Last season, the Houston Astros had the best pitching in baseball. That dominance extended beyond just the starters, with the Astros also possessing the best bullpen in the league. In particular, Tony Sipp had a resurgent year in 2018 and served as one of game’s the top LOOGYs (lefthanded one-out guy). Sipp struck out more than a batter per inning, tossed the lowest ERA of his career (1.86), and had a career-best 218 ERA+ (which adjusts for ballpark) and FIP (2.41). Needless to say, Sipp was a big part of the Astros plans to secure ballgames.
With that said, Sipp is currently a free-agent (but why?) and seems unlikely to return to Houston in 2019. So where will the Astros turn to replace him? Bilbos wrote about the Astros impending need to find a replacement for Sipp back in November. Now that Spring Training is upon us, it seems like a good time to revisit the Astros options for a LOOGY.
The young, Cuban lefty was aiming for a starting gig for the Astros heading into the 2019 season, but Perez began his throwing program later than other pitchers, Chandler Rome reported, and he has yet to see live action this Spring. Perez, the Astros No. 5 prospect in 2018, had his first taste of Big League-action last season and was okay in limited duty. Perez threw 11.1 innings in eight games for the Astros and struck out 12 batters.
The MLB sample size in 2018 was too small to glean much from Perez’s performance, but he was really good in Corpus Christi (AA), where he was largely used as a starter. Perez went 6-1 with a 1.98 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and 2.82 xFIP with the Hooks in 2018 and also registered a save. He started 11 of the 16 games he appeared in with Corpus, where he struck out 10.93 per 9 innings, had a 3.77 K/BB ratio, 30.0% K rate, 22.0% K-BB, and gave up only three homers in 68 innings.
Statcast rates his fastball and slider as above-average, with his heater sitting in the mid 90s and topping around around 98. Perez, who will be 22 on Opening Day, has good mechanics that ideally lead him to the rotation in the future, but a bullpen spot seems more likely in the interim.
Guduan, entering his age-27 season, is the elder statesman of the three internal options the Astros have to serve as a LOOGY. Guduan made a brief appearance for the Astros last season (3.1 IP in three games) after serving a larger role in 2017 (16.0 IP in 22 games). Guduan has trouble keeping the ball in the park (17.2% HR/FB rate in 43 games at Fresno last season and 11.1% HR/FB in his MLB career) and also struggles, at times, to find the strike zone (5.20 BB/9 in AAA in 2018 and 5.59 BB/9 with the Astros). Guduan does have a big fastball, though. Here’s a nice writeup by John Sickels at Minor League Ball about Guduan that was posted right after his first callup back in 2017.
A huge plus with Framber last season was his high propensity to induce groundballs. The 25-year-old Valdez would have led the Majors in groundball-percentage (70.3%) in 2018 if he had enough innings to qualify. Framber also had a GB/FB ratio of 3.40. Granted, that was only in 37 innings, but it provides an indication of the type of pitcher the Astros can expect him to be because it’s also who Framber was in the Minors, where he consistently generated grounders and swing-and-misses. His average launch angle in the Bigs last year was -4.6, which is ridiculous (Dallas Keuchel numbers for comparison later in the story).
Framber has a great curveball and good sinker that help him generate groundballs (81% and 75% GB rate, respectively), but he has trouble maintaining control of his pitches. He walked 5.84 batters per nine innings last season with the Astros, though, as noted by Statcast, when Framber is erratic it tends to be down in the strike zone—a difficult area for hitters to do major damage. Framber had a 22.1% K rate with the Astros in 2018 (in line with his numbers in the Minors) but only a 6.5% K-BB rate because of the highest BB% of his professional career (15.6%). If Framber can dial down the walks, he could be a viable option for the Astros as either a starter or reliever.
Two additional interesting thoughts:
1.) The Astros have shown a willingness in the past to avoid reliance on a lefthanded reliever, such as 2017, when they didn’t have a great lefty in the ‘pen. Sipp had a down year that season and the acquisition of Liriano they didn’t work quite as expected (though he recorded a huge out against Cody Bellinger in Game 7 of the World Series, so it was worth it). Will Harris, Chris Devenski, and Joe Smith (likely out until August) have been adept at dealing with lefthanded hitters for the Astros over the years, so the club may feel more comfortable using an experienced, veteran pitcher to start the season than one of the internal options.
2.) Dallas Keuchel remains available and has been in discussions with the Astros recently. I know it sounds crazy, but Collin McHugh was a starter-turned-reliever who thrived for the Astros in the bullpen last year. I don’t think Keuchel would be particularly effective as a LOOGY (or accepting of the role), but it’s a fun thought-exercise, nonetheless. As we all know well, Keuchel’s a premier groundball pitcher, but here’s some reference noted by Devan Fink and others:
Over the past five years, no pitcher in baseball has induced more ground balls than Dallas Keuchel's 1,727.— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) March 8, 2019
Keuchel's 60.0% ground ball rate ranks third among all starters in that time.
Keuchel is so good at producing ground balls that, in 2017, the average "launch" angle of batted balls against him was -1.6 degrees. Yes, *negative* one-point-six.— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) March 8, 2019
The MLB-average launch angle is +10.9 degrees.
Among starting pitchers with at least 1000 IP, Keuchel’s career 59.1% GB rate ranks 4th highest of all time (1st place - Brandon Webb; 2nd place - Cal Eldred; 3rd place - Derek Lowe)— Max's Sporting Studio (@MaxSportsStudio) March 8, 2019
Keuchel has also been a much better pitcher during his career in the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park, so maybe he wants to stay here? Nah, it’s probably a longshot Keuchel returns to Houston—especially with the type of money he is seeking—so I’ll just table my thoughts on him moving to the bullpen.
So Who’s the LOOGY?
In my opinion, the Astros will likely roll with one of the internal options as a LOOGY. Although none of the pitchers have distinguished themselves as the “must-have” guy on the roster, I have to imagine the Astros will give one of them a chance. For me, Perez has done enough in the Minors to warrant the nod on Opening Day. But that’s far from a guarantee, especially given Perez hasn’t even pitched yet this Spring. So, I want to open it up for discussion. Astros fans, who do you think is most likely to win the LOOGY role on the Opening Day roster?
Who will be the Astros LOOGY on Opening Day?
This poll is closed