As currently constructed, the Astros figure to have multiple openings across the entire pitching staff. That is simply the reality when there are multiple departures via free agency, most notably Gerrit Cole and Will Harris. Not only did the quality of the pitching staff take a hit this offseason, the overall depth also absorbed a blow. In short, this is why former GM Jeff Luhnow in his last trade acquired right-hander Austin Pruitt from the Rays before his dismissal in the wake of the “banging scheme.”
For perhaps the first time since the 2017 offseason, the pitching staff will have some notable question marks. Even with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke atop the rotation, there is reasonable cause for concern. The two aces, who were still among the best in baseball last season, are now a year older. Lance McCullers Jr. is coming off Tommy John surgery and Jose Urquidy is still relatively unproven when it comes to carrying the strain of an entire major league season workload. There also isn’t a guarantee Pruitt will stick in the rotation for an entire year. As for the remaining internal options, there isn’t much of a track record to generate a high level of confidence. Even top prospect Forrest Whitley is still unproven at the Triple-A level. The bullpen figures to look a bit different as its overall depth is now thinner, too. The success of the Astros’ 2020 season will obviously hinge on the performance of its best players, but ultimately how far the club will go also depends on the supporting cast.
Enter Brad Peacock, the versatile right-hander who could be in line for an important role in 2020. How the Astros deploy him will undoubtedly have a ripple effect across the entire staff. At this point in time, however, it remains unsure if the thirty-two year old will start or find himself in relief. Thankfully, he has experience doing both.
Brad Peacock - Starter or Reliever
In two of the last three seasons, Peacock has made multiple appearances as both a starter and a reliever. The only reason why he didn’t make more appearances as a starter in 2018 is due the fact that the Astros had Verlander, Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and McCullers Jr. in the rotation through early August. Good reason, right? Even when injuries affected both Morton and McCullers Jr., Houston looked elsewhere for spot starts, in particular with left-hander Framber Valdez as Peacock wasn’t stretched out to start at that point in 2018. As was the case last year, when Peacock found himself starting before a right shoulder injury forced him to the IL multiple times, the veteran right-hander now has a chance to claim a stake in the rotation again in 2020.
The question surrounding Peacock is whether he is better suited for a starting role or as a reliever? Let’s take a look at some numbers from each of the past three seasons.
Numbers as a Starter
Numbers as a Reliever
While we can basically throw out his results as a starter in 2018 due to the low sample size, we can also see that he has fair bit of success in both roles throughout the last three seasons. In 2017, for example, Peacock provided much-needed stability in both the rotation and bullpen. He played a critical role as a starter even more so as both Keuchel and McCullers Jr. sidelined with injuries at various points that year before Verlander was acquired from the Tigers. The addition of Cole for the 2018 season essentially forced Peacock into a near-exclusive relief role, where he also experienced general success. His one start in 2018, by the way, was as an opener.
But results are only part of the equation. As we all know, a pitcher’s offerings tend to “play up” in relief where they can afford to throw harder in shorter spurts. But Peacock’s velocity changes across the board are not at all dramatic whether he is starting (blue column) or entering the game as a reliever (orange column).
There is naturally a bit of bump in velocity in a relief role, but the difference isn’t stark at all. Of course, the recently departed Harris wasn’t known for his overwhelming stuff as his average pitch velocity on all fastballs (91.6 MPH) actually trails Peacock average across the same category (92.6 MPH), although with the caveat that the former prefers a cut fastball unlike the latter. Higher velocity doesn’t always translate into more success, after all. But even with a modest, at best, spike in velocity, Peacock has generally seen a higher strikeout rate (and walk rate) in his role as a reliever compared to starting. Some of that increase can be attributed to him utilizing his both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs more than his secondary pitches. That’s both encouraging and disconcerting at the same time, especially in high leverage situations. In 2018, when as a reliever, he struck out 37.8 percent of his batters faced, however, his walk rate was also 14.8 percent in those situations with a .302 wOBA allowed.
The best use of Peacock’s ability, at this point in time, would likely be in a hybrid role. For one, he isn’t the type of pitcher a team would like to expose multiple times through the order. And before someone mentions his ERA (4.50) and FIP (2.99) when he went through an order the third time last season, remember that he is not going to repeat a .244 BABIP in those situations. Just, no. But Peacock can handle multiple innings during one outing, so it seems like a partial waste to only use as a reliever in short spurts, especially with the lack of immediate depth within the rotation. For better or worse, the Astros will undoubtedly need more than five starters to get by this year and Peacock likely handles a portion of those starts.
That said, I wouldn’t like to see Peacock wholeheartedly used in a traditional starting role either where he throws five to six innings at one time. Instead, I would rather see him deployed in more of an opener role where he tosses two to three innings in one appearance, which could then make him available in only a few days time as a traditional reliever. Would that ultimately work? I honestly don’t know, as that strategy may very well depend on who assumes the field manager role within the organization. But Peacock’s most valuable season to date occurred with Houston occurred in 2017 when he posted a 3.2 fWAR, which is also when he had twenty-one starts and thirteen relief appearances to his credit with positive results. If the Astros are a bit creative with the distribution of his innings pitched in 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar results.