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Astros rumors: Three free agent targets viewed through exit velocity

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Trying to sort through the rumors to see why Houston is interested in various pitchers.

Dallas Keuchel in a Texans jersey? Heck yes that's going to be my photo.
Dallas Keuchel in a Texans jersey? Heck yes that's going to be my photo.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If the Astros were ticking off boxes on their holiday shopping list, they only have a few things left to buy.

Shopping List

I can't help with that second-to-last one, but it may explain why Luhnow headed into the Alaskan wilderness after the Giles press conference. What I can do is help sort out some of the reports surrounding Houston's search for that final one.

We know the free agent market for pitchers has gotten cray^2. J.A. Happ got PAID. The Diamondbacks backed a dump truck full of money up to Zack GreinkeJohnny Cueto is one of 15 pitchers making $100 million in San Fran's rotation.

It's nuts out there if you're trying to buy pitching. It's like trying to buy the last Furby on Christmas Eve at your local KB Toys.

Still, the Astros continue to be linked to the starting pitching market. After Monday's introduction of new reliever Ken Giles, the Chronicle's Evan Drellich suggested that Houston could now turn its attention to that starter.

Which starting pitchers make sense for the Astros now?

The Astros have been linked at various times this winter to former Brewers and Rangers pitcher Yovani Gallardo, former Cincy and Giants pitcher Mike Leake and former Cy-Fair pitcher Scott Kazmir.

After the half-season Kazmir had, it's fair to say all three names will leave a fan scratching their head. Why should the Astros want any of these yokels?

Unfortunately, my attempts to hack into the Astros proprietary data to answer this question were met with a firm supoena from the FBI. Thus, we have to rely on our own limited understanding of what Houston may look for in a pitcher. It goes deeper than just scouting the stat line. Instead, let's use what we know about the organization's pitching philosophy and combine that with (newly employed) Daren Willman's awesome site Baseball Savant's exit velocity data.

For those of you who don't obsess about pitching philosophy, one of the reasons Strom has been successful as pitching coach is that he's brought the concept of Effective Velocity (EV) to Houston. Brooks has explained it betterthan I can, but the TL;DR version is that a 90 mph fastball can look like it's going 97 if it's located low and away.

That explains Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh's success, doesn't it? They don't throw hard on the radar gun, but their effective velocity makes them quite good. That EV also leads to softer contact, something that Keuchel also excels at getting. Softer hit balls means more outs equals money.

That sort of thinking won't help with every pitcher, which is why it's good to take a look at each of the three "targets" through exit velocity and their strike zone map. Let's start with the obvious one: Scott Kazmir.

Here is a breakdown of his strike zone by exit velocity for 2015.

Kazmir Zone

Now take a look at both Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel.

Mchugh Zone

Keuchel Zone

See the similarities. All three dominate up in the zone, but also get plenty of soft contact in those bottom areas. Kazmir, though, struggled with his velocities in those bottom zones. That's consistent with what you see on his overall exit velocity rankings.

Most of his at-bats came on balls in the 95-99 mph range, giving up a .434 batting average on those balls with 10 doubles and four home runs. Even though his pitches looked fine in average exit velocity, Kazmir got hit harder than he should in that zone. McHugh, I should mention, also got hammered in this range while Keuchel was a full 50 points below both on those velocities.

Maybe this suggests a problem with Kazmir executing the Astros game plan? Maybe he's just not as suited to take advantage of EV and should try to pitch to a different plan? Either way, there's some doubt based on this one factor whether he'd be the best option for Houston.

Onto Mike Leake, who has a terrible strikeout rate and couldn't be more of a "young guy who can eat innings" archetype. That's why he'll get paid. But, if he can't strike anyone out, why should the Astros even look at him? To Baseball Savant!

Leake Zone

Leake has the fastest average exit velocity on his most-hit pitch of all the pitchers we've looked at so far. His sinker's average velocity was 92.7 mph, which is not good. His zone also doesn't look anything like what Houston wants its zones to look like. He got hit hard up in the zone and even got hit harder than Kazmir  low and inside.

The one thing Leake has over the other two is that he was very effective at limiting damage on balls hit 95-99 mph. In that range, he only gave up a .276 batting average.

Still, he doesn't seem to fit Houston's new pitching MO. NEXT!

Yovani Gallardo made plenty of us scratch our heads when he was linked to Houston. Why give up a pick to sign this guy?

While he did get hit harder than the others on his four-seam fastball at 91.7 mph, his most-put-in-play pitch was his slider. And on that pitch, his exit velocity was a paltry 84.8 mph. StatCast data has only been around for one season, so we have no way of knowing whether this is a fluke or not, so it's on to his zone data.

Gallardo Zone

If you squint and flip the sides, that looks like Dallas Keuchel's zone. Sort of. It's a fascinating one compared to the others. Why did Gallardo get hit so hard down and in the middle? Were those sliders he hung? Fastballs he tried to bury? Were those fastballs up and in getting hit hard, too?

Whatever it is, you can tell why the Astros are interested in him. He's got a profile that seems to fit what they're doing as a pitching staff. He'd be expensive and costly (with the lost pick), but Gallardo may return more on the investment than the other three.

What do you think? Given their exit velocities, do any of these three make sense for Houston?