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Three Under-the-Radar Relievers the Astros Should Target in Free Agency

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A trio of veteran relievers could help a talented but inexperienced bullpen next year

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Astros’ bullpen used to be quite the distinguished unit. The quality, depth and experience it once boasted rivaled any other bullpen in the league. Those attributes are now things of the past. In 2020, it was a group comprised of almost exclusively rookies, save for Josh James and Ryan Pressly, the only holdovers from the outstanding 2019 troop.

Though there are multiple rookies with fairly substantial potential — namely Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor and Andre Scrubb — next year’s bullpen needs to be more reliable than it was this past season, when its inconsistency was on display more than anything else.

There are several premier names on the free agent market this winter, such as Brad Hand, Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen. The Astros, like the 29 other teams in baseball, strangely did not submit a claim for Hand when he was placed on waivers by the Indians last month, despite carrying a reasonable $10 million price tag.

These peculiar moves were prevalent leading up to the start of free agency on November 1st, with the shortened season and subsequent loss of revenue being the justification for them.

Because the Astros will need to financially prioritize their outfield this winter, as well as a Carlos Correa extension, it’s unlikely that there will be an abundance of resources allocated for upgrading the bullpen.

With all of that in mind, here are three effective yet affordable relievers the Astros should consider signing this offseason:

Oliver Drake

Injuries effectively cost Drake his 2020, as he was only able to log 11 innings, and he clearly wasn’t 100%. A biceps issue forced him to the IL in early August, then he suffered a right flexor tendon strain in the ALDS. At this point, the Rays needed all hands on deck in their bullpen, so they DFA’d Drake in order to make room for southpaw flamethrower Jose Alvarado, who had been activated from the IL. Drake would go through waivers unclaimed, perhaps due to teams facing roster crunches at the time.

First off, any reliever who’s pitched for the Rays the past few years deserves to be closely looked at just for that reason alone. Second, Drake was one of their best in 2019, which is saying something. The Rays acquired Drake after his quietly solid 2018 and altered his pitch usage in 2019, resulting in a career year.

Drake pitched 56 innings with a 3.21 ERA and a 3.87 FIP in 2019. Throughout his career, he’s induced a fair number of ground balls, though he’s dealt with some home run trouble recently.

The long balls and the unspectacular FIP aside, what makes Drake exciting is his strikeout rate. In 2019, his K% was in the top 10% in the league. In addition, his whiff% was in the top 5%. While Drake has solid velocity, he’s not overpowering, and yet his 4-seam fastball was 15th among all relievers in whiff rate. Partly because the pitch has excellent vertical movement, and also because of this:

Wacky deliveries tend to yield deception, and Drake is obviously no exception. Also featured there was Drake’s splitter, and it induces some bad swings:

(Skip to 1:23 in the video)

Drake’s mid-80s splitter is one of the best in baseball. In 2019, it was in the upper echelon in terms of whiff rate and xwOBA. Drake’s overall xwOBA was in the top 12%, as well as his xERA, which at 3.22 fits nicely with his actual ERA (3.21).

The biggest question mark facing Drake going forward may be his durability. He turns 34 in January and is coming off a season where he sustained injuries to his biceps and his elbow. It’s not clear what his status is currently, but there seems to be no indication that he won’t be ready for spring training.

I would imagine that a one-year deal worth roughly $1 million could entice him to sign, market depending. Low-risk, high-reward.

Anthony Bass

Ex-Astro Anthony Bass has become a competent reliever the past few years. More than competent, in fact. Bass has pitched well since 2018 and has become a more complete pitcher the past two seasons, as he’s been able to get left-handed hitters out as well as right-handed ones, thanks to an overhauled arsenal.

Bass ditched his 4-seam fastball in 2019 and has used a sinker in its stead. The pitch has proven to be the superior option. But it’s not Bass’s mid-90s heat that makes him interesting, it’s his secondary pitches. His out pitch is his mid-80s slider, and it’s a good one. It’s an offering that misses bats and is difficult to hit in general.

Against lefty bats, Bass has employed a revamped splitter that also hovers in the mid-80s. Like the slider, the splitter misses bats and has been extremely tough to hit. These three pitches give Bass a well-rounded repertoire for a reliever, and his vastly improved whiff rate the past two seasons reflect that.

