The Astros Begin the Long Climb

Between free agent signings, trades, and the non-tender deadline, this past week was ridiculously busy for major league clubs. Surprisingly, the Houston Astros joined the fun by trading for Dexter Fowler and signing Scott Feldman. Jeff Sullivan already discussed the Fowler trade, so we’ll focus on the Feldman signing and what the pair of moves mean for the Astros.

Feldman’s three-year, $30 million deal (unconfirmed) is a nice upgrade from the one-year, $6 million contract he signed with the Chicago Cubs last season. Advanced estimators like FIP and xFIP consider Feldman to have been steady between 2012 and 2013, but his ERA improved from 5.09 to 3.86.  By posting an ERA that matched his peripherals, Feldman earned the opportunity for a multi-year contract.

He split 2013 between the Cubs and Baltimore Orioles and made 15 starts for both clubs. Feldman’s best skill is his ability to generate ground balls, which he did on 49.6 percent of balls in play last season. His repertoire isn’t particularly deep. It consists of a sinker, cut fastball, and curveball that he uses in equal proportion along with a very occasional change-up. He generally mixes his pitches in all counts, but he throws more sinkers to righties and likes to attack lefties with the cutter when he falls behind in the count.

Feldman has never been mistaken for a flamethrower, but his average velocity dropped nearly two mph from 2012 to 2013 (91.7 to 89.9 mph). His velocity also declined over the course of the season as shown in the chart below. Such declines can sometimes signal an injury and usually correlate with weaker performance.

Feldman velo

One popular theory is that Feldman was lucky last season. After years of clinging to a roster spot in Texas, Feldman was able to post the best ERA of his career. He did benefit from a low .258 BABIP in 2013. This is an area where he has proven to be inconsistent. Last season’s mark was a career low and he’s ranged as high as a .327 BABIP in a season (2010). The low BABIP doesn’t show up in his full season FIP since he also posted a low 69.4 left on base percentage (LOB%).

He’s struggled with stranding base runners throughout his career, having posted only one season with a league average LOB%. His career 67.5 LOB% indicates that he may have a problem working out of the stretch. His splits with runners on base are inconsistent. There was no evidence in last season’s numbers to suggest that he struggles with runners on base, but his career numbers do show a lower strikeout rate and elevated walk rate.

We should expect his BABIP to rise in 2014, but that doesn’t mean his ERA will follow. Steamer and Oliver – two projection systems currently available on FanGraphs player pages – project a 3.99 FIP for Feldman. Oliver projects a 3.62 ERA while Steamer expects a 4.32 ERA. The difference is mainly that Oliver estimates a league average LOB% while Steamer uses a figure that is close to Feldman’s career average LOB%. As such, an ERA between 3.62 and 4.32 seems like a good range of expectations. That’s a range of about 1.5 to 2.5 WAR. Since wins appear to cost around $6.5 million this offseason, the Astros investment smells reasonable.

Feldman will fill the void in the rotation left by the departure of Jordan Lyles in the Fowler trade. Depending on whether you prefer to calculate WAR by FIP or ERA, Feldman represents a roughly 1.5 to 3.5 win upgrade for the Astros rotation. That also assumes that Lyles won’t improve in 2014.

Those additional wins aren’t going to propel the Astros to the playoffs – they’ll need to add at least a handful of similar upgrades before they can have even the tiniest bit of hope for a postseason berth. But the addition of Feldman and Fowler is a step in the right direction for the Astros.

Houston has gone three consecutive seasons without winning more than 60 games. Despite a fairly substantial marketplace, the Astros drew only 1.65 million fans last season, which ranks them between such small market clubs as the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. As recently as 2011, the Astros drew over 2 million fans and they eclipsed 3 million tickets sold back in 2007. Winning could also help with their ongoing issues with CSN Houston. In other words, the Houston market has potential if the club can field an interesting product.

That starts with dynamic, athletic talents like Fowler and starting pitchers who can keep the offense in the game like Feldman. If those two players can stay healthy, the Astros have a good chance to win over 60 games. That sounds like nothing, but given the breadth of young, unproven talent in the organization, it will only take a few breakout performances to get to 70 wins. Then everybody is talking about the up-and-coming Astros who have all the young talent and payroll flexibility necessary to bolster the club. That’s a compelling story to sell to fans and free agents alike.

Granted, that story is propped up on a couple “ifs” and a handful of wishes. While it isn’t outlandish to suggest that the Astros could win 70 games with a little luck, it’s definitely taking the over on the Vegas line. Fowler and Feldman have their share of warts and either or both acquisitions could backfire on the Astros and leave the franchise over $37 million poorer.

Still, a positive feedback loop has to start somewhere. The Seattle Mariners just spent $240 million on Robinson Cano to kick start their feedback loop. A few years back, the Washington Nationals spent $126 million on Jayson Werth for the same purpose. The Astros aren’t in the same place as those clubs, so they aren’t ready for that kind of  massive investment. But if Feldman and Fowler work out, they could be there soon. It’s a calculated risk.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, RotoWorld, and Rotoballer. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

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