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Who’s The New Loog? Could it Be That Tony Sipp is Still the Best Left Handed Relief Option?

Tony Sipp, the Astros’ main left handed relief option last year, is a free agent. Let’s look at possible replacements on the free agent market this winter and a few internal options.

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros Aren’t Just Losing Three Starters. They’re Losing Their Loogy*

With the likely departure this coming year of three starting pitchers who accounted for 500 innings from last year’s staff, a major focus of this year’s hot stove is who will the Astros find to replace those starting pitchers.

Free agent and trade rumors abound, but there are three internal options who will likely compete for these positions on opening day; Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock, and Josh James.

Brad Peacock has had only one very good season in his career, 2017, a success he could not duplicate in a relief role in 2018. Color me doubtful on Peacock in the rotation in 2019.

Josh James has amazing upside potential, and will certainly be given a shot at the rotation in Spring Training, but he is still an unproven commodity. We old-time Astros fans have visions of J. R. Richards floating in our heads when we see James. Let’s hope he can fulfill that potential. But I hope to be a great sports writer. That doesn’t make it so.

Collin McHugh is already a proven starting pitcher, the #2 guy on the Astros’ 2015 playoff team. He was a premier relief pitcher last season, and with the addition of a killer slider last year that he didn’t use to have, I think he could have even more success as a starter in this, his coming contract year, than he has had in the past. I pencil him in as the #3 starter next year.

Which leaves the Astros with two or three holes to fill in the bullpen, with the possible promotion of Peacock, the probable promotion of McHugh, and the free agency of last year’s main bullpen lefty, Tony Sipp.

At age 35, should the Astros resign Sipp? Astros fans remember Sipp as one of the heroes of the unexpected 2015 playoff run, which earned him a $6 million/year, 3 year contract. In 2016 and 2017 he rewarded the Astros’ faith in him by pitching below replacement level. For this many Astros fans have not forgiven him, or they simply can not believe in his resurrection in 2018.

Sipp vs. The Big Boys

Yet among AL left handed relief pitchers in 2018, Sipp was third in ERA at 1.86, and fifth in FIP at 2.41. And among those ahead of Sipp in these categories were NOT Andrew Miller or Zach Britton, the two biggest headliners in this year’s LHP free agent relief class. And yet, MLB Trade Rumors predicts that the Astros will sign Zach Britton to a three year, $33 million contract. Is Britton or Miller the answer? Let’s take a look.

The following is a chart comparing Sipp, Miller and Britton in 2018.

Comparison of Tony Sipp, Andrew Miller and Zach Britton, 2018

Pitcher IP ERA FIP xFIP SIERRA WHIP BABIP K% BB% age
Pitcher IP ERA FIP xFIP SIERRA WHIP BABIP K% BB% age
Sipp 38.2 1.86 2.41 3.70 3.28 1.03 .277 27.8 8.6 35
Miller 34 4.24 3.51 3.68 3.29 1.38 .329 29.2 10.4 34
Britton 40.2 3.10 4.22 3.75 3.57 1.23 .241 20.1 12.4 30

Clearly Sipp had the best results of the three with an ERA of 1.86, outperforming his peripherals to a degree, but so did Britton, both posting ERA’s substantially below Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Fielding Independent Pitching normalizing for home runs (xFIP). (Sipp allowed only one home run all year) This indicates that Sipp and Britton benefited from some luck. Sipp’s BABIP was somewhat below league average, but Britton’s was substantially lower. On the other hand, Miller seems to have been somewhat snake bit, with all peripherals substantially below his ERA, and a BABIP above league average.

When one examines the two most accurate measures of long term pitcher effectiveness on this chart, xFIP and SIERRA, all three pitchers were remarkably similar.

A deeper look at quality of contact data, however, leads one to question whether Tony Sipp really was just lucky in 2018. The following chart compares the xWOBA, average exit velocity, barrels/plate appearance, and hard contact% of all three pitchers.

