The Astros began the offseason with valid reasons to address a bullpen that posted a 12.4 percent walk rate in 2020. Only the Mets were worse in this regard. I wrote about that and how multiple impact arms were needed just yesterday right here. By all appearances this offseason, the bullpen remains priority number one to general manager James Click. Again, for good reason. The question is which of the prominent relievers left on the open market will Jim Crane open his pocketbook for this winter.
However, we will have to continue our wait to see if, or hopefully when, that actually happens. The offseason is moving at a relatively slow pace, but there is still value to find in unexpected places. If there is one good thing that the Astros have been known for in recent years — under both Jeff Luhnow and now Click — is their ability to identify under-the-radar pitchers and take them to new heights. Collin McHugh and Charlie Morton are two names that immediately come to mind during Luhnow’s tenure. For Click, the acquisition of Brooks Raley from last season stands out. That is why Thursday’s signing of right-hander Ryne Stanek is one of some interest, especially once you connect the dots from Tampa.
To cut straight to the chase, Stanek is a 29-year old right-hander with slightly more than 173 major league innings to his credit for the Rays and Marlins. He is most famously known for his opener role with the Rays when he “started” 56 games for the club between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. That also happens to be Stanek’s two best seasons as he posted a 3.17 ERA/3.64 FIP during that time. Following a respectable start to the 2019 season, he was eventually traded to Miami in a deal that sent Nick Anderson to Tampa. Unfortunately for Stanek, he couldn’t replicate that same level of success further south as he struggled with a 6.03 ERA/6.21 FIP in only 31 1⁄3 innings across parts of two seasons. Injuries would play a role in those struggles and the Marlins would eventually designate the right-hander for assignment following the conclusion of the 2020 season. But, to be fair, who exactly didn’t have a rough 2020?
For the Astros, they are in the market for arms that generate “big” outs. That was clearly an issue at various points last season, especially when Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly were both out with injuries at the same time. Brian McTaggart’s article about Stenek’s signing includes the following quote from Click, who reinforces the notion that “big” out pitchers are desired in Houston.
“First and foremost, the stuff that he has, he can get big outs in big situations and he was looking for an opportunity to win a leverage role in a bullpen,” said Astros GM James Click, who was hired from the Rays a year ago. “That’s something that we can certainly use and I think a lot of teams can use. Especially in our situation, we’re hoping to have a lot of big outs to get in 2021, and he’s one of the guys we identified as someone that can do that for us.”
The plan for Stanek appears to center around him contending for “big” out opportunities. As noted by Jake Kaplan of The Athletic ($), the Astros don’t plan to utilize Stenek as an opener as he was in Tampa, but more like how Miami utilized him. The organization clearly views Stenek as someone — when he’s at his best — who can contribute in later innings during crucial situations.
The intriguing aspect of Stanek is the strikeout potential he brings, which ties into the “big” out hopes that the club has for him. Headlined by a four-seam fastball that averaged out to 97.5 MPH that ranked in the 93rd percentile for velocity in 2019, the right-hander can also utilize a slider and split-finger fastball to varying degrees of success. But all three of his pitches have demonstrated impressive whiff tendencies when he’s healthy and not hampered by a shortened season.
Pre-Pandemic Pitch Usage and Whiff Rate
To take it a step further, let’s use a comparison of percentile rankings. Liam Hendriks, for example, is probably the most prominent player linked to the Astros this offseason. In 2019, in what was Hendrik’s breakout season, the former A’s closer posted a whiff rate in the 94th percentile in conjunction with a strikeout rate in the 97th percentile. In that same season, Stanek ranked in the 93rd percentile for whiff rate but his strikeout rate finished in the 74th percentile. Compared to the league at large, it is easy to see where Stanek lands.
While it isn’t entirely fair to compare Stanek to Hendriks, the percentile rankings do show where the former still has room to grow. The whiff rate is there to support a higher strikeout rate. So, why isn’t Stanek still a part of the Marlins or a highly coveted free-agent that could demand more than the $1.1 million that the Astros offered him? That is probably due to his high walk rate — 11.7 percent for his career — which likely offsets some of the excitement for his whiff rate. This next chart illustrates that point nicely.
Needless to say, there weren’t many pitchers that season who posted such impressive whiff rates across the board only to see it undone by the inability to harness control of the strike zone. It is also why we see his strikeout rate likely capped. Walks can kill a pitcher and Stanek is no different. If he can improve his control and cut down on the walks, then I’d expect his strikeout to rise accordingly. Don’t forget Stanek did post a 3.17 ERA during his time in Tampa and he only started to struggle in Miami due to injuries and the weird season known as 2020. In fact, it is probably fair to toss out all of those ten innings he threw last season out the window and give him a clean slate for 2021. But if the stars align for Stanek under pitching coach Brent Strom, the Astros may have found themselves with another bargain for the foreseeable future.