It’s an inescapable aspect of our society: social media is a cesspool of vitriolic nonsense. Even reasonable, rational people become unwieldy, burdensome douchebags on twitter at least occasionally. Case in point: my twitter profile. I’m occasionally right there loading up dem der hawtaek kannon with many of you, especially on twitter.
That’s why we need to come here sometimes. To escape the all-infecting madness, recover, and regroup.
For a more recent example, if you spent even a few minutes on Twitter during the roller coaster series finale against Cleveland, you saw many, many horrendous takes about the Astros bullpen. Heck, you may have been one of the legions posting them, yourselves. We all have our own ways to vent, I suppose. In reality, the Astros bullpen is (collectively) an elite unit, full stop. There’s no two ways about that. Yes, that includes Ken Giles, who is a really, really high-end reliever. We don’t need to revisit that topic too much - honestly, the only mention needed here in this article is that the bullpen is, in simple point of irrefutable fact, really good. Really, really good. Yes, even after blowing it against the Yankees last night.
So why am I structuring an article around potential trade targets to bolster the bullpen?
Because I think it’s the only place the Astros are even somewhat likely to make an addition at the trade deadline.
Even that isn’t needed, but there’s just no real good reason to go trade for a bat when the team is top ten (or better) in pretty much every meaningful offensive category without having yet even come close to firing on all cylinders consistently.
There are just too many internal bat options (JD Davis, Tony Kemp, Derek Fisher, AJ Reed, Tyler White, maybe Kyle Tucker in a few weeks, maybe even someone like Myles Straw in September) available down the stretch who are already in the system and controlled cheaply by the team already for it to make any real sense to go add a bat. Not every position needs to have All-Star caliber offense - but there’s a very good chance that the Astros can field an offense this year that is exactly that, once all of the players round into whatever form they’re going to assume this season and disappointing players are phased out (or scaled back) in favor of those more deserving of playing time.
In addition, the rotation is obviously not having a trade made to bolster it - even if injuries happen, “next man up” means that Collin McHugh and/or Brad Peacock slide back out of the pen and into the rotation, or any one of Francis Martes (yes, off to a rough start, but who knows in a couple of weeks) or David Paulino or Rogelio Armenteros or maybe guys like Forrest Whitley or Corbin Martin (most likely September, if at all this year) might be options if needed. Even Cionel Perez, who is lighting up radar guns in the mid nineties and occasionally touching 97 in Corpus as a left-handed pitcher, might play his way into the conversation, at least out of the pen.
The point is, there isn’t a lot of room even for the guys in the system already to crack the major league roster for the Astros, who are pretty clearly one of the very best teams in the Majors...if not the best, depending on how much stock you put in run differential and Pythagorean record/Base Runs. Truly, there isn’t much that needs to be added.
But maybe a sneaky-good left-handed reliever option is one place where the needle might be moved slightly in a positive direction.
There’s no doubt that there isn’t a real need for a pitcher who actually throws with their left hand in the bullpen - the Astros have relief aces like Chris Devenski and Will Harris who mow left-handed hitters down, recent small sample issues aside. Tony Sipp has, believe it or not, actually not been too bad this year - FIP and xFIP don’t agree with each other on that score, but it’s only been 10.1 innings pitched, so some volatility still happens there. Either way, both his 3.01 FIP and 4.27 xFIP represent noticeable improvement in the early going of this year over his performance in 2016 and 2017. If he can tamp down on the walks some, he might still be quite the serviceable option. But if the team does decide to move on, here’s a list of some potential trade options that might fall in line with the team’s philosophy of buying relatively low and not overspending for relief pitching.
If one knows what they’re looking for and how to get there, the custom splits page at FanGraphs can be extremely useful. For our purposes here, I set the following extremely basic parameters for the 2018 regular season through May 29th:
- Left-handed pitcher
- At least 10 innings pitched
- BABIP against of at least .300
(see this piece at FanGraphs for a brush-up on what BABIP is and why it matters)
And then I exported the resulting data to fiddle with it some in Excel.
