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Decreased Velocity May Limit Pedro Báez’s Usage

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Once viewed as a key cog in the Astros’ bullpen, the right-hander may not be featured in high-leverage roles for a while.

Colorado Rockies v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

When the Astros inked Pedro Báez to a two-year, $12.5 million contract in the offseason, the common thought was the right-hander would help bridge the gap in the bullpen to Ryan Pressly. Considering how Báez has thrown at least 51 innings from 2015-19 with an ERA never higher than 3.35, his signing had the appearance of a worthwhile acquisition. While his overall numbers outside ERA did take a hit in 2020, the nature of that shortened season made it difficult to evaluate where exactly Báez was at fully. If there was a red flag last winter, it lied in how hard — or lack thereof — Báez was throwing in recent seasons.

Pitch Velocity by Season (2014-20)

Season vFA vCH vSL
Season vFA vCH vSL
2014 95.9 88.4 87.8
2015 97.8 87.7 89.3
2016 97.5 87.9 88.3
2017 97.1 88.0 88.1
2018 96.1 86.8 88.0
2019 95.9 86.3 86.4
2020 94.4 86.8 87.1

The gradual decrease in pitch velocity, especially in the past two seasons, was worth noting at Báez’s signing. While a higher velocity doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, it can provide better odds for the pitcher. In particular, a decrease in pitch velocity isn’t something you’d want to see for a reliever. Again, the small sample nature of the 2020 season only complicates the perception of whether that large velocity drop for Báez was a harbinger of things to come or simply a false alarm. The Astros clearly thought it was an issue that could at least be mitigated to some degree in 2021 and 2022.

As you might already know, Báez has missed most of the season up to this point due to a bout with COVID-19 in Spring Training followed by right shoulder soreness. His absence created a strain on the bullpen and removed what was once viewed as a potential high-leverage option off the table. General manager James Click remedied this situation by acquiring four relievers at the trade deadline, likely in part to the various reports of how Báez’s velocity wasn’t bouncing back as originally hoped during his rehab stint in the minors. The question was slowly becoming more about an appropriate role when he returned versus the higher expectations that were in place at the time of the signing.

With the newly acquired Rafael Montero being transferred to the IL on Tuesday, the Astros decided to activate Báez to fill the vacancy. In turn, we also saw the former Dodger make his first appearance of the 2021 season that same day and what might be his role in the foreseeable future. Coming in with a 5-0 lead in the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park against the 13-42 on-the-road Rockies, the timing was right to see what Báez could do. In fact, one could argue that there wasn’t a more low-leverage role than that one on Tuesday. But while the overall results still mattered, it was also about seeing how hard Báez could throw in his first appearance of the season. Spoiler alert: There were 16 pitches, and it wasn’t encouraging despite a scoreless inning.

  1. Four-seam - 89.7 MPH
  2. Changeup - 82.6 MPH
  3. Changeup - 82.1 MPH
  4. Changeup - 83.1 MPH
  5. Changeup - 81.0 MPH
  6. Four-seam - 89.7 MPH
  7. Changeup - 80.8 MPH
  8. Changeup - 81.4 MPH
  9. Changeup - 81.6 MPH
  10. Changeup - 81.5 MPH
  11. Four-seam - 90.9 MPH
  12. Four-seam - 92.0 MPH
  13. Changeup - 82.9 MPH
  14. Changeup - 82.9 MPH
  15. Four-seam - 91.3 MPH
  16. Slider - 81.4 MPH

Of Báez’s 16 pitches against the Rockies, only three — all four-seam fastballs — were clocked higher than 90 MPH. A three-mile-per-hour drop based on his average in 2020. His changeup topped out at 82.9 MPH, which is nearly four miles per hour slower than his average from last year. Only one slider based on Statcast data was roughly five miles per hour slower than his 2020 average. Not a great sign for that declining velocity trend.

So, what will the Astros do with Báez going forward? There is little reason to think that manager Dusty Baker would utilize the right-hander when he needs someone with swing-and-miss potential with multiple options now available following the trade deadline. While he may efficiently generate outs, certain situations will likely preclude Báez as an option. Lower leverage situations will probably be Báez’s assignment for a while in the hopes of his velocity possibly rebounding. Honestly, it isn’t guaranteed that he is included on any postseason rosters if those velocity numbers don’t turn around. But we can also be making too much of one appearance, and it will certainly take some time to figure this situation out.