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Trade Deadline Follow Up: What immediate changes did the Astros make to Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini?

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It is still early in their respective Astros’ careers, but what changes can we immediately spot with a pair of new acquisitions?

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

“Hey, Astros, tell us how you really feel about the sinker?”

“Forget the freaking sinkers!”

This season alone, as of Thursday morning, Houston’s pitchers have thrown the lowest rate of sinkers (0.2 percent) out of any team. It should be noted, though, that this is based on Baseball Savant’s pitch classification. And let’s not forget a two-seam fastball can occasionally be classified as a sinker. So, if one combines both pitches in the same query, the Astros’ pitching staff have thrown a sinker or two-seam fastball 6.7 percent of the time compared to their overall pitch distribution. Only the Rockies have thrown at a lesser rate of 5.7 percent.

Why do I bring this up? Well, Houston acquired three pitchers at the trade deadline to bolster their staff, and we all know how they like to tinker with their newest toys. While I am choosing to ignore Zack Greinke for the time being, I am going to present some data on how the Astros have changed Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini, both acquired last week from the Blue Jays. And as with any new pitcher joining the Astros, it is always fascinating to see what kind of change a pitcher implements immediately afterwards.

Pitch Usage

Although most baseball front offices have become more homogenized in recent years, no two front offices are completely identical. Some organizations may prefer one style of pitchers over another. The Astros are known for their current preference of four-seam fastballs, usually high in the zone, along with a breaking curveball, which has assisted in creating one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. The higher spin rate, the better chance you’ll catch the front office’s attention.

Sanchez, in particular, utilized his two-seam fastball at a generous rate during his time in Toronto. Below are his pitch usage figures for the 2019 season, prior to the Astros acquiring him at the trade deadline.

Pitch Usage with Blue Jays
Baseball Savant

Fast forward to Sanchez’s first start for the Astros, and we saw a noticeable difference in his pitch repertoire. Specifically, that two-seam fastball, which has a .395 wOBA allowed this season, virtually fell off a cliff. I am interested to see how much the Astros push the four-seam usage as his start against the Mariners featured the lowest average velocity of the pitch from Sanchez this season (92.4 MPH). For context, there have been starts where he has reached an average four-seam velocity up to 95 MPH. Not sure whether the lower velocity was a one start event, but something to watch.

Pitch Usage with Astros
Baseball Savant

The same pitch usage thought applies to Biagini, who essentially flipped the usage of his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball along with an increased usage on his curveball.

Pitch Usage with Blue Jays
Baseball Savant

Here’s a fun little tidbit: In three innings with the Astros, Biagini has already thrown 21 four-seam fastballs. In his fifty prior innings for the Blue Jays, the right-hander threw only 32 four-seamers.

I would also expect an increase in curveball usage over time due to Biagini’s own, as noted here by Mike Petriello of MLB.com, currently having the third-best curveball drop in baseball. That’s not something you find every day.

Pitch Usage with Astros
Baseball Savant

It is quite clear that the Astros are trying to unlock something in Sanchez and Biagini. The two-seam fastball has essentially disappeared from their respective arsenals. In nine innings with the Astros since the trade deadline, Sanchez and Biagini have thrown exactly seven two-seam fastballs. In 162 2/3 innings with Toronto, they threw a combined 381 two-seamers.

Both pitchers, when acquired, were quickly identified as possible candidates for a change in pitch usage. Thus far, it seems that prediction is coming to pass.

Release Points

One of my go-to charts to decipher any immediate changes in a pitcher’s performance involve release points. In my opinion, it can be a quick way to see any immediate changes implemented by a pitcher in the attempt to optimize performance. The Astros have also shown in the past that they are not afraid to alter arm angles and release points. But as Mike Fast, the former Director of Research and Development of the Astros, noted here for Baseball Prospectus way back in 2010, sometimes varying arm angles and release points on pitch-to-pitch basis could be beneficial.

