Astros’ Playing Time Battles: Pitchers

The rebirth of the Houston Astros as an elite team likely starts with their position players like Carlos Correa and George Springer, but their pitching staff is pretty excellent in its own right. Led by the 2015 AL Cy Young winner, the Astros have both exceptional top-end talent and depth in both their rotation and bullpen.

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The Rotation

The Astros have a notable feature of being the most committed team to defensive shifting, a strategy that affects their entire staff—not to mention their player acquisition decisions. According to Baseball Info Solutions, over the last two seasons, they have shifted on 2,757 balls in play. That’s nearly 500 more shifts than the No. 2 team, the Rays, and more than a 1,000 more than any other team.

Most Shifts on Balls in Play, 2014-2015
Team Shifts
Astros 2757
Rays 2288
Yankees 1709
Pirates 1631
Orioles 1604

Dallas Keuchel would be a great fit for any team. His 2.48 ERA trailed only David Price in the AL, and his FIP and xFIP were similarly sub-3.00 thanks to an excellent 8.4 strikeouts per nine and an outstanding 2.0 walks per nine. Such that it matters on that positive extreme, Keuchel is the perfect ace for the Astros, in particular. His 61.7 percent groundball rate trailed only Brett Anderson among qualified starters in 2015. It is the perfect approach to take advantage of the Astros’ eagerness to shift, and Keuchel benefited with a .269 batting average on balls in play last season, fifth lowest in the AL. Do not expect Keuchel to regress to a completely league average BABIP. He should continue to be an elite fantasy starter.

Collin McHugh is likely the least heralded 7 WAR pitcher over the last two seasons, but even with his low-90s fastball, there is a lot to like. Over the last three seasons, McHugh has relied less on his fastball—down to 33.6 percent of his pitches in 2015—and more on a slider (38.7 percent) and curveball (23.5 percent). The result has been solid strikeout numbers and ratios. Fantasy owners are undoubtedly concerned by the drop in McHugh’s strikeouts per nine from 9.1 in 2014 to 7.6 in 2015, but his swinging strike rate was much steadier at 11.0 percent in 2014 and 10.3 percent in 2015. Eno Sarris speculated on the culprit of that mismatch; despite an obvious decline in the quality of his four-seamer, it is fair to assume that his strikeout totals should rebound somewhat this season.

After just 32 innings above High-A ball, Lance McCullers joined the Astros rotation in 2015 and was extremely successful. In 125.2 innings, he struck out 9.2 batters and walked 3.1 batters per nine, good for a 3.26 FIP. Thanks to a hard fastball (94.5 mph) and an excellent curveball, McCullers can likely sustain his early-career success. That has made him a justifiably popular target in early fantasy drafts.

I wrote an article last week that detailed why I like Doug Fister to rebound in 2016 with the Astros. The crux of the argument was that his 2015 decline was assisted by poor BABIP fortune on groundballs, something the Astros’ shifting and regression should help improve. There is still a lot of risk to Fister, namely because of the precipitous drop of his average fastball velocity in recent seasons, bottoming out at 86.2 mph in 2015. Meanwhile, even in his peak seasons, Fister exceeded 7.0 strikeouts per nine only once. He’s a deep-league lottery ticket, but if he does rebound as I expect, he could have a major positive impact on your ratios thanks to his career 1.8 walks per nine.

Do not let the 89.4 mph fastball fool you, Mike Fiers is a strikeout pitcher. He has topped 9.0 strikeouts per nine in all three of his healthy major league seasons, a feat he accomplishes by changing speeds and throwing a high percentage of strikes. The often-overlooked Fiers made definite fantasy waves with his 10-strikout no-hitter against the Dodgers last August, but in truth, Fiers’ strikeout and walk numbers over the last two seasons are comparable to pitchers like Tyson Ross and Cole Hamels.

Scott Feldman is more or less Doug Fister with less risk and less upside. His career 47.2 percent groundball rate makes him a nice fit with the Astros, but his career 5.5 strikeouts per nine are too few to make a fantasy impact given that they are not offset by elite command similar to Fister. Feldman will likely fill in for any injured Astros starters, but unless those starts are in particularly favorable matchups in deep formats, you should avoid him in fantasy.

The Astros traded away several pitcher prospects to acquire closer Ken Giles, including Vincent Velazquez, Brett Oberholtzer, and, perhaps most notably, 2013 No. 1 draft pick Mark Appel. That leaves them a little thin in terms of starter prospects close to the majors, but there are a couple of names to keep an eye on. First, Asher Wojciechowski made three starts for the big league team in 2015. Despite his 7.16 ERA in those appearances, he showed decent peripherals. However, Wojciechowski has failed to eclipse 7.0 strikeouts per nine in extended time in Triple-A over the past three seasons. Though perhaps good enough to eventually crack a major league rotation, he is unlikely to crack many fantasy ones.

Michael Feliz has a greater upside. The 22-year-old also made a brief debut with the Astros in 2015, although in a relief role. His long-term future is likely as a starter, and a high-90s fastball and solid strikeout and walk rates in the minors suggest he has the potential to be a good one. The Astros might be a bit too strong in their major league rotation to need Feliz this season, but he is a name to keep an eye on in deep keeper formats.

The Bullpen

The Astros have had a lot of success in recent seasons in turning setup men like Chad Qualls and Luke Gregerson into effective closers. But now that the team has acquired Ken Giles, there is little mystery to how their bullpen will shake out in 2016.

Giles has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. In that time, he falls just short of the top 10 among relievers with 100 or more innings with an outstanding 11.8 strikeouts per nine. His 1.56 ERA trails only Wade Davis and Dellin Betances and his 1.82 FIP trails only Aroldis Chapman and Davis. Meanwhile, Giles has been similarly dominant against both left-handed and right-handed hitters, holding them to a respective .234 and .238 wOBA against in his career. There is no reason to expect Giles to become anything less than one of the most valuable fantasy relievers in 2016.

Should Giles become injured or falter for some reason, the Astros’ 2015 closer Gregerson would likely resume the role. Gregerson was perfectly solid in the role in 2015 with 8.7 strikeouts and 1.5 walks per nine en route to 31 saves in 36 opportunities. The clarity of the Astros’ pecking order makes Gregerson somewhat more attractive as a handcuff in deeper formats, but he does not share the same elite upside as the league’s best setup men like Carter Capps and Betances.



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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Brian
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Brian

Any chance we see Martes this year?

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I would not be surprised at all, considering he is more polished than Mccullers was. He probably is more polished than Feliz as well. There are other names in the mix though, like Joe Musgrove, who is now on the 40 man. The Astros 40 man is getting very crowded, and Feliz and Musgrove are on it.

Peter
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Peter

It’s all up to Martes. They showed with McCullers last year that they won’t shy away from promoting a guy based on lack of AA/AAA innings. If he can get outs in the majors, I’d bet on a promotion.