New Stros on the pen

Alessandro Zilio
9 min readJul 30, 2021

The Astros season has been a tale of consistency so far: the strengths and weaknesses of the roster held up from day 1 to the approaching Trade Deadline, so that, even with stints in the IL and other issues, Houston has an identity and plans.

Offense was never a problem to begin with: although Springer was gone the lineup projected to be one of the best in all of baseball with Air Yordan coming back and, wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what happened. This edition of the Astros lineup, or better, the one going from 2017 to now, is close to the original Murderer’s Row of the late 1920s Yankees in a lot of metrics, bombs exlcuded. Altuve, Correa and Gurriel are having resurgences, Brantley is always smooth, Tucker is the prince we were promised and even Myles Straw is bringing his worth.

Starting pitching was full of question marks, yet they are being much better than advertised thanks to a crop of young hurlers with little Minors experience that came up in 2020 and are here to stay. Garcia, Urquidy and Javier are weak flyball masters, Framber grounds them all, Greinke and a scattered Odorizzi are the backbone of a rotation that ranks high in the AL on most stats.

Warnings were given for the bullpen though: Ryan Pressly was the closer, and a damn good one, but everything else was up in the air: can Brian Abreu and Enoli Paredes throw strikes? Not really. Can Brooks Raley not allow an inherited runner to score? Nope. Can Joe Smith and Pedro Baez still pitch at a high level? Maybe not.

The Astros pen, outside of Pressly, Stanek and now-long-reliever Javier, has been a ragtag group with middling results and serious walk/injury troubles: Scrubb, Paredes, Smith and others visited the IL, Baez still is MIA, rehabbing in AAA. You can’t really hope to go forward with a couple of trusty arms and a lot of doubts, so in the last few days James Click(ed) on a couple of trades to bolster the ranks.

Gone is the Bull, Abraham Toro, and Smith to the Mariners for Rafael Montero and their closer, Kendall Graveman, while Austin Pruitt and AAA outfielder Bryan De La Cruz are now Marlins in exchange for Yimi Garcia.

Good trades? Good arms? Let’s have a look!

First of all the big name: Kendall Graveman has been one of the best relievers in 2021 baseball on paper, a reliable closer for Seattle with a sub 1 ERA, a WHIP around 1, a ton of strikeouts, few walks and a groundball rate over 50%. That’s gas if you ask me!

What’s good

  • Death to RHB

You may remember Graveman as an Oakland starter, a sinkerballer at around 92 mph with meh breaking balls getting shelled here and there to then fall to TJS and injuries alike. Well, he’s not the same guy: the sinker is still there, piling up grounders, but now it comes averaging 97 mph, topping at a clean hundred.

Graveman loves his sinker and for a good reason: throwing it more than 60% of the times and complementing it with a slider he has a 0.00 ERA against RHB…nada, zero, zilch! His slider has been the deal breaker, a pitch he sparingly used before and now a premium out pitch with ridicolous Whiff at 44%

Dropping his cutter entirely and his changeup for more sliders has been a saving grace that, combined with a 5 mph increase on the sinker, made him a late inning firebreather, one that’ll be the setup man for Pressly or the fireman to extinguish baserunners in tough situations.

What’s not

  • He’s dropped a tick recently

Nothing egregious mind you, but Graveman’s sinker has been more 95 than 97 lately, although with the same good results. Still, watch out for possible repercussions as he’s fiddling with danger, throwing more first pitch strikes but less strikes in total he’s getting a ton of Chases and a career high rate of Whiffs, if his stuff deteriorates he could see his walk rate go up a notch.

The forgotten piece of this trade may even be the best reliever of the bunch according to peripherals: Rafael Montero and his 7 ERA shouldn’t be that inspiring, still he’s expected for half as much, a testament to how unlucky he has been as he’s allowing a deluge of grounders (55% GB rate) and weak contact that is finding real estate more often than not.

What’s good

  • He has an abysmal contact profile

Baseball Gods are having fun with Montero: while his strikeout rate plummeted to a career low he’s also allowing some of the worst contact among relievers in all accounts, Exit Velocities and Launch Angles

Tons of topped balls pulled into shifts, a Barrel% that is a third of what he allowed in the last couple of years and all he’s got to show for is a putrid ERA and a DFA by Seattle. It’s a tough job, being a reliever!

He’s a rare true 4-pitch reliever, so there are weapons for all sides of the plate:

Almost a kitchen sink! Montero throws each of his pitches at least 19% of his total offerings and there’s a lot to like: his sinker is a true wormkiller, averaging an allowed LA of -6°, his slider Whiffs a ton and has amazing XStats and so does his changeup.