Quality of Contact Data, Sipp, Miller, Britton

Pitcher xWOBA/rank Avg Exit Velo brls/PA, rank hard contact %
Pitcher xWOBA/rank Avg Exit Velo brls/PA, rank hard contact %
Sipp .255/29th 86.0 0.7/3rd 26.3
Miller .286/119th 86.4 2.6/75th 41.4
Britton .312/255th 87.9 1.8/23rd 28.8

Sipp has the lowest xWOBA, the lowest average exit velocity, the fewest barrels per plate appearance, 3rd least in MLB (all per Statcast and baseballsavant.com) and the lowest hard hit percentage, per Fangraphs.

This inability of opponents to make consistent hard contact on Sipp in 2018 was something I noted about his performance when I wrote about him last June, and it continued through the year. If Sipp has been doing something to avoid barrels hitting his pitches, as Statcast indicates, then no wonder his ERA outperformed his xFIP in 2018. Or maybe he just had a lucky season facing inept batters.

The Injury Factor. Will They Overcome?

Of course, readers of this blog know that in 2018 Tony Sipp pitched at or near the peak of his potential, whereas both Andrew Miller and Zach Britton had seasons far below their dominant performances of recent seasons. If regression occurs, then Sipp will be worse than he was this year, especially at age 35, and Britton and Miller should be much better going forward.

Of course, readers of this blog also know that Britton’s and Miller’s declines were injury related, so the question about both of them is: will they ever return to their former glory? In Miller’s case we also have the same issue we have with Sipp and his age, 34 vs. 35. In early 2018 Britton suffered an Achilles heal rupture, which followed a left forearm strain in 2017. In 2018 Miller had three stints on the DL, one for a left hamstring, another for a right knee problem, and most troubling, a third for external impingement of the shoulder.

Are these injuries the cause of their reduced effectiveness in 2018? I believe the evidence suggests that may be true. Let’s look at Miller.

In his best years, 2015-2017, Miller’s ERA, FIP and xFIP numbers were consistently at or below 2.00. During his best years his K% was around 40%, last year it was down to 29%. In the heyday, Miller’s hard hit % was around 25%, last year it was over 41%. So did injury have a role in this?

During his peak years, Miller’s fastball velocity averaged about 95 MPH. Last year it was down about 1.5 MPH to 93.6. His slider velocity was similarly reduced. Furthermore, according to Brooks Baseball, Miller lost about two inches of horizontal movement on his fastball in 2018.

Assuming, as I do, that oftentimes, when a pitcher is pitching around arm troubles, it affects his command and control, we find that last year Miller had a BB% of 10.1%, whereas in recent peak years it had been between 3 and 8 percent.

Something has happened to Miller’s ability to deceive batters. Whereas between 2015 and 2017 the outside the zone swing rate (O-Swing%) was between 35 and 40 percent, in 2018 it was only 27.7 percent. While between 2015 and 2017 the contact rate on Miller was between 59 and 65 percent, in 2018 it was 69.7% The swinging strike percentage has dropped from 18% in 2015 to 13.2% in 2018.

Of course none of this absolutely proves that Miller’s reduced effectiveness in 2018 was injury related, but one must consider the possibility. Or maybe at age 34 he has simply passed his prime. Or he just had a bad year.

We find similar issues with Britton who, as you will recall, is predicted to be an Astro for $11 million a year. In 2015 and 2016 Britton’s ERA, FIP and xFIP numbers, like Miller’s, were at or well below 2.00. Never the strikeout pitcher that Miller was, still in 2015 and 16 Britton averaged about a 30% K rate. In 2018 that was down to 20%. What Britton was mostly known for was his extreme ground ball tendencies, which in 2015-16 averaged about 80%. Last year this was down to a still respectable 73%. During the 2015-16 peak years, Britton’s hard hit % was around 17%. In 2018 it was 28.8%.

Are arms troubles a factor in this decline? In 2015-16 Britton’s sinker was over 97 MPH. In 2018 it was exactly 95. In 2015-16 Britton walked about six percent of batters. In 2018 this rose to 12.4%.

