This winter, the Astros did something not many contending teams have the luxury of doing. They experimented with their closer.
By signing the former Yankees/Indians/Marlins/Pirates/Brewers right-hander, Houston gave its closer job to soeone with just five career saves on his resume. He had saved 21 games for the Yankees in 2006, but that was in Triple-A, and let's face it, he wasn't about to unseat Mariano, right?
But, Houston gambled on Jose Veras anyway. The 32-year old is no spring chicken, so he didn't fit in with the radical rebuilding going on in Houston. He came relatively cheap, making just $1.85 million in 2013 with an option of $3.25 million for 2014. His signing prompted FanGraphs' Jack Moore to write a whole missive on the dual faces of Jose Veras as the Brewers reliever last season.
Even if Veras remains his old frustrating self, he will be productive enough to be worth Houston's while, especially once teams start searching for relief help come trade deadline season. The Astros will stomach the bad and take the good - like the 0.98 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 18.1 innings from May 14th through July 1st, between the two horrific stretches - plenty to justify continuing the Jose Veras experiment.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Yet, Veras has done extremely well so far as the Astros closer. He's saved 14 games this season, which puts him tied for 15th in the league in total saves. Considering he's on a team that has lost more than anyone but the Marlins, that's not bad at all.
So, what changed? Why has Jose Veras been successful as a closer when no one else gave him a shot before? Were they all dumb or blind?
Yes and yes, but not in the ways you'd think. See, Veras has been phenomenally successful this season if you look just at saves. If you look at his whole body of work, though? He's doing exactly what he did last year and the year before and the year before.
He's the same pitcher, he's just throwing in the ninth inning now.
Don't believe me? Check out his numbers over the past three seasons, thanks to FanGraphs (again):
Three years, three different teams, same Jose Veras. Look at how similar the K rates are, how similar all his ERA, FIP, SIERA and tERA numbers are. Heck, check out the win probability added per leverage index numbers he's posted along with the rate at which he got shutdowns and meltdowns.
There are tiny blips, but for the most part, he's been remarkably consistent for three straight seasons. He's been very good for three years, but suddenly is a trade target because of saves.
So, why on earth wouldn't anyone give him a chance to close last year? The Brewers went through problems with their closer this, didn't they? Why couldn't they see how good Veras was then and give him a shot? Why did he hit free agency in the first place?
That gets back to the second part of our statement above. Teams are blind. Theyre blinded by the save stat and the ninth inning and its significance. It's shaped baseball strategy for so long that even forward-thinking front offices have to take it into account.
I mean, Jose Veras has been Houston's best reliever this season (sorry Jose Cisnero), but he's also been used as a traditional closer. He hasn't been shuttled around to be used in the seventh inning against the heart of another teams order. He hasn't been called upon to make any three-inning saves or do anything outside the typical, shut down the ninth inning role that most closers have.
Some relievers may have problems with the mentality of pitching in that ninth inning. But, a bigger reason why pitchers may fail there could just be that they don't pitch many innings there to begin with. If we took Bud Norris' stats in April (30 innings, 4.20 ERA), but got that out of a closer for half the season, he'd never last. Instead, he's gotten more innings to work as a starter and proven to be one of the best pitchers on the staff in 2013.
For now, Jose Veras has been very good, but there's always the specter of his control hanging over the proceedings. That adds the general unease by a fanbase whenever he enters a game. Sure, he only has three blown saves this season, but it feels like he should have more, right?
That's the kind of thinking that made teams hesitate to give Veras a shot to close in the first place. Now that he's had one, those same teams might actually give up prospects for him, all because of the save stat. It doesn't matter that Veras has been pretty much the same pitcher he's been for three years now. It doesn't matter that he could have been signed for $2 million in the offseason.
Some team will give up prospects for him because the Astros front office is insanely good at their jobs and the save stat blinds some teams to the realities of good relievers.