Going Deep: Inside the Rays’ and Astros’ Quiet But Compelling Deadline Adds
The trade deadline has come and gone, and we’re officially in the stretch run for the 2019 season. Buyers, sellers, and stand-patters each have announced themselves through their actions. As observers, we’re left to sift through all the moves, perhaps seeking to declare winners and losers as we deem organizations either savvy or aloof. Making such proclamations is tempting, but we might be better served in the grand scheme of our baseball fiending if we instead consider the curious; the names that are moving to new locales but aren’t quite the ones who have been stealing headlines.
After all, their new clubs acquired them for a specific reason: They think they’re better with them than without. And it may all come down to having determined something going on under the hood that could be worth amplifying.
At first glance, the Rays may seem like a weird fit for Trevor Richards. His stuff is middling, playing off a fastball that averages less than 92 mph. His peripherals are not only crummy, but trending in the wrong direction: His strikeout rate, walk rate, and every single ERA indicator are all worse this year compared to last when he was a league-average starter as a rookie. He’s barely 26. This regression is happening while he’s added a new wrinkle to his game by way of a cutter, too. At a glance, it might be easy to write him off.
And yet, those very reasons are probably why he’s appealing to Tampa Bay. For one thing, they currently only have three healthy traditional starting pitchers on their roster in Charlie Morton, Yonny Chirinos, and Brendan McKay. Having another provides more stability while still running out a whole bunch of funk to the mound. For another, and maybe more importantly, they have the league’s best pitching staff by a considerable margin, and they’ve done it by being distinctly unique. They throw lots of splitters and two-seamers and all to unexpected parts of the zone. The group has so many wrinkles that if they were a shirt you picked out of the closet, you wouldn’t even try to iron it; you’d just put it back and choose something different.
|Pitch||% Thrown||CSW||Lg Avg CSW|
Richards relies on his four-seamer and changeup a ton, to the point where they account for more than 80% of his pitches. They’re each solidly above average. But his other offerings are not, ranging from well below average to just flat-out bad. This is where it gets interesting. The Rays are in the bottom five in fastballs thrown, but top 10 in changeups. They’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to cutters and top 10 again in curveballs. The shapes of his pitches, as detailed by Lance Brozdowski here, are loose with an emphasis on side-to-side movement. Tampa Bay makes its hay on developing these kinds of players, and this seems like a perfect area to do just that for Richards.
Given that his cutter seems to be more developed than his curveball, which makes sense given the path of such a pitch more closely mirrors the way he already works, Tampa might be looking to sharpen it up even further and convince him to just drop the poor old Uncle Charlie for now. Doing that in an effort to have a useful third pitch that could help extend the strike zone could see Richards take a step forward while providing the Rays with another weapon on the mound.
“Astros Acquire Pitcher With High Spin Breaking Ball.” Sound familiar? It should — this is what Houston did when signing Charlie Morton in 2016. It’s what they did when acquiring Justin Verlander amidst their 2017 playoff push. It’s what they did when acquiring Gerrit Cole in the winter of 2018. It’s what they did when they traded for Ryan Pressly around last year’s trade deadline. Are you sensing a pattern here? That the Astros have a type?
|Player||Avg CU Spin Rate (rpm)||% Thrown|
Each of those guys averages at least roughly 300 RPM more than average on their curveballs. We’re looking at curveballs here because we’re more confident that the spin matters on those as opposed to sliders since the movement of the pitch is generally more consistently vertical. The more spin on a curveball, the more drop it’s likely to have, so long as the spin is efficient. And with how the Astros have worked with pitchers before, it’s fair to say that they know how to help a guy be as efficient as possible. It’s a main ingredient in their secret sauce.
|Player||Avg CU Spin Rate (rpm)||% Thrown|
The Astros appear to be at it again, plain and simple. For Biagini, we could see a considerable bump in the offering, as well as a different location for it. To this point in the season, he’s placed it awkwardly up in the zone on the glove side. The spin he gets on it would probably be better served if he were spiking it toward the ground. Hitters may chase it more than one would expect because hitters naturally have a harder time tracking vertical movement and the barrel of the bat has less area when moving in that direction.
Each of them could also benefit from finding something else with which to sequence their curveballs. Per Baseball Prospectus, the pitch they most often pair with their curveballs is their two-seamers. These are pitches that move through different planes of the plate and that generally beget different results because of contrasting intentions. If the curve has a better partner, Biagini and Sanchez could see better results.
Two of baseball’s more creative teams acquired compelling names at this year’s deadline, even if they are more under the radar. Given their track records, we can expect that the Rays and Astros already have a plan for how to help their newest members contribute. Now it’s just a question of how quickly those plans will make an impact.