Like Miller, Britton also shows a depreciated ability to deceive batters. His O-Swing% in 2015-16 was about 38%. In 2018 this had declined to 29.5. His contact% in 2015-15 averaged about 65%. In 2018 this was up to 69.4%. Britton’s swinging strike rate in 2015-16 was almost 17%. In 2018 this was down to 12.5%.

Assessment

So, assuming Sipp can be had for around the same price as he signed in 2016, $6 million/year for say, two years, is he a better bargain than the $9 million/year, three year deal projected for Miller, or the $11 million/year, three year deal projected for Britton?

There is no certain answer to that. It is a matter of risk assessment. Sipp is healthy but older. In his last four seasons he has pitched well in two of them, and pitched poorly in two of them. This year he was better than the two alternatives, and the peripheral statistics suggest he may be as good as them next year, for much less money.

On the other hand Britton and Miller have much higher upsides, and if one believes that they can fully recover from their injuries and return to peak or close to peak form, either one could potentially make the Astros’ bullpen dominant.

Here are Steamer projections for each of these pitchers.

Tony Sipp: ERA 3.98, FIP 4.10, WAR 0.0

Andrew Miller: ERA 3.07, FIP 3.07, WAR 0.6

Zach Britton: ERA 3.01, FIP 3.24, WAR 0.3

If these figures are to be believed, then none of the above are worth the price.

Other Alternatives

There are a number of lesser known, off radar type left handed free agents who might attract the attention of the Astros front office. With the team’s track record of improving the performance of so many of the pitchers they have acquired, perhaps one of these lower cost alternatives has something the nerd cave likes and is a more likely choice. Here are a few of them.

Jake Diekman 32, Arizona, 2018 stats: ERA 4.73, FIP 3.74, xFIP 4.13, BABIP .331

Zach Duke 36, Seattle, 2018 stats: ERA 4.15, FIP 3.01, xFIP 3.74, BABIP .348

Aaron Loup 31, Philadelphia, 2018 stats: ERA 4.54, FIP 3.61, xFIP 3.72, BABIP .376

Oliver Perez 37, Cleveland, 2018 stats: ERA 1.39, FIP 1.74, xFIP 2.56 BABIP .239

The first three pitchers on this list under performed their peripherals and were victims of high BABIP. Zach Duke at age 36 is even older than Sipp and therefore carries much of the same risk that Sipp does.

Oliver Perez was one of the best left handed relievers in the American League last year, but his BABIP implies a high degree of good fortune, and with a career ERA of 4.39, he is a likely candidate for serious negative regression. Add to that his age at 37 and there is an even higher element of risk on that account alone than with Sipp or Duke.

There are two young, in house alternatives that some may consider as the left handed reliever for 2019. Framber Valdez was 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA in five starts with the Astros late last season. His FIP was 4.65 however and he showed serious issues with control, walking 24 batters in 37 innings. He only allowed 22 hits, but his BABIP was only .213 and his LOB% was a high 87.3%. Without more seasoning it seems unlikely that Valdez can sustain the success he had in 2018.

In only 11.1 innings pitched last season Cionel Perez had a 3.97 ERA but a FIP of 6.34. As with Valdez, it seems he would be a very weak link at this point in a crucial part of the bullpen for a team contending for another World Title.

*To Commenters. Yes, I know Miller and Britton, or Sipp for that matter, are not strictly speaking Loogies. I just like the word.

Poll

So, who should be the left handed relief pitcher for the Astros in 2018?

Poll

Who’s the loogy?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Tony Sipp
    (33 votes)
  • 5%
    Andrew Miller
    (10 votes)
  • 19%
    Zach Britton
    (33 votes)
  • 19%
    Framber Valdez
    (34 votes)
  • 20%
    Cionel Perez
    (36 votes)
  • 7%
    One of the other alternatives in free agency
    (13 votes)
  • 7%
    A trade option
    (13 votes)
172 votes total Vote Now