The Most Interesting New Houston Astro

The Astros’ 2015 season ended because of a total bullpen meltdown. Before that, the bullpen had been fairly steady, but the Astros made damn sure there wouldn’t be a repeat. And so, last year, the Astros led all of major-league baseball in bullpen WAR. They finished fourth in bullpen WPA, and they project to be strong as a unit once again. There’s Michael Feliz, coming off an FIP- of 76. Luke Gregerson is coming off an FIP- of 70. Ken Giles finished last year at 62. Will Harris finished last year at 55. Even Christopher Devenski finished last year at 55, having thrown maybe the quietest 100-odd excellent innings I can recall. And then, as you read down the depth chart, you come across the name James Hoyt. Let me tell you about James Hoyt.

Hoyt is 30 years old, and only last year did he make his big-league debut. That usually isn’t a promising sign. Hoyt came to the Astros from the Braves in the Evan Gattis trade, and you’ll remember that Gattis has an incredible backstory, involving rehab, depression, going undrafted, and being a janitor. When Gattis was first emerging, consensus was that he was one of the best stories in the game. Now, I don’t know if Hoyt’s story is as good as his teammate’s. To my knowledge, Hoyt has never been an inpatient in a psychiatric facility. But in the deal, there were two amazing stories packaged together. And Hoyt might now be on the verge of making a name for himself.

If you want the big history, read Evan Drellich. Or, read Bryant-Jon Anteola. I have to go through this part kind of quickly. Hoyt played baseball in high school, but he wasn’t so much into it. He was more of a basketball guy, but Bill Buckner(!) got him to focus, and helped him go play for Palomar College in California. From there, Hoyt transferred to Centenary College of Louisiana. That college has produced eight major-league players in its history, Hoyt included. But Hoyt wasn’t a standout there as a player, and he had issues with his health, so he went undrafted. He returned to California to work on boats, which he did for two years.

A friend got him back into baseball when he asked Hoyt to help with some high-schoolers. That led to an independent-league tryout, and Hoyt spent 2011 with the Yuma Scorpions, playing alongside Tony Phillips and the Canseco brothers. The next year, the club folded, so Hoyt went to play in Texas, and then Kansas. That got him the attention of a Mexican team, and that got him the attention of the Braves, who gave Hoyt his first affiliated contract. He opened 2013 with the Lynchburg Hillcats, being three years older than his average teammate.

You already know the end, at least so far. Hoyt climbed his way to the major leagues. In the minors he worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen, and he put up a combined ERA of 3.15, with more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings. This is the other part of it. From a human-interest perspective, Hoyt’s is a fascinating case. And leaving the human-interest stuff aside, just statistically, Hoyt is no less fascinating. Hoyt turned 30 years old last September, and that capped off what was effectively a breakthrough campaign.

Here’s a plot of what Hoyt has done over his four years in the minors and majors:

At first, Hoyt got some grounders, but they went away, before returning with a vengeance. And the other line shows steady upward progress. Hoyt, last season, became a strikeout machine, and here’s last year’s Triple-A top-10 in K-BB% setting an arbitrary minimum of 40 innings.

Top Triple-A K-BB%, 2016
Name K-BB%
James Hoyt 34.9%
Jose De Leon 26.6%
Giovanny Gallegos 25.3%
Preston Guilmet 25.0%
Armando Rivero 24.9%
Josh Smoker 24.9%
Julio Urias 24.4%
Brock Stewart 24.4%
Noe Ramirez 24.3%
Pat Venditte 24.2%

Hoyt’s in first place by a mile. I know he came to the majors and gave up some home runs, but he didn’t have that problem in Triple-A, where he spent far more time. And, I mean, Hoyt was already hard to hit. In 2015, as a reliever with Fresno, he allowed a contact rate of 69%, seven points better than the league average. In 2016, as a reliever with Fresno, he allowed a contact rate of 54%, 22 points better than the league average. Very nearly half of all the swing attempts missed. That’s nothing short of being a statistical absurdity.

We have 15 years of big-league data on FanGraphs. The lowest single-season contact rate is 51%, belonging to 2004 Brad Lidge. The runner-up rate is 56%, belonging to 2003 Eric Gagne. And on this other spreadsheet, I’m looking at a full decade of Triple-A data, and the only contact rate lower than Hoyt’s belongs to 2014 Henry Rodriguez, when he simultaneously walked the world. Hoyt’s whiff rate was extreme, against some of the best hitters in the world. He wasn’t close to that good in the bigs, yet he remained tough to hit. And you could excuse a few jitters.

Hoyt stands 6’5, so he looks like a pitcher. His fastball gets into the mid-90s, so he certainly has arm strength. Like so many other righty relievers, he got by for a while with a fastball/slider combination, but the difference last year was the addition of a splitter. So Hoyt became a three-pitch reliever, and Triple-A opponents didn’t know what to do with that. Mostly, they swung and struck out. Here’s Hoyt using the splitter to strike out a Triple-A hitter who’s now supposed to be a major-league hitter.

The other stuff, also, is good. The fastball:

The slider:

Hoyt looked like he could be a big-league reliever before the splitter took shape. Even back then, he was a decent bullpen prospect, if older than most. Last year’s Triple-A performance with the splitter was downright extraordinary, and although there were a few major-league dingers, there were also 31% strikeouts. And Hoyt used the splitter just once per 13 big-league pitches, which didn’t show too much confidence. For the year ahead, Hoyt could pitch the way he did with Fresno. He’s made it, now, and he’s gained his initial experience. The numbers already prove that he belongs.

I’m not sure how good James Hoyt can be. I’m not sure how good James Hoyt will be, and as a member of a deep Astros bullpen, he faces plenty of competition for high-leverage innings. There is, absolutely, a difference between dominating Triple-A hitters and dominating major-league hitters, and Hoyt has that much more to show. But then, just last year, Grant Dayton translated this kind of dominance over to the Dodgers. At a certain point, numbers are simply too overwhelming to be fraudulent. At least as a major-league pitcher, James Hoyt is the real deal, just years after being a guy cleaning boats. Houston’s seems to be an atypically inspiring clubhouse.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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