Jose Veras signed with the Astros. Dude’s 32 and has a career walk rate around five per nine. His career swinging-strike rate is below average. Why does he deserve a post again?
Opportunity. Opportunity and reliability.
The Astros traded away Wilton Lopez, who was their best reliever in a bullpen that scored below the league average in strikeout rate, walk rate, ERA, FIP and xFIP. A bad pen lost its best wheel, and by WAR, just designated their third-best reliever for assignment (Mickey Storey, who was already picked up by the Yankees and may get picked up again despite his lack of a fastball). That doesn’t leave much competition for the newcomer.
Wesley Wright came second in WAR on the team, and he’s been showing the ability to combine strikeouts and ground balls for two years now. He does it with a 90 mph fastball and a slider and that rates as a positive most years by pitch-type linear weights (and a show-me curve). But the lefty has a terrible platoon split, and it’s persevered long enough that it looks real. He’s never had an FIP against lefties that was over 3.17, and he’s never had an FIP against righties that was under 4.19. His strikeout rate tanks and his walk rate balloons.
Despite an ERA over four, Hector Ambriz rode a double-digit strikeout rate and a decent ground-ball rate into 19 above-replacement innings. He might have control problems, but his swinging strike rate on 1160 pitches so far is well above average (9.7%), so maybe the strikeouts are real. Gas (93+ mph), slider, curveball… maybe this 28-year-old is a dark horse for the Houston closer role in 2013.
The only other above-replacement reliever on the Astros last year was Xavier Cedeno. The failed starter didn’t have closer’s gas (89 mph fastball), and relied on throwing his curveball a whopping 43% of the time last year. That doesn’t profile like a closer. Fernando Abad might be okay if he could stop giving up home runs, but he can’t stop giving up home runs, at least not recently. And he’s gone anyway. Who’s even on this team any more. As for prospects coming up, Jarred Cosart is going to get every chance to start, considering this team needs starters more than relievers. Ditto really for the rest of their prospect arms.
So into this void steps Jose Veras, flawed reliever. He has a bad career walk rate (4.91 BB/9, 12.6% BB), and he’s a fly-ball guy (39.4% career ground balls) that has had some issues with the long ball over his career. He’s never had a first-strike percentage that was even close to the league rate, and that stat is mostly closely tied to walk rate — but you could read that two ways. Either he can be fixed, by an attention to that first pitch, or he is who he is. Given the fact that it’s gone on for so long, the guess here is that change is unlikely at this point. Those flaws are why he was available, I’d guess.
What he has done over the last three years, remarkably, is strikeout batters at a double-digit rate (or 26+%). That rate is 15th in baseball since the beginning of the 2010 season, and it’s held steady. Maybe he’s done it by using the curve ball more than ever — his usage of the pitch over the last two years is about ten percent higher than it ever was before. He’s certainly throwing his 94 mph fastball less and less as he goes on.
Reliable strikeouts with an opportunity given by a mediocre bullpen might result in Veras getting some saves on the cheap next season, even with a few too many walks and dingers. And if the team can help him on his first-strike approach, there’s even a sliver of upside beyond that.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.