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Keep an eye on Ryne Stanek

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Intrigue is plentiful in the Astros’ bullpen to start the season.

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Ryne Stanek signed with the Astros as free-agent in the offseason, I wrote about his propensity to not only generate whiffs, but also issue plenty of walks. Even at his best, the right-hander never posted a walk rate lower than 10.3 percent. A strikeout rate that topped off slightly above 30 percent did help negate some of those walks, though. This approach was best seen when the former Ray posted a 2.98 ERA/3.29 FIP in 66 1/3 innings as both a traditional reliever and as an opener. That same season is also when he posted a career-high 30.8 percent strikeout rate with a career-low 10.3 percent walk rate.

Whenever I check various leaderboards or numbers on Baseball Savant early in a season, I have to keep in mind that numbers prior to a certain point normally don’t hold much significance. Stats take a while to stabilize and it would be unproductive to read too much into a pitcher’s FIP or a hitter’s wRC+ only six games into a campaign. For example, when I saw Stanek’s 46.2 percent strikeout rate, I had to keep my expectations in check knowing that he has only faced 13 batters as an Astro. But strikeouts like the one below against Chad Pinder just draws me in every single time. Hence on a somewhat related note is why I can’t ever quit hoping Josh James reaches his potential one day.

In terms of stat stabilization for a pitcher, Stanek has only reached 19 percent threshold of what it would require for a strikeout rate to stabilize, which is about 70 batters. Early results, however, can be misleading. It is more about the process than the results at this juncture of the season.

One part of Stanek’s process in 2021 that has caught my eye is how he utilizes his split-finger fastball. Historically speaking, it is an offering he has relied upon with some regularity along with a four-seam fastball and slider. But that split-finger has always trailed in terms of usage every season since his debut in 2017 through 2020.

Although the season is still awfully young, it is interesting to see such an uptick in fastballs (four-seam and spilt-finger included) and a rather steep decline in slider usage compared to past years. This split-finger, in particular, generates the most interest as it isn’t common to see a pitcher utilize more of a split-finger with the Astros in recent seasons. In fact, Houston’s pitching staff’s from 2017 through 2020 only used a split-finger offering only 0.7 percent of the time. Yes, the usage rate during that same time period topped off on a per team basis at 4.4 percent with the Rays — coincidence? — but it still interesting to note for Stanek’s profile.

One reason why I think the Astros have had Stanek embrace the split-finger more, at least from what we can tell in early season data, is its swing and miss potential.

In theory, the split-finger for Stanek would be the ideal pitch if ahead in the count, especially in crucial situations. Remember when the Astros signed him that Click made it a point that they were looking for someone with “big out” potential. Well, look what the right-hander threw when facing Dexter Fowler in a bases loaded situation in a 0-2 count and one out.

A split-finger just right below the strike zone and Fowler chased it for the strikeout. Stanek would bail the Astros out of that situation to finish the inning, although the game was lost later on. In counts when ahead thus far, Stanek is showing more of a willingness to throw that spilt-finger for results just like he did above against Fowler.

Again, the sample for 2021 is remains small, but could be something meaningful down the road. If his split-finger can generate a higher number of whiffs, it only makes more sense to utilize it more in ahead counts (pitcher) when opposing hitters are more apt to chase. Plus, outside of that abbreviated 2020 season, Stanek’s split-finger has generated some of the best results when utilized in such counts. The Astros could, in theory, encourage him to throw it even more than before, which could unlock something greater in the former first-round pick.