Astros made some solid, although not sexy, moves towards building a pitching staff.
Last week the Astros added Scott Feldman and Chad Qualls to their pitching arsenal, and I’m going to take some time to discuss the players added, as well as what Jeff Luhnow might be thinking at this point.
Feldman came up to the big leagues in the Ranger’s organization (off to a bad start) in 2005. He didn’t contribute more than 40 innings pitched until 2008 when he started 25 games for the Rangers (151.1 IP). He struggled to maintain the success he had experienced in the minors and his strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) dropped from the 7s to 4.4 while his walks per nine innings stayed in the 3s. He had a 5.29 ERA that year and his peripherals reinforced that this was no statistical fluke, as his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) actually ended up being a little bit higher at 5.35.
I bring this up because at this time in his career, Feldman was almost exclusively a fastball/slider pitcher. As he grew up and adjusted to major league batters he began to completely change his approach. He went from throwing 56% fastballs in 2009, to throwing just 17.4% in 2010. So you ask, what did he replace them with? Realizing the virtues of groundballs, he leaned heavily on his recently acquired sinker (35.8%) and then also added a cutter (14.6%). Since then the trend has continued and Feldman now almost exclusively throws cutters (31%), sinkers (31%), and curveballs (28%). His curveball and cutter are both far above average.
I expected that this would inherently raise his ground ball rate each year but curiously it has stayed about the same until recently, despite Feldman being a more successful pitcher than he was as a youngster.
2009 was actually considered his breakout year but he again fell on his face during the 2010 season. Obviously there are a lot of reasons that could go into this but my theory is that Feldman was in the transitional phase of reinventing himself as a pitcher. He was effectively throwing 4 pitches instead of just throwing his fastball more than half of the time and I imagine it took a while for batters to adjust. Once the scouting caught up to him, he struggled.
2011 was a shortened season for Feldman but he came back strong in 2012 and 2013 for the Rangers, Cubs and Orioles. His high ERA (5.09) and poor W-L record (6-11) in 2012 doesn’t nearly tell the whole story. Most of his peripheral stats actually were the best of his career so I’m willing to bet Jeff Luhnow doesn’t look at that as a negative.
As a side note, if you use W-L record as a way to justify a pitching argument, just know that you are losing.
Feldman finished the 2013 campaign with 181 innings pitched and a stout groundball rate of 50%. The peripherals stayed solid and that led to his impressive standard ERA of 3.86.
Ignoring the injury problems (which I know is hard to do) the last two years bring nothing but optimism for how Scott Feldman will perform in an Astros uniform. The market for starting pitchers is borderline obscene so 3 years at $30 million dollars does actually seem pretty fair for both sides. He isn’t one of the major free agents but we get a top of the rotation guy in free agency and we didn’t have to give up a draft pick so I’m pretty happy with it.
THE PRODIGAL SON RETURNS! Alright so he wasn’t that big a deal but it’s pretty cool to see Chad Qualls back in the brick and bla…err…blue and orange. Chad was part of the Astros devastating bullpen during the World Series run and the last years that we actually had a major league team. Qualls would handle the 7th inning, Wheeler would handle the 8th, and Lights Out Lidge would make three batters look stupid in the 9th. Quite the far cry from Jose Veras, Travis Blackley and Hector Ambriz [holds back vomit]. Anyways what does Chad have in store for us in 2014?
Qualls spent last year with the Miami Marlins and posted some of the best numbers of his major league career. He had a sky high groundball rate of 63% (the ML average is 44%), he bumped his K/9 back up into the 7s, he posted his second lowest HR/9 at .58 and his ERA was 2.61 which also was his lowest. The success does seem to be backed up by peripherals and it could be that Chad Qualls is primed for a few more glory years.
The former Astros farm hand only throws a sinker and a slider and both grade out well above average. He is 35 years old so this might be the last contract he signs but if Qualls continues to produce like last year than he is worth the $6 million dollar 2-year contract that he was given.
Pieces of the Puzzle
It’s always tough to tell exactly what Jeff Luhnow is going to do. He has money left to spend and the only completely obvious goal is to add another bullpen piece. After that I think anything that doesn’t make the Astros forfeit a draft pick is possible. I imagine the free agent names won’t get any sexier than the ones we have seen so far, so if they truly do make a splash it will be through a trade. The free agent market is routinely out of control so I think Luhnow is probably more interested in obtaining major league talent via trade and he knows he has plenty of pieces at his disposal. Our own Yoni Pollak broke down some potential trades that could rock the Astros fan base for sure.
One of his goals has to be to get ABs and IPs for his young players. I would expect a couple utility infielders or outfielders to act as stop gaps for either struggling or injured prospects. Last year the Astros didn’t have much luck when they relied heavily on breakout years from their young players and after all the talk about improvement I doubt he will completely leave it up to his prospects to get it done. So if George Springer, Jonathan Singleton, or Jonathan Villar struggle more than expected, he will have veteran players ready to step in if need be.
Adding Scott Feldman and Chad Qualls are moves that continue to signal that Katniss Luhnow’s revolution is in full swing and that the next few months should be fun to watch unfold on twitter.