Also, it should be considered that some pitchers may be subtly but purposefully varying their arm angle from pitch to pitch, which might have a more positive result than a pitcher who is attempting but failing to pitch with a repeatable motion.

Keep those words in mind when reviewing release points. I have to remind myself of that often as different release points don’t necessarily point to poor or optimal results. All pitchers thrive and suffer in different ways. My point in this post is to simply present the data along with a rudimentary explanation of how I perceive these charts. So, let’s take a look at some charts for the aforementioned duo.

(By the way, Brooks Baseball has some very useful pitch release graphs, which hopefully provides valuable insight for everyone.)

At this point in time, it appears that Sanchez’s release points are a bit of a work in progress.

Vertical Release Points by Month
Brooks Baseball

The 27-year old has clearly worked on his release points on both planes for most of the season. Based on his 6.07 ERA and 5.03 FIP with the Blue Jays, it appears that Sanchez was never comfortable enough with any particular release point. I would imagine that the Astros are working with him on developing a more consistent release point, even if isn’t exactly the same every single time he throws. This case may be an example where some form of long-term consistency is warranted.

Horizontal Release Points by Month
Brooks Baseball

Biagini’s release points, however, haven’t shown the same volatility as Sanchez, which doesn’t come as much as a surprise. Even before his acquisition by the Astros, Biagini had a respectable 3.78 ERA in fifty innings. He was clearly doing some things right before the trade.

Vertical Release Points by Month
Brooks Baseball

In Biagini’s case, there may not a good enough reason to make much of an adjustment to his release points. There may be some fine tuning in store like when the Astros initially acquired Ryan Pressly last season, but any pronounced changes in Biagini may occur more from pitch usage and where he locates his offerings.

Horizontal Release Points by Month
Brooks Baseball

We should also keep in mind that these release points are subject to change. The Astros have had little time with the former Blue Jays thus far, especially with pitching coach Brent Strom’s recent trip to the hospital late last weekend. Release points are sometimes difficult to properly analyze and it is easy to arrive to less-than-optimal conclusions. This is an area that patiently waiting for more data isn’t a bad thing.

Pitch Heatmaps

Another favorite graph of mine are pitch heatmaps. In addition to identifying a pitch repertoire change, it is also important to know where pitchers are actually locating the ball.

We have already determined that Sanchez heavily utilized a two-seam fastball in the past, a pitch Houston doesn’t particularly care for presently from their pitchers. We also know that the front office prefers any four-seam fastballs to be thrown higher in the zone. Well, look at what Sanchez did in his first start for the Astros compared to all of his other starts in Toronto.

Four-seam Heatmap with Astros
Baseball Savant

A key reason why the Astros probably like Sanchez’s four-seam fastball: Per Baseball Savant, his four-seamer has the sixth-best horizontal break in the game. Despite not having much vertical movement on the pitch, it is difficult to ignore that horizontal break. It is kinda against the Astros usual policy that the four-seam doesn’t have much riding potential, but one can see why they took a flier on Sanchez.

Four-seam Heatmap with Blue Jays
Baseball Savant

Biagini’s curveball, as mentioned earlier, has one of the best drops in baseball right now. And look at what the Astros are having the right-hander do with this pitch.

Curveball Heatmap with Astros
Baseball Savant

Now, let’s compare to his curveball heatmap with the Blue Jays.

Curveball Heatmap with Blue Jays
Baseball Savant

Um, yeah, the Astros are totally telling him to embrace that break. If combined with an effective fastball, which is again Houston’s speciality, then Biagini could become an interesting part of the bullpen as the postseason approaches. He may not reach the same level of effectiveness Pressly did one year ago, but it doesn’t hurt to try to replicate him. Two Presslys’ in a bullpen are better than having just one.

Right now, this is all I got on this duo of pitching acquisitions. There is a lot of potential to reach with Sanchez and Biagini, in my opinion. As it is stated in Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” I also believe the general principle of the verse can be applied to the relationship between the Astros and their pitchers. If there are a group of clubs that know how to push a pitcher to the highest of peaks, the Astros have to be on the very short list.