In 2017, the Astros faced a batter 334 times with a left-handed reliever on the mound. Not dead last, mind you, but only four other teams finished the season with fewer totals from a southpaw reliever. That figure would slip even lower in 2018 at 260 batters faced before bottoming out at 228 in 2019, which was ultimately the lowest of any team last season.
It wasn’t a well-kept secret that the Astros had experienced some difficulty finding a reliable lefty reliever in recent years. After all, Tony Sipp never quite lived up to the three-year, $18 million contract he signed prior to the 2016 season. Acquiring Francisco Liriano didn’t move the needle much, if any, at the trade deadline in 2017. Reymin Guduan, well, wasn’t a “good one” while Cionel Perez has yet to impress following two short stints as a reliever in the majors. There was a notable dearth of organizational depth in this area as well.
In spite of the lack of a prominent southpaw in the ‘pen, the Astros arguably didn’t need one during the last couple of seasons. By wOBA, for example, the team’s right-handed relievers performed relatively well in each of the last three seasons against left-handed hitters, especially in 2019.
RH Relievers vs. LHH
That said, the subsequent offseason following the 2019 season and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly altered the fabric of the Astros’ bullpen in 2020. As it currently stands, there are nine relievers who are considered rookie pitchers this year. Only Ryan Pressly, who has thrown just two-thirds of an inning in 2020, and Josh James have at least one season of experience in the bullpen at the major league level. Some of the key contributors to the club’s recent success against left-handed relievers are either with another team (Will Harris, for example) or currently unavailable (see, well, almost everyone else).
One of Jeff Luhnow’s final trades before his firing in January was the swap of fan favorite outfielder Jake Marisnick to the Mets for two minor league prospects: Left-handed pitcher Blake Taylor and outfielder Kenedy Corona. Spencer Morris had the write up on the then-newly acquired players here last December. Of the two players acquired, Taylor presented the most intrigue as he was already 24-years old, a left-hander, and presumably not too far away from joining the majors. As Spencer notes in his article, Taylor appeared to have had his walk issues under control that, in turn, improved his minor league numbers. When the deal was struck, there was a general feeling that Taylor could join the parent club sometime in 2020, if not out of Spring Training.
Oh, my, how we didn’t know what 2020 had in store for us.
For the first time in nearly five years, the Astros have a left-handed reliever who also carries a vital role within the staff in Taylor. Not only does he lead the club in batters faced (26) for a reliever, he has yet to surrender a run in 7 1⁄3 innings. He also ranks in the 86th percentile in exit velocity, 85th percentile in hard hit rate, 83rd percentile in strikeout rate, and 97th percentile in wOBA. For a season that is roughly 18 percent finished, that is a good streak to start one’s major league career.
Taylor’s success is mostly derived from his four-seam fastball generating weak contact from opposing hitters. While the sample size is still quite small, Taylor’s 66.7 percent medium contact rate is among the top sixteen for all qualified relievers. In fact, 80 percent of Taylor’s contact would classify as soft to medium so far.
As with Cristian Javier in a similar manner, part of Taylor’s success with the four-seam appears to be a byproduct of increased emphasis on backspin, which can create the illusion that a ball is rising as it approaches the hitter. We can start to see that idea put into action in his fastball’s heat map for the season thus far.
Or, even better, we can see it in action as Taylor did against Corey Seager when the Dodgers were in town last week.
Out of Taylor’s 94 pitches thrown this season, 36, or 38.3 percent, of those have been fastballs in the upper regions of the strike zone. Although his four-seam velocity is averaging out around 93.6 MPH and without too much vertical movement (-0.2 inches against the average), the addition to the backspin has helped Taylor post a 34.6 percent strikeout rate in his first 7 1⁄3 innings this season.
Taylor’s other offering shown in 2020 is a slider, which has been successful, but not to the same extent as his four-seam. Only used about 26.6 percent of the time compared to 73.4 percent to his fastball, the slider does exhibit a short cut back to the glove side and averages about 85.2 MPH. He does only have two strikeouts via the pitch at this point, but it does provide a nice contrast to his four-seam, especially when thrown lower in the zone.
The Astros will undoubtedly lean on Taylor extensively in the coming games as he has been the club’s best reliever so far. Dependent on how he continues to adjust, there are lot of things to like about the 24-year old southpaw.
Another encouraging aspect is that Taylor hasn’t experienced any issues with the new three-batter minimum rule instituted by Major League Baseball for the 2020 season. Although the “death” of the LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy) was likely exaggerated when the rule change was announced, there is still a heightened need for relievers to face multiple hitters in one appearance without sharp differences in platoon splits. For a couple of seasons, the Astros were in the forefront of utilizing a couple of right-handed pitchers who didn’t possess stark differences in their platoon splits. Thus far, Taylor has done quite well, holding right-handed hitters to a .185 wOBA and hasn’t allowed a hit yet to a left-handed hitter. Houston may have found their own left-handed variant after all of these years.