Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Evaluating the starting pitching market

As July 31st draws near, the Astros (62-31) are cruising towards their first division championship in 16 years, and are flashing the deepest, most complete lineup in all of baseball.

It's clear as the team begins their second-half trek that they don't need to make any moves to help them in the regular season; they need to make moves to help in the postseason.

Much like the 1998 Astros and their shot across the National League's bow when they acquired Randy Johnson at the deadline despite a huge divisional lead, the Astros are working the phones (and probably e-mail and texts as well since technological advances have been made since '98) in an effort to bulk up for the postseason.

We've been hearing the same names since the Winter Meetings in November. Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, Jeff Samardzija, and Justin Verlander. Even Jacob DeGrom's name has been dropped in a few unsubstantiated rumors.

After last week's shocker sending Quintana from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side, the Astros and everyone else have been put on notice. The demands are only going to get more outlandish as teams work to outbid one another for those final pieces in these final two weeks before the deadline.

The Astros' needs have remained the same since the Winter: top-of-the-line starting pitching and left-handed relief.

What has changed for Houston, however, is their ability to fine-tune their needs. They don't need to go big-name hunting. They can add filters to their search, looking for guys who are not just successful, but successful against certain teams, in certain situations, and in certain environments.

As it stands, the road to the World Series in the American League will go through Houston, but those challengers, if the season ended today, consist of Boston, Cleveland, the Rays, and the Yankees. The National League looks like it's all Dodgers at this point, but we won't worry about them for now.

For now, let's look at these names being bandied about the rumor mill and see if any of them actually handle our four other AL foes, or if they're the ones getting handled.

(As a disclaimer, I'm not including Jacob DeGrom as I don't really believe he's on the market. I'd take him though!)

Let's start with Sonny Gray.

While 2017 has been a resurgent year for Sonny, his history against the AL's four other playoff suitors leaves a little to be desired.

He's done alright against Cleveland in seven career starts, going 3-2 with a 3.43 ERA in 42.0 IP, but he has struggled to varying degrees against everyone else. He's been tuned up to a 5.16 ERA in four career starts against Boston, going 1-2 overall. No team has hit more home runs off of Gray than the Tampa Bay Rays (9), but he's been about league average against them in eight career starts, going 2-2 with a 4.07 ERA. The WHIP is high (1.336) and the IP are pretty low for a guy with eight career starts against a team (48.2). That tells me that he doesn't last long against them, and he's prone to big mistakes. Finally, the Yankees. In five career starts against the Bronx Bombers, Gray has gone 1-2 with a 4.55 ERA. He's given up just one home run in 29.2 IP and his SO/9 rate has stayed at his career levels. That's where the good stuff ends though. His SO/BB ratio is a paltry 2.00, his WHIP is at 1.483 (his highest against any single opponent), and his whole track record against the Yanks signals a guy who can't seem to get enough guys out. He goes deep into too many counts, skirts the line between bending and breaking all game long, and generally works out to, again, a league average pitcher. Maybe slightly lower.

Perhaps these numbers are too broad for Gray, and we should look closer at this season alone. He's made two starts against Cleveland this season. Here's how he fared.

May 30, at CLE: L, 4.2 IP, 7 R, 7 ER, 9 H, 2 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR
July 14, vs. CLE: W, 6.0 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 5 SO

...and Boston

May 18, vs. BOS: W, 6.0 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 H, 2 BB, 8 SO, 1 HR

...and Tampa Bay

June 10, at TBR: L, 6.0 IP, 5 R, 2 ER, 9 H, 1 BB, 10 SO

...and the Yanks

June 15, vs. NYY: ND, 5.1 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 8 H, 3 BB, 6 SO

It's tough with such a small sample size to determine what he is and what he isn't. His most recent outing, July 14 against Cleveland, was a six inning masterpiece. Cleveland's also responsible for his worst, and shortest, start of the year.

Gray's stock has risen steadily since his season low point on May 30th, when he was 2-3 with a 4.84 ERA. As of his July 14th start, Gray stands at 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA. He's done that by knocking down quality starts and maximizing his efficiency. His worst start, by far, since May 30th was his June 20th start against the Astros, when he gave up five earned runs, all in the first inning. He still worked five innings.

