Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Ghosts of Astros Past: the Lucas Harrell Edition

The Astros are in a rebuild.  The phase that they are currently in is one where roster spots are at a premium, while they are tasked with sorting through which players are legitimate Major Leaguers, and which players aren't going to make it.  What they can't afford to do is let talent seep out of the organisation, which is inevitable when roster crunches occur.  So lets have a quick look at some taken which has recently left the Astros organisation.  Today is....

Lucas Harrell

As we open a home-and-home series against our "Natural Rivals", the Arizona Diamondbacks, lets look at what Lucas is doing with the D-Bax organisation.  Remember that he was traded for a bag of balls back in April, after clearing waivers and being sent to AAA.  He had three awful 2014 starts for the Astros in the majors, which resulted in a 9.49 ERA.

Remember the knock on Lucas as he exited the organisation was about how he was not exactly a strikeout pitcher, and when he fell behind in the count, he had to come in to the zone, where he got pounded.  Compared to his excellent 2012, his starts in 2013 and 2014 involved lower strikeout rates, higher walk rates, and much higher home run rates.  His BABIP's have always been a little high, but that is what happens when you give up so much hard contact.

Once a part of the Diamondbacks, Lucas was sent to pitch for the Reno Aces.  They play in a ballpark with a bit of altitude (don't read that as "attitude") at 4,500ft, just 750ft short of the altitude in Denver.  Unsurprisingly, it is a big ballpark, measuring circa 340ft down the lines, 401ft in centre, and (at it's deepest) 424ft in right-centre.  There is something called a "mini green monster" in left field, which is a low green outfield wall, presumably to .

There is some discussion about whether Reno's ballpark inflates offensive numbers, and by how much.  The linked article comments that it "inflates home run numbers less that you would expect".  My guess (if I were asked to make one) is that altitude seems to definitely assist with batters making hard contact and sometimes makes the ball fly further.  Most good "altitude" players seem to exhibit gaudy batting averages, but only some hit more home runs.

How is this relevant to Lucas?  Well, I kind of think he already gives up lots of hard contact, so can a move to a ballpark at altitude worsen this??  Much of his hard contact is in the form of line drives or along the grounds, although when flyballs are hit, they did seem to leave the yard a surprising amount of time.  I guess, if I were to make an educated guess, Lucas would continue to give up hard contact and high BABIP's, but perhaps not really more home runs.  A drop in level to AAA would serve to worsen this.

So lets look at what he has actually done.  He has thrown 44 innings, in eight appearances, all starts. He is 3-0, and has a 3.89 ERA.  Who knows how good that is in AAA, at altitude, but it seems reasonable to look deeper into the numbers (and remember, we are only talking about 44 innings in AAA and 12.1 innings in the Majors in 2014, so standard SSS warning).

His strikeout rate has actually worsened from his short 2014 stint in Houston (5.32 versus 6.57 K/9) as is, more importantly, sits at a whole K/9 less than his stellar 2012 campaign.  That could be the effect of altitude, as fewer the ball moves and sinks less when the air is thin.  His walk rate has improved significantly (5.52 versus 6.57 BB/9 in 2014 Houston), but, again, is significantly worse than his 2012 campaign (3.62 BB/9).  What has changed is the home run rate (0.61 HR/9 in Reno, 1.46 HR/9 in 2014 Houston, 0.60 HR/9 in 2012 Houston).

Noteably, his BABIP (much like his home run rate) was unsustainably elevated in Houston (.370) in 2014, but has improved in Reno (.314), but is still a little high.  In 2012, it was .289. 

His FIP is essentially unchanged when comparing the 2014 scores (5.92 in Houston, 5.34 in Reno), and much worse than in 2012 (3.76).

So, what can we learn from this??  Nothing, really, except to say that Lucas has not suddenly regained 2012 form.  He has improved over his 2014 Houston starts, but it could hardly get worse.  He remains not as good as he was in 2012 - he is still striking fewer people out, walking more, and probably giving up a lot of hard contact.  He is playing a whole level lower that what he was in 2012, but the altitude also throws a bit of a spanner in the works.

Have the Astros made a mistake in cutting him??  Not at this juncture.