Another positive development is Bass’s ground ball rate. Before 2018, it was still decent, but it’s been north of 50% the past three years, including above 60% in 2020. His middling exit velos aren’t ideal, but Bass has nevertheless excelled at limiting barrels, a skill that is invaluable nowadays. It’s also worth noting that Bass’s 2020 xwOBA was in the top 2% in baseball.

All in all, this is a ground ball pitcher who has the ability to get batters out, lefty or righty, while keeping the ball in the park. The three-batter minimum rule is to remain in place going forward, so relief pitchers who can get both types of hitters out are at even more of a premium now than before. In several ways, Bass encapsulates what a modern reliever is expected to do.

Bass could have been on his way to a career season this year had it not been shortened due to the pandemic. He managed to collect seven saves in nine attempts, for whatever that’s worth. Even at 33, he should fetch interest from numerous teams.

A one-year deal at around $2 million may be what it takes to ink him.

Brandon Workman

Not enough people are aware of how utterly dominant Workman was in 2019. An elite whiff% and K%, plus an absurd 0.7% barrel rate resulted in a sub-2.00 ERA in nearly 72 innings that year. He was undoubtedly one of the top relievers in baseball.

Then 2020 happened.

As incredible as he was last year, Workman was equally terrible this year, posting an ERA of almost 6.00. He allowed hard contact on every other batted ball and his whiff rate also plummeted, while his high walk rate from 2019 carried over. Not the best formula for success.

It isn’t easy to pinpoint how it all fell apart for Workman in 2020, though there are smoking guns. The smokiest of them is the decrease in movement on Workman’s pitches, whether it be the vertical movement on his 4-seam fastball and curveball or the horizontal movement on his cutter. The explanation for this loss of movement is murky, as the spin rates on the pitches in 2020 were similar to 2019, as were each pitch’s active spin rate (or spin efficiency, as some pitchers call it).

The dip in velocity is likely too slight to be considered a significant factor, and I don’t know if the correlation we’re looking for is Workman’s pitch usage — it was markedly different this year, but all three of his pitches were totally ineffective anyway.

This is what can happen when you search for conclusions based on a small sample size. You run around in circles and eventually realize it’s mostly a waste of time. But there’s not much else that can be done though, is there? The shortened season keeps sucking even after it’s ended.

But enough of 2020. Workman did in fact throw less than 20 innings this past season, and even before his amazing 71.2 innings in 2019, he was fairly solid in 81 combined innings from 2017 to 2018.

Workman’s meteoric rise in 2019 could primarily be due to an alteration in his pitch usage. He made his curveball his primary pitch and threw it nearly 50% of the time, while using his 4-seam fastball at a clip above 30% and his cutter just a shade below 20%.

This modified approach paid substantial dividends, particularly with Workman’s fastball. Its velocity was merely 92.9 mph and it only possessed above-average vertical movement, but it missed a ton of bats. The pitch’s whiff rate was 4th in the league, behind the likes of Josh Hader and Drew Pomeranz and ahead of Emilio Pagan and Kirby Yates, relievers who possess tremendously potent fastballs.

So, how did Workman achieve this? Tunneling. Have a look:

On its own, Workman’s fastball may not be a great pitch, but when properly thrown and located off his quality curveball, it is. The ~13 mph difference in velocity between the pitches boosts the effectiveness of the north/south approach. Workman’s upper-80s cutter is no mediocre third offering either — it had the highest whiff% of his three pitches in ‘19.

Workman was traded to the Phillies during the 2020 season. As it’s been widely written about, the Phillies’ bullpen posted historically bad numbers this year. Just moving on from that coaching staff could help.

It’s unknown at best if Workman could replicate his sensational 2019, but with pitching coach Brent Strom and his staff returning in 2021, it’s certainly not impossible that they could restore Workman’s quality.

Like Drake and Bass, Workman is also in his 30s, and considering how highly he was perceived less than 20 innings ago, his market will be hard to predict. In any other offseason, it would’ve made sense to see a team like the Astros, Dodgers or Giants offer Workman at least $4 or $5 million — perhaps even a multi-year deal — but it’s unlikely that he’ll receive offers of more than $2 or $3 million. It’s difficult to accurately assess, given the complex circumstances of this bizarre market. The same goes for Bass, Drake and virtually every other free agent. Fun times.

TL;DR Version

Signing just one of Drake, Bass or Workman would be a welcome addition to a bullpen filled with youth. This trio of relievers is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are many other capable arms on the market. It’s probably fair to assume that the Astros will sign multiple relievers this offseason. The question — which is the underlying question this winter — is how much money will be spent?

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant