It’s November, so I’m digging through 2018 seasonal data. Today, I was looking at some of the top pitching performances according to our Seasonal Pitcher Statistical Rankings, and I kept running into the same thing. Astros. Everywhere I looked there were Astros pitching prospects having great seasons:
That’s 18 (7.2%) of our Top 250 pitching performances in 2018. Last I checked, the Astros still comprised only 3.3% of the MLB.
I included Patrick Sandoval on the list because he made 14 appearances for the Quad Cities River Bandits (A-Full) and 5 appearances for the Buies Creek Astros (A+) before being traded to the Angels in the Martin Maldonado deal. However, as I looked over this list I still felt like something was missing…
Wait, there’s more!
Our rankings system didn’t include Whitley because he didn’t pitch enough to climb the rankings in 2018 (suspension, injury). But he was good when he pitched, and he was arguably the top pitcher in the AFL this Fall. James, Perez, and Valdez didn’t hit our rankings because they wound up the season on the MLB roster, but just look how good each of those guys pitched during their time in Fresno this year!
The performances from the Astros pitching prospects as a whole in 2018 are astounding.
Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently noted that the Astros MLB pitching staff in 2018 was historically good. The Astros pitching staff finished the regular season 24% better than the rest of their competition in the AL. Petriello notes that the organization is simply ahead of other organizations with their use of high speed cameras and data analysis. Petriello explains the Astros secret sauce: their pitchers throw less fastballs, sinkers, and changeups compared to the rest of the league. And when their pitchers throw fastballs, they throw a higher percentage of those fastballs up in the zone. And they throw a lot of breaking balls and bury a lot of them outside of the zone.
In November of 2017, David Laurila of Fangraphs sat down with Mike Elias, who at the time was the Astros Assistant GM for Scouting and Player Development. Elias has since been hired as Baltimore’s new GM. In the interview, Elias notes that the organization’s evaluation of pitchers begins with traditional live scouting. From that point, the Astros veer into video analysis of the pitcher’s delivery and radar technology which is becoming increasingly more available at the lower levels. This includes technology to capture spin rate, although Elias is purposefully obtuse about this area: “We’re heading down that road with some of the more advanced radar technology, and some of the aspects of pitch quality that it can convey to us.”
“Some aspects?” Well, I’m sure that at least one of those aspects is how fast the baseball is spinning when their dudes are throwing it. So contrary to what Trevor Bauer posited this season, maybe the Astros are just better at finding pitchers who can spin the baseball?
In order to pair up that data with what the team is doing at the MLB level, the Astros approach, according to Elias, is “to make sure we’re not drafting a pitcher whose delivery, or method of attack, is going to be anathema to our internal philosophy. We try to acquire guys that are going to seamlessly enter our program and be good fits for what our coaches like to do, extending all the way up to the major leagues.”
Another interesting thing that Elias highlights is the Astros hunt for “quality deliveries”. Elias notes that, even given his size, part of the reason why the team liked Forrest Whitley was that he was both coordinated going down the mound and was able to repeat his delivery.
This squares with what Ralph Lifshitz of Prospects Live saw when he put together his Astros Top-30 prospects list. When talking about Cionel Perez, Ralph observes that “the Astros must love guys that are easy mechanically, because much like Corbin Martin, lefty Cionel Perez has an easy setup and delivery, making repeating his mechanics no chore.”
Ralph goes on to make two very interesting points about the type of pitching prospect that the Astros feature in their minor league system:
1) As explained above by Mike Elias, the starting point is often a high spin-rate fastball. For example, spin rate was probably the team’s driving factor behind the team’s decision to draft Forrest Whitley. It’s why the Astros wanted Brandon Bailey when they traded Ramon Laureano to Oakland. They are avoiding prospects who are an “anathema to our internal philosophy.”
2) Nearly all of these pitching prospects feature an arsenal with two breaking balls and a changeup. Ralph explains that it’s a pitch mix that makes them less susceptible to split issues. There are some exceptions in the system. For example, Ralph is quick to point out that J.B. Bukauskas, Cionel Perez, and Framber Valdez rely more on their 2-seam fastball than their 4-seamer. But as Ralph shows us notes throughout his organizational overview, the Astros definitely have a type.
When I discussed this idea with 2080 Baseball’s Pro-Side Senior Evaluator John Eshleman, he pointed out that the Astros are not alone in loving spin rate. While they might have been the earliest adopting franchise, John points out that every scout is watching how good a pitcher is at spinning the ball. However, after watching several Astros starting pitcher prospects this season (Forrest Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas, Trent Thornton), John picked up on something else. The Astros SP prospects were using their secondaries a lot, and they were mixing in the spin early in the count.
We’d need something akin to the data collected by the MLB GameDay App at the minor league level to evaluate this further. Unfortunately, that data is not publicly available at the minor league level. I’m sure the MLB franchises have access to it. If they could track Forrest Whitley’s fastball RPM via radar at a high school showcase back in 2015, I’m sure they have pitch charting data.
However, we do have Baseball Savant, an invaluable tool created by Daren Willman to track MLB Statcast data. I’m going to use Baseball Savant to look at Justin Verlander’s final start of the regular season on September 29th against Baltimore. JV went 6 innings, striking out 10, walking 1, and scattering 3 hits in a no-decision. Here’s every pitch that JV threw in early counts (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1,) in that matchup:
In 0-0 counts, JV threw 14 four-seam fastballs against 6 sliders and 1 curveball that he skipped in. Of note, the four-seamers are generally up in the zone (I’ve got to assume that the two four-seamers down in the zone were misses, but of course they were still thrown for strikes). JV’s focusing on getting ahead in the count (he only faced two 2-0 counts and one 3-0 count in this particular start), but he’s also setting up his plan of attack by establishing the four-seamer up and throwing the slider frequently to start an AB with.
JV didn’t get behind in the count much (only seven 1-0 counts), but when he did, he still used a near equal mix of fastballs (4) and offspeed pitches (3). He worked the four-seamer further down in the zone in the 1-0 count.
Working ahead in the count, JV threw 8 fastballs against 6 offspeed pitches. We can see him using the curveball more frequently in this count as opposed to the other early counts we’ve looked at, keeping hitters off balance. He’s also throwing the fastball to his arm side.
In 1-1 counts, JV threw 5 offspeed pitches against 3 fastballs. Again, he’s showing that, early in the count, he’s not afraid to throw tons of spin at his opponents.
So in these four early counts, JV threw 29 four-seam fastballs (59.2%) against 20 offspeed pitches (40.8%). In 2018 as a whole, he threw 61.2% fastballs. Meaning that, in at least this particular outing, JV is sequencing his arsenal out evenly across pitch counts. In other words, he’s as likely to bury a slider on you at 1-1 as he is to go up the ladder with a 95 mph 4-seamer.
And just for fun, here were Verlander’s 10 strikeouts that day:
2 Four-seam fastballs swinging (Up out of the zone, Up in zone)
1 Four-seam fastball looking (Down in zone)
1 Curveball looking (Up in zone)
3 Curveballs swinging (Middle of the zone, Out of the zone, Out of the zone)
3 Sliders swinging (Up in zone, Down in zone, buried out of zone)
So it appears that what’s working for the Astros organization at the MLB level is also working for the Astros organization across multiple MiLB levels. And the Astros MLB pitching staff had a historically great 2018. So with the success that their pitching prospects had in 2018, the question becomes: could their MLB staff be even better in the near future?