The thought process here is that relief pitching - while extremely valuable and necessary for winning teams - almost never makes sense to spend a lot on (in dollars, or in prospect capital via trade) and as such, the idea is to “buy low” on a reasonably talented arm that hasn’t quite put it all together yet and might just need the Brent Strom treatment that has helped everyone from Collin McHugh and Will Harris to Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole either discover or re-discover a higher gear for their abilities. So, by filtering for BABIPs of at least .300, one hopes to isolate the list down to exclude guys who are due negative regression, leaving only players who are performing at league-average or worse BABIP levels currently. Ergo, pitchers that might sustain or improve upon their current performance. Yes, this is an extremely imperfect methodology - the idea is to get a quick look at a list of names and then cull it down further by examining in more detail.
First, I chose to take the list of 47 left-handed pitchers and remove anyone with greater than a 4.50 BB/9 rate, and to remove anyone with an FIP or xFIP of 4.00 or higher.
(Here’s a primer on FIP from FanGraphs, if you aren’t familiar - essentially, it endeavors to strip pitcher performance down to things pitchers can control directly - walks, home runs, and strike outs - in an effort to more accurately discern a pitcher’s actual ability level)
After culling the original list of 47 potential names, these were what we were left with:
Potential “Very Luhnow” Trade Target Left-Handed Relievers
Now, all that’s left is to further whittle this list down to a few select names who, upon deeper inspection, might hold interest for the team.
Guys like Felipe Vazquez (formerly known as Felipe Rivero) are probably not realistic targets here, as good as they are, because of the overwhelming cost it would take to acquire them. Others, like Tony Watson or Tony Cingrani, pitch for ostensible contenders and will likely not be available - or will cost too much as well - and so they get stricken from the list, too.
Of the names that remain, a few are very interesting, and worthy of further consideration.
Aaron Bummer, Chicago White Sox
If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because a pitcher named Bummer is memorable, and also because the Astros faced him twice (April 20, April 22) when they were in Chicago earlier this season.
The first thing that jumps off the page about him is that he is young (24 years old) and has good velocity on his fastball, averaging between 93 and 94 miles per hour on the pitch.
Bummer also sinks his fastball often enough for Brooks Baseball to classify it as a separate pitch - a sinker:
As you can see, his velocity stays pretty consistent in the mid-nineties on this pitch as well. Additionally, he gets a few more whiffs on the sinker than he does on the true four-seam pitch. There is likely quite a bit of potential to unlock in his left arm, and there’s a good chance Strom can get to it. In addition to the fastball/sinker, Bummer throws a change up (extremely infrequently, but perhaps it could be developed into a more useful pitch - he only threw seven of them in 2017 though, so it’s not a pitch worth focusing much attention on in this piece) and he throws a really good slider:
He utilized the pitch around 36% of the time in 2017, but the usage is down to 22.4% this year so far. Knowing how much the Astros value (and utilize) sliders in their relievers, this seems to move Bummer to the top of the potential acquisitions list from my perspective. He has been the victim of some very poor luck (and horrendous defense behind him, as the White Sox are arguably the worst defensive team in Major League Baseball) on his way to a BABIP of .433, which portends good regression for him - especially if he is added to the Astros, who have the number one defense in baseball. Even with extremely bad luck to this point in terms of BABIP, Bummer still has a 10.31 K/9 mark and is walking fewer than 3 per nine with an xFIP below 3.00 and a FIP below 2.00.
Make no mistake - Bummer would be an expensive get, especially for a reliever whose name most aren’t terribly familiar with. But in terms of adding a meaningful bullpen arm from the left side, the Astros could do a lot worse - especially since there isn’t much better that’s likely to be available.
Tanner Scott, Baltimore Orioles
Tanner Scott is a decent choice to answer to the question “What would Ken Giles’ stuff look like from a left-handed reliever?”