The difference between “real” and expected stats for Montero is startling: just a year removed from being a great closer for Texas, one with a solid track record in baserunner prevention, he might have better days ahead even if he doesn’t make any changes. It all levels up in the long term, that’s how this game works!

What’s not

  • His pitch shapes are ordinary

What really jumps out about Montero is how none of his pitches differs much from the average league offering in terms of drop and fade, which is bad news as hitters have a much harder time hitting something that drops a ton, spins a ton or fades a ton.

That’s 60 Stuff/30 Movement and that explains all the contact he has allowed instead of striking out: when batters see exactly what they expect out of a pitch they’re going to hit it no matter where you place it.

Trade evaluation: fair

The trade is Toro for Graveman and a dump swap Smith/Montero yet I think it all comes down to those at the extremes: I’m higher than most on Toro, he can really hit, has good plate discipline and unsuspectable pop (15+ HR tops) but he’s not a 3B as he lacks both arm strength and accuracy, he should slot at 2B and provide solid, 2 WAR value. Then there’s Montero, and if he comes back to Texas levels we are talking about closer stuff, not mop up duty. Seattle comes out on top, I’m not confident Graveman can keep up this level of dominance, but Houston is happy in the short term. Approved.

Last but not least, yet another de-facto closer joins Houston: from the 9th inning job in Miami, Yimi Garcia will settle for mid to late game appearances in an Astros uniform.

What’s good

  • A high velo, high spin heater

While the outlook is not as positive, Garcia has one of the most sought after traits for a pitcher, even more after the crackdown on foreign substances: a firm fastball with high rpms.

Garcia’s heater averages 96 mph and has ludicrous spin at 2500 rpms, yet the pitch plays down due to subpar extension at less than 6 ft. He throws the offering exactly where you want it, up high in the zone to get swings and misses, and a 27% Whiff is nothing to sneeze at.

Garcia walks some and gets a good amount of chases, although his expected results are a run worse than his 3.5 ERA. He has no clear splits and a long track record of performance and postseason experience given his past tenure with the Dodgers.

What’s not

  • His pitch mix needs some fine tuning

While Garcia’s fastball is working fine, although he allowed all of his 5 homers on the pitch, breaking balls are being an issue: his slider is good but has little to no sweep and drops less than average, his curveball should be scratched entirely, being destroyed for a xSLG over 1.000 and a paltry 12% Whiff.

The pitch I’d like to see more out of Garcia is his changeup: a delicacy he reserves for LHB, it has above average horizontal and vertical movement, a low spin dropshot that has amazing expected stats and sky high Whiff at 42%.

Trade evaluation: average

This one is more of a classic: a late inning arm, FA to be, for a lotto ticket. I’m as low on De La Cruz as I was high on Toro: he has good numbers but he was hitting on a true hitters paradise, he’s almost 25 and settled on a corner outfield spot, has pop and can walk but his hit tool is doubtful and he had no way into the Astros roster. He should get one in Miami, although they already have a ton of similar OF, toolsy but unable to put it together a la Lewis Brinson. Pruitt was DFA’d and he’ll replace Garcia on the Marlins pen.

While these trades haven’t been blockbusters, not at Scherzer+Turner levels, they are the kind of deals that can shape a contender to have a deep postseason run: when each game counts more than in the Regular Season you can’t sit on your hands watching your starter crumble, and that’s where an affidable bullpen comes in play.

The Astros one hasn’t been that trustworthy, but reinforcements have arrived in the form of three arms with closing experience, solid additions that should lessen the burden on a mediocre corp that was asked too much from the start.

Is this it for the Astros’ Trade Deadline? Don’t count out a surprise or two: while a bat is not on the menu, as Straw and McCormick deserved their spots in center, I wouldn’t exclude a shot at a starter, one of the talked ones in need of a change of scenery (looking at you, German Marquez), and maybe another bullpen arm, a lefty to get appearances away from everyday Brooks Raley, so I’d be stoked for a Fry/Scott from Baltimore or yet another Marlin in Richard Bleier.

Still, what was the only clear flaw on the Astros roster has now been shored up a bit. These guys are not Craig Kimbrel, but they have a good shot at giving you a clean inning, and that’s all you want from a bullpen arm.

All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant, data updated to July 29th.

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Alessandro Zilio

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, NPB and Korean dramas. A lot of Astros related content and obscure references.