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The curious case of Brandon Bielak

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The Astros’ young hurler disappointed in 2020, but could have ample opportunity to showcase his intriguing arsenal in 2021.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a good chance the Astros will need Brandon Bielak in 2021. Not just at the outset of the season, but throughout it. Injuries have decimated the Astros’ starting pitching depth this spring, leaving the club little choice but to look internally for reinforcements.

Top prospect Luis García pitched admirably in 2020 and has the present stuff to be a successful big-league starter right now, but because he lacks the proficient control to do so, he is currently slated to begin the year in the minors, where he could do with more seasoning. Thus, Bielak is the guy.

Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Jake Odorizzi, José Urquidy and Cristian Javier figure to be the Astros’ five primary starters in 2021 until Framber Valdez’s fractured finger heals. With Odorizzi’s delayed entry into camp, he doesn’t expect he’ll be able to start until a week or two into the season. This could give Bielak an opportunity to start a game, perhaps two. Once Odorizzi returns, Bielak could be the Astros’ swingman for many weeks while Valdez is on the mend.

Prior to last season, Bielak was viewed as a major league-ready arm who safely projected to be a competent back-end starter. But in the 12 games (32 innings) he appeared in last year — 6 of them starts — Bielak failed to translate his minor-league production to the next level and finished the season with an inflated 6.75 ERA. He consistently struggled with his control and he failed to net an adequate amount of strikeouts. Moreover, his solid ground ball rate in the minors plummeted to 36.9 percent in the big leagues.

But it wasn’t all bad. Despite the lack of strikeouts, Bielak’s overall whiff rate was above-average. While his minor-league scouting report painted him as a pitcher who lacked a true out-pitch, he showed otherwise in 2020.

Change is, in fact, good

The success of his change-up was the one thing Bielak could hang his hat on last year, as it was a plus pitch for him. Although the sample size is small (105 pitches), the data is hard to ignore.

All-Star starters such as Lucas Giolito, Luis Castillo, Kenta Maeda and Greinke are renowned for their devastating change-ups. Last season, all 4 pitchers induced whiffs with their change-up at a rate above 40 percent, an elite clip.

So did Bielak.

Missing bats wasn’t all that Bielak’s change-up was good for. Hitters slugged just .188 against it. This is the result of a high ground ball rate and an extremely meager hard hit rate.

Of course, this is based on 21 batted ball events, so while it’s awfully encouraging to see one of Bielak’s offerings compare similarly to some of baseball’s best, it would be prudent to wait and see how it fares over a longer period of time.

But for now, there’s reason to be optimistic about the fact that Bielak may have a legitimate out-pitch, which could enhance his long-term projection. In any case, it would be logical to expect him to go to his change-up more often in 2021, as he went to it less than 20 percent of the time in 2020.

Something to keep an eye on

Last week, I wrote about how spring training numbers aren’t to be taken seriously. In the piece, I briefly alluded to some things that could be indicative of future performance. For pitchers, some prime examples would be an increase or decrease in velocity, movement or spin rate.

Bielak doesn’t have a meaningful change in any of those three respects. However, his slider has produced interesting results this spring, especially in his most recent outing against the Cardinals, which highlighted Bielak’s increased usage of his slider and the quality results it’s yielded.

While there’s no apparent alteration from a data perspective, Bielak reportedly fine-tuned his slider in the offseason.

Combining his appearances against the Cardinals on Saturday and against the Marlins on March 5, Bielak’s slider has induced 11 swinging strikes, good for an eye-popping whiff rate of 52 percent.

The minuscule sample size aside, here’s who Bielak collected those 11 whiffs against:

  • Nolan Arenado (3)
  • Tyler O’Neill (2)
  • Yadier Molina (2)
  • Paul DeJong (1)
  • Garrett Cooper (1)
  • Jorge Alfaro (1)
  • Jon Berti (1)

These are all decent (or better) big leaguers.

Getting an ugly 3-2 swing from Arenado is notable. Arenado had already seen three sliders from Bielak during the at-bat, and yet he still wildly offered at the fourth.

This could be a sign of the refinement of Bielak’s slider or of Arenado still trying to iron out the kinks for the regular season. Regardless, it’s a positive sign for Bielak’s slider that it was able to generate a foolish looking swing from a player of Arenado’s stature.

Bielak’s slider missed a sufficient amount of bats in 2020, so this development isn’t totally out of the ordinary. What did Bielak in last year was his tendency to hang his slider over the heart of the plate, which led to hitters slugging .556 against it.

Last season, right-handed hitters’ OPS against Bielak was a cataclysmic 1.349. If he is able to adequately command his slider in 2021, the dividends could be substantial.

TL;DR version

When camp breaks, Bielak is likely to be a member of the Astros’ rotation. He’s not expected to be needed in that role for an extended period of time, but he’ll still serve as important depth throughout the season.

The potential to develop into a back-end (or perhaps better) starter is still there for Bielak, and while his slider received most of the press against the Cardinals in this past weekend’s start, his fastball velocity topped out at an impressive 96 miles per hour — in the 5th inning.

Bielak’s success in 2021 could simply come down to how well he locates his pitches. If he minimizes the free passes and can consistently command his whole repertoire, it’s feasible to think that he could make a real impact, however indistinct it might end up being.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant