innings despite posting ground ball rates around 40 percent in his career. He also has walked batters at a clip of 5.0 per nine in most of the past five season, but still managed to keep his FIP under 4.00.
His SIERA numbers have been very consistent the past three seasons, though his true ERA has been more erratic. His expected FIP also has been very consistent, right around 3.80 in each of the past three years.
Veras primarily throws a fastball and a curve, occasionally working in a slider. His fastball comes in at an average speed of 94 MPH and was a positive pitch by linear weights and runs above average (according to FanGraphs). Interestingly, though, his arsenal looks different through Pitch F/X in FanGraphs' data. Last year with the Brewers, it said he threw mostly splitters, sinkers and curves.
Bill James is at least optimistic enough to think that Veras can sustain what he did last season. James has him throwing 70 innings with slightly lower strikeout and walk rates than he posted last season (9.77 and 5.01 respectively), while keeping his home run rate under 0.8. That means his projected ERA and FIP are both under 4.00 right now, something that would be nice given the switch to the AL.
The ZiPS projections are less impressed with Veras, as they show him posting an ERA of 4.22 with an FIP of 4.08. That's right in line with his career averages, but ZiPS only has him throwing 64 innings. He's projected to have 68 strikeouts and 35 walks while allowing seven homers and 59 hits.
What's interesting is looking at the ZiPS projections for Veras and Wesley Wright. The left-handed Wright is projected to have nearly as good a strikeout rate, a significantly lower walk rate, less hits, less homers and a better ERA/FIP. Shouldn't he get some consideration to close?
The only problem with that is Wright's numbers are based on what he did last year, when he saw 62 percent of his innings against other left-handers. Would those numbers be as good in a closer role, when he's facing more right-handers? Guess that's why the Astros went with Veras...
As clack pointed out in this Talking Sabermetrics article, Veras' strikeout rate is more important than his walk rate, which can be more variable. As this FanGraphs article points out, one of his biggest problems has been inconsistency, when Veras will look great for a stretch and then have things fall apart.
Which Veras will the Astros get next season? That's the big question. Jeff Luhnow and Co. are betting it's the consistent, strike throwing machine, which means Veras should become a solid closer and provide them the potential to flip him at the deadline for prospects.
While there are a few guys that could be better options to close, none of them have had the success of Veras in the majors yet. That, plus his age and MLB experience make him a nice candidate to start the season in the back end role, allowing guys like Josh Fields, Hector Ambriz and maybe Jarred Cosart time to acclimate to the big leagues.
It may be a rollercoaster ride with him as the closer, but this team could use a little excitement, huh?