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Brooks Raley: Another Brent Strom Miracle

Turning pitching water into wine, yet again

MLB: ALDS-Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We love Brent Strom here at TCB. He should be the first assistant coach to go to the baseball Hall of Fame, so remarkable are his accomplishments.

Just a quick refresher.

Dallas Keuchel, two years before Strom (BS) 5.20 ERA. Dallas Keuchel, two years after Strom (AS) 2.69 ERA. Cy Young winner.

Will Harris, BS, 4,26 ERA. AS, 2.51 ERA.

Collin McHugh, BS, 8.94 ERA. AS, 3.63 ERA.

Charlie Morton, BS, 4.54 ERA. AS, 3.36 ERA.

Gerrit Cole, BS, 3.50 ERA, AS, 2.68 ERA.

These are just a few. Even Justin Verlander had two of his very best years with the Astros deep into his mid-thirties, a dramatic career renaissance. Yes, there are also a few counter-examples. But overall, Strom has had the Midas touch with almost every pitcher repair project handed to him. Could anyone else have gotten so much out of the bevy of A, AA, and AAA pitchers that constituted the bulk of the Astros pitching staff this year?

No way.

It was a miracle. That group out-pitched the Rays bullpen in the ALCS and got the depleted 2020 Astros one game from the World Series.

Here’s another before and after story.

Brooks Raley, BS, 4.15 ERA. AS, 3.94 ERA.

But wait. That 4.15 ERA was in the Korean Baseball League, 2015-2019. How many players come from the Korean League, or the Japanese League, for that matter, and do better in MLB? (OK, hold your small sample size quibbling, that’s all we got this year was small sample sizes)

Here’s some more before and after.

Brooks Raley with Cincinnati, 2020, BS, 9.00 ERA, 5.05 xFIP. With Astros, AS, 3.94 ERA, 3.19 xFIP.

Yes, he only got four innings with the Reds, and only 16 with the Astros, but obviously the Reds did not like what they saw in the short look they had of the former 6th round draft pick from Texas A & M.

Yes, his four innings with the Reds are not enough of a sample to predict what he would have done in a long season, but they do give us clear evidence of changes implemented by the Astros staff that ostensibly improved Raley’s performance.

And it’s not hard to figure out. Sometimes it’s the obvious thing that’s overlooked because it’s right in front of your face that is the most critical.

The obvious thing? With Cincinnati Raley did not throw the slider (per Brooks Baseball). With the Astros he threw them 24% of the time. More than any other pitch except his go-to, the cutter.

And with great effect. He got a 21.67% whiff rate on it, more than his other major pitches. The BAA was only .177. Fangraphs assigned a pitch value per 100 of 2.26, about the top 15% of the league among pitchers with 10+ innings.

The only better pitch with Houston for Raley was his cutter, which had a .125 BAA, and a pitch value of 3.51. In his four appearances with Cincinnati the pitch value on the cutter was -1.45 with a BAA of .400. Was this disfunction of the cutter in the time with the Reds just a small sample size anomaly, or did the Master Strom teach Raley a new trick?

This we cannot know for sure, but Cincinnatti did not allow Raley to use his best put away pitch, the slider, and Strommie saw its potential. Who knows how much this slider set up Raley’s other pitches?

With Cincinnati, Raley had one pitch that dropped low and outside to the left-handed batter, the cutter. With Houston, batters had to guess which breaking ball they were swinging at, the cutter or slider. (Raley also has an average curve)

I do not have information about Raley’s repertoire pitching in Korea. In his 2012 MLB season Raley threw cutters but not sliders. In 2013 he threw sliders but almost no cutters. His slider was effective that year as well. His time with Houston is the only time in MLB that he has thrown both effectively. In my opinion, the emergence of the slider along with the cutter is the most important factor in Raley’s emergence. The slider not only gave Raley a put-away pitch, it made his other pitches more effective.

It’s possible that Raley’s slider was tweaked shortly after coming to Houston. He did not use it in his first game with the Astros, and it has different characteristics from the slider of 2013. If you watched the games you may have noticed the exceptional broad sweep of Raley’s slider. It’s horizontal movement was measured at -8.35 inches according to Brooks Baseball. In 2013 it was only -6.00. He also got a half inch of vertical drop in 2020, 1.96 from 2.47. (Lower is better). And with slightly more velocity, 82.02 from 81.8.

Of course, we don’t know if Raley’s slider evolved while pitching in Korea, or if he learned the “Astros way.” I tend to believe the latter, based on his non-usage in Cincinnatti and that he waited before trying out his slider while in the Houston uniform.

Another interesting change in Raley with the Astros was an uptick in velocity as the season progressed, as the following chart shows.

Perhaps the approximately one mph faster he threw for each of his pitches in September compared to August could be due to conditioning, but I doubt it. (his velocity is still below average) Raley had a full Spring Training, a full summer camp, and pitched with the Reds for two weeks before joining the Astros. He should have been in full condition. I suspect he got the benefit of some mechanical tweaks that he was able to gradually implement under the tutelage of the Master.

In any case, as Raley spent more time with the Astros and Strom, the better he got. It reminds me of how it took Ryan Pressly a few weeks to go from average reliever with the Twins to almost unhittable for about a year after joining the Stros.

In 2020 Raley made 17 appearances. In his first nine his ERA was 5.00 and his xFIP was 3.57. In his last eight his ERA was 2.57 and his xFIP was 2.70. In 5.2 IP in the playoffs his ERA was 3.18.

The pitch values on his FB, slider and cutter in his last eight games were, respectively, 6.64, 5.03, and 3.93. In the first nine games they were -4.50, -0.42, and 3.21.

Just to give some perspective, the pitch value on his fastball improved about ten points, from what would be among the league’s worst, to among the league’s best. His slider improved about five and a half points. If we counted only Raley’s second-half Astros 5.03 slider pitch value, it would have been the ninth rated slider in baseball among pitchers with more than ten innings.

So, from starting the season not throwing sliders, to within a month throwing one of the best sliders in baseball, Brooks Raley is another Strom Festivus Miracle.

When the Astros took him on in August out of desperation, Raley wasn’t a has-been. He was a never-was and never-will-be. By September the still officially-designated rookie had established his place as one of the leading set-up men in the bullpen. By October he was one of the top go-to, high-leverage guys the Astros depended on for critical outs against tough, playoff contenders.

Wow. Brooks Raley. From an invisible washout to shining bright in the national spotlight, all in the course of two months, at 32 years old. It proves you really should never give up. As the Astros enter the deconstruction phase in the natural cycle of baseball teams, the sudden, unexpected emergence of this low-cost, controllable rookie talent is a major plus for the Astros going forward.

And, no doubt, it would not have/could not have happened without Brent Strom.