Suggestion: I wouldn't pass outright on Sonny Gray, but I wouldn't sell the farm for him either. No way I'd deal Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, or Forrest Whitley for him. But a package of Joe Musgrove, Teoscar Hernandez, and Cionel Perez, plus perhaps a fringe prospect would be a comfortable deal.

Let's move onto Justin Verlander.

Last year's Cy Young Award runner-up is looking every bit like a 34 year-old in decline. After 19 starts for the lowly Tigers, Verlander is 5-7 with a 4.66 ERA. As for peripherals, it's all bad. Strikeouts are down, walks are up. WHIP, FIP, hits and homer run rates are all up very near or exceeding previous career highs, and his ERA+ is a sullen 94.

He's due $28 million each of the next two seasons, and has a $22 million option for 2020 that kicks in automatically if he finishes in the top-five in Cy Young voting in 2019. That would be his age 37 season. Essentially, you could be paying $78 million over the next three years for a guy who already sucks this bad.

Verlander could still prove to be a serviceable piece if his motivation were naturally higher, playing for a contender in October. I don't think anyone would argue that. But his contract, and Detroit's reported reluctance to include any money in a potential Verlander deal (though they now say they might be willing to include some) coupled with a high asking price for their franchise icon makes any deal almost untenable.

Oh, and Verlander has a full no-trade clause. Can you imagine if some hot-shot veteran passed on a chance to play with Houston, opting for a deal to some lesser franchise because he thought this crazy rebuild was just some fluke thing? That would be batshit crazy.

Also, Verlander's 11-year career has yielded only average results against our four AL contenders. 20-24 against Cleveland, 6-7 against the Yankees, 8-3 against Tampa, and 5-5 against Boston.

Suggestion: PASS.

Next up: Jeff Samardzija.

So here's the thing about the Shark... I'd pull the trigger on this trade in a New York minute.

Let's put aside, for a moment, the reality of his 4-11 record and 4.86 ERA that he's accrued in the second year of a five-year/$90 million contract. Let's also set aside, for a moment, the fact that his career-high for wins in a season is 12, which he hit last year for the Giants (12-11).

Lastly, let's try to look past the fact that, in his tenth major league season, his career record is 63-83 with a 4.12 ERA.

There alone lies enough facts being ignored, you'd think you were on the cast of Fox & Friends, but there's more to Samardzija than meets the eye.

He absolutely is not the sexy pick for a contender cruising towards October, but he fits the bill for what the Astros need - a healthy, competitive, innings-eating starter who, over the course of the last two months of the regular season, can give the bullpen the kind of break it doesn't usually see from the back end of the rotation.

To date, Samardzija is boasting a career-best 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and an MLB-best SO/BB ratio of 9.64. He's also leading the league in fewest walks allowed per nine, with a miniscule 1.0 walks allowed per nine. In 19 starts this season, he's walked only 14 batters. At 124.0 IP thus far, he's well on his way to another 200+ IP season, which would be his fifth.

The Astros are set with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers at 1-2 in the rotation. Brad Peacock and Mike Fiers have been great most of the season, and Collin McHugh is due back this weekend. The presence of Samardzija allows the Astros to move pieces around - Fiers or Peacock to the bullpen for long relief, spelling guys like Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz, and relieving pressure from shorter-term guys like Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, and Ken Giles.

When it comes to building up your roster for October, you want to make sure you've got guys in the rotation who you can depend on to work deep into games, making life for your relievers a lot less strenuous. While Samardzija won't always make it pretty, he's a quality start waiting to happen. That will be an enormous help come late September.

Samardzija's luck has been rotten this season, but he has shown the natural ability he's always had to work quickly and get guys out. Batters are hitting .072 (10x139) when falling behind 0-2 in the count to Samardzija this season. With a vastly superior defense behind him, a pennant race raging, and his peripherals all largely within his career range, an acquisition would likely not only be relatively cheap, but also a matter of low risk/high reward.

Samardzija also has the disctinction of having spent time in both leagues, earning great career marks against Tampa Bay and Cleveland, while being kicked in the teeth by both Boston and the Yankees. He's pitched considerably well against the Dodgers in his career, and his postseason track record is nearly non-existent.

Suggestion: If the Astros absorb a good deal of his remaining contract, they won't need to send much of anything back to San Fran beyond salary relief and a couple fringe prospects at best. Do it!

Barring any schedule setbacks, I'll be back tomorrow with a relievers market analysis. And candy. I will bring candy.