Starting with his fastball, which averaged 97.9 miles per hour in 2017 and is averaging 96.5 miles per hour so far this season:
The problem with his fastball is that it’s very straight and doesn’t miss many bats. Hitters posted a ridiculous 229 wRC+ and .499 wOBA against the pitch in 2017. The remedy? Why, throw the fastball less, of course. Luckily, Scott (also like Ken Giles) has a really good slider:
This isn’t the best representation of his slider, but it’s what we have to work with. He upped his slider usage precipitously (from 29.7% in 2017 to over 40% so far this year) as he lowered his fastball usage, and it makes sense why: Major League hitters posted a -100 wRC+ (.000 wOBA) against the pitch last year and have mustered just an 11 wRC+ (.167 wOBA) on the pitch so far this year. Also important to note is that he threw fewer than 40 total major league pitches last year, so the percentages and rate stats are pretty wild. This year’s results are more indicative - and his slider is a very, very good pitch for him.
Like Aaron Bummer, Tanner Scott is a young (23) and cost controlled talent for the Baltimore Orioles, who are not typically very reasonable in their trade expectations to begin with, so he’s a bit of a long shot here. Probably.
Robbie Erlin, San Diego Padres
Unfortunately, I have as yet not found good .gifs to embed here of Erlin’s stuff, but he is a more traditional lefty-reliever who relies on a good fastball with sink and a devastating, worm-burning change up to mostly neutralize hitters. He does throw a decent breaking ball around 16% of the time, but he is primarily a fastball-change up pitcher.
Even without elite velocity (his fastball average velocity is right at 90 miles per hour) he is striking out better than seven hitters per nine innings, which is right in line with what he did in 2017. He is also limiting walks exceptionally well (1.01 BB/9), which has been a staple throughout his career (1.90 BB/9) and he’s exactly matched his career BABIP against so far this year with a .301 mark.
Interestingly, Erlin has reverse splits throughout his career, and the trend has continued thus far this year. He’s a 27 year old reliever making $650,000 this year who has two years of arbitration remaining, and so while he’d likely be more attainable than Bummer or Scott, he won’t be likely to come dirt cheap, either.
Aaron Loup, Toronto Blue Jays
A quick look over Aaron Loup’s total repertoire shows a pitcher with good velocity and movement who has a significant track record in the Major Leagues - something the names before his on this list have not been able to say as confidently. Here’s a look at the velocity on his pitches over the last three seasons:
And here’s a look at the horizontal movement of his repertoire over the last three years:
One more, with vertical movement:
A couple other differences between Loup and his predecessors on this list: he’s a free agent after this year, likely facilitating a lower acquisition cost, and he is noticeably more efficacious against left-handed batters than at least a couple of other guys on this list. More of a true Lefty Specialist, as it were.
His sinker (you’ll notice he’s not even credited with throwing true fastballs on brooksbaseball, just sinkers) usually comes in in the low to mid nineties and is limiting opposing hitters to a 67 wRC+ this year (his career mark on the pitch is 110, which still isn’t bad for a primary hard pitch) and, as you, can see below, is a pretty nasty pitch to lefties when it’s spotted well:
Beyond that, his cutter is its typically-dominant self, as he’s notched a 57 opponent wRC+ on the pitch this year compared to his career mark of 90 wRC+ on the pitch:
As far as his curve ball (or slider, depending on who you ask...it’s posted a 125 wRC+ against this year, either way) and especially his change up (184 wRC+ against this year) are both far off their normally-dominant pace so far, indicating either that he’s lost something (possible) or that positive regression on those two pitches can maybe me expected.
Here’s his bigger breaking ball (call it what you will) in .gif form:
And, last but not least, here is a look at his change up:
Considering that he will likely be available at what should be a reasonable acquisition price, given his pending free agency and age and that the Blue Jays are not likely to be in the playoff picture much longer this season, this gamble might just make the most sense for the Astros.
So, which way to go? For me, I like the idea of adding a younger, cost-controlled lefty reliever with good stuff to the mix, so I prefer the idea of Aaron Bummer myself. How about you? Vote below!
Which Of These Options Should The Astros Pursue Via Trade?
This poll is closed
Aaron Bummer (Chicago AL)
Tanner Scott (Baltimore)
Robbie Erlin (San Diego)
Aaron Loup (Toronto)