Pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training, during which the Astros and other Major League Baseball clubs will line out their 25 man rosters and starters' roles. Lost among conversation about the Astros' corner infield questions and mysterious black hole that is the backup catcher position is a position battle that very few people have discussed because among fans is a fait accopmli: who will be earning Saves in 2016?
A tale of two pitchers
Pitcher A: 70 innings pitched, 1.80 ERA, 3.05 xFIP, 15 Saves, 29% strikeout rate, 8% walk rate
Pitcher B: 61 innings pitched, 3.10 ERA, 2.71 xFIP, 31 Saves, 25% strikeout rate, 4% walk rate
Pitcher A is Ken Giles, whom the Astros acquired this offseason in a whopper trade that sent five minor league pitchers to the Philadelphia Phillies, where Giles served as the 2015 closer.
Pitcher B is Luke Gregerson, signed by the Astros as a Free Agent prior to the 2015 season, an off-season in which he was arguably the 3rd-best available relief pitcher on the market.
Both guys were brought in to be dominant at the back end of the bullpen, both have experienced top-level success in 2015, and both have elite tendencies.
Gregerson, who throws a sinker/slider combination with a fastball that averages 89 mph, limits walks at a rate nearly unheard of among modern relievers. He was 12th-best in the majors among qualified relievers (a sample of 137) at allowing hard contact, per Fangraphs. His K-BB% of 20.5% ranked 34th, just behind Giles (31st, 20.8%). Gregerson's walk rate was 5th-best in the major leagues.
Giles throws a four seam fastball that averages 97 mph that he complements with a hard slider. His strikeout rate ranks 24th-best in the majors, and he limited home runs last year better than all but two relievers (0.26 HR/9).
Gregerson was acquired by the Astros presumably to pitch in the highest-leverage situations, which is often the ninth inning with a tight lead.
Giles was acquired by the Astros presumably to pitch in the highest-leverage situations, which is often the ninth inning with a tight lead.
One can see the issue here.
While the Astros aren't among clubs that name a "closer" and stick to them come hell or high water, the position still holds importance with the players themselves (and for some reason, with fans) for a number of reasons. First, there's the prestige of it. Saves matter to the media, can have an impact on future contracts and endorsement opportunities, and Saves matter to the Hall of Fame voting pool. Saves matter to the fans who make All Star selections for which the players earn prestige and extra cash. Saves matter a lot, except to the game itself, in which they are an arbitrary label for certain positive circumstances defined by arbitrarily specific criteria.
According to a report by the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich, Gregerson understandably still wants the job of Astros' closer.
"I don't see any reason why I should lose my job because of [the club's acquisition of Giles], yeah," Gregerson said. "I was pretty happy with the way things went last year.
Ultimately for the Astros and Astros fans, whether Giles or Gregerson wins the "closer job", it matters little. What does matter is that the Astros have two elite relievers locking down the most important innings at the end of the game who represent a significant upgrade over last season's cadre of firemen.
But who will get the Saves?
The implications for the club
One aspect that might sway the club in one direction is the future cost of the decision. Prior to 2015, the Astros gave Gregerson a contract of three years and $18.5 million dollars to pitch for them through 2017. That contract is non-renegotiable, and the Astros will pay Gregerson that amount regardless of whether Gregerson is closing games or batting cleanup. For the Astros, Gregerson is a fixed cost.
Giles is a different story. He is a pre-arbitration pitcher currently making the major league minimum salary of around half a mil. He will not reach his first arbitration pay raise until the 2017-2018 off-season at the earliest. But as noted above, Saves have traditionally meant more money for the player. Look no further than recent Free Agent classes. Craig Kimbrel, who now has 225 career Saves, earned $42 million in free agency. David Robertson, after recording 47 career Saves prior to free agency, signed a $46 million deal.
Arbitration is a process by which a player still under team control is awarded salary increases based on his performance--and saves definitely factor into that evaluation, for better or for worse. Cody Allen, who recorded 60 saves for the Indians during his pre-arb seasons, received over $4 million in just his first arbitration year, and can reasonably expect that figure to climb over the next two season. Zach Britton, in his second arbitration year, will put the Orioles on the hook for almost $7 million this season, less than Gregerson is earning. [Note: Gregerson had only earned 19 saves during the six years prior to signing with the Astros, which allowed them to nab him at a comparatively reasonable contract] In contrast, the Marlins' Carter Capps is one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the majors (43% K-BB rate last season, best in the majors), but has never recorded a Save, and earned not even $1 million during his first year of arbitration. Astros reliever Josh Fields has only nine Saves and is earning about the same amount as Capps during his first arbitration season in 2016.
So Saves matter in terms of future club cost. If the Astros want to place that consideration highly (and as long as Gregerson is successful, why shouldn't they?), they will treat Giles similarly to how the Marlins have done with Capps: high-leverage late inning reliever, but usually not in Save situations.
However, Giles was extremely expensive in terms of players traded, and so the pressure might be on to maximize the perception of that return by pitching Giles in high-profile situations. Practically, this should be a secondary concern, but one never knows what might be important to ownership in search of positive PR.
The other option
Players like to have defined roles, but why should the Astros limit themselves to pigeonholing one guy or another into the arbitrary closer role? Research has shown that absolutely limiting the best pitcher to the ninth inning does not have a meaningful effect on the run scoring environment. In many cases it can be detrimental because it allows opponents to "close the gap" and turn a blowout into a close game because the club hasn't trotted out their best hurler earlier, in high-leverage situations.
Maybe the Astros, a highly analytic club, go the route of playing match-ups. Do a couple of the batters coming up in the ninth struggle with high-octane fastballs? Bring in Giles. Or do they have a tendency to be ground ball hitters with little pop? Gregerson it is. Struggle with lefties? In comes Tony Sipp. Maybe a change of "look" to screw with batters' timing is in the cards? Pat Neshek could be available.
The likely choice
It is unlikely that the Astros will limit themselves in such a way that will lock them into one role or another. The safest bet is that Gregerson will receive a large number of save opportunities to start the season because of his success last year and because of the future costs associated with Giles racking up saves over the next two seasons prior to his arbitration raises. But there is no wrong answer here in terms of games won or lost. In that battle, the Astros have already won by strengthening their bullpen top-to-bottom.
What are y'all's thoughts? Who will win the closer role? Who should win the closer role? Should anybody?