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Launching space-age pitching roles in Houston

Why the Astros are best positioned to break from the gravity of traditional pitcher usage.

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

I don’t know how much rummaging around in baseball leaderboards you do. I do quite a bit of it. I ran into a recurring problem, of sorts, while mining 2016’s best pitching performances for fun facts. This guy named Christopher Devenski threw more than 100 innings, so he got lumped in with starter searches built to include Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, despite mostly pitching in relief. Worse, he was near the top of every search.

He pitches for the Astros, if you haven’t made his acquaintance. He throws like this.

He was a 25-year-old rookie last year, brought up to be a swingman type. After 119 23 innings at Double-A in 2015, Devenski threw 108 13 innings in his big league debut, mostly in multi-inning relief appearances, plus five starts.

And, essentially, he used that time to photobomb the best pitchers on the planet.

His FIP barged in at fourth. His ERA wedged itself uncomfortably between Cubs teammates Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester (also fourth). Listing the top 10 swinging-strike rates included Devenski at sixth, and bumped Cole Hamels to 11th. He made every “Rich Hill posted the best HR/9 in the majors!” into “Rich Hill tied with this guy Christopher Devenski for the best HR/9 in the majors!”.

Some of those numbers aren’t built to last, of course. His HR/FB% was unsustainably tiny, but even using xFIP to walk that back, he rated as the 26th-best pitcher with 100+ innings in 2016. His BABIP was low, but actually in-character for the fly-ball pitcher that he is, or at least that he was last year.

Anyway, over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan very recently reminded the world that Devenski was very, very good last year, to almost no acclaim. It’s particularly interesting considering conversation around the Astros this offseason, where “professional hitters” were signed, but the calls for a reliable frontline starter like Jose Quintana went unheeded.

The Astros also possess Joe Musgrove, an actual starter prospect who achieved reasonable success in his first 62 innings of big-league action, and David Paulino, a considerably less seasoned prospect who got a cup of coffee in Houston last season after eviscerating Double-A hitters.

But at the moment, none of them are slated to appear in the Opening Day rotation. Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton will take turns every fifth day behind Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh.

At least a couple of those young pitchers with starting experience will crowd a bullpen that is already stuffed with new-ish, unheralded arms like Michael Feliz and James Hoyt secretly spitting 10 K/9 fire. Someone’s going to end up in the minors.

There was a time when this plan would have set interested observers ablaze. Why are two below-average starters blocking young pitchers with higher ceilings (and perhaps higher floors)? That’s not really a conversation that is happening, though, despite general agreement among the projection systems that Musgrove, for instance, will outpace Fiers and Morton in per-inning results.

Maybe people realize that penciling in a rotation on Opening Day doesn’t lock down assignments or inning counts for the season. Or maybe the rotation features enough injury risk that it’s just assumed a couple more starters will get their shots out of necessity.

Sports Illustrated

But given the Astros’ lofty aspirations, maybe there are, or should be, plans for Devenski and Musgrove and company that aren’t fallbacks for other, less exciting plans.

Let’s talk about incentives. They are the things that motivate people — in our case, people who run baseball teams — to do certain things. October thrilled some portion of our nerd population in part thanks to the circumstances that conspired to create incentives for Indians manager Terry Francona to deploy Andrew Miller at just about any time other than right after the national anthem.

The Marlins and Padres — clubs that happen to employ oddly-shaped pitching staffs featuring excellent hurlers with undefined roles — have already received impassioned and intriguing letters from the baseball writing realm recommending futuristic/unconventional usage patterns.

Which brings us to those incentives. The Padres are going to be terrible, and they know it. The Marlins are almost certainly not good enough to contend in that division, and, well, it’s hard to tell what they know.

Their incentives, whether they would admit it or not, are to a) get through the season without embarrassing the franchise, b) evaluate young talent at the major league level, and c) pump up veterans’ trade values.

Milking extra wins out of their pitching staffs, as fun as it may be, is not as important as making the individual parts look shiny for potential deadline or offseason suitors. Even the young player evaluation portion of the endeavor is perhaps best accomplished in your more typical rotation and bullpen setup, to remove any potential situational discomfort from the equation of a rookie’s performance.

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

For the Astros, on the other hand, a winnowing of Fiers innings and inflation of Devenski innings, particularly in higher leverage moments, could make a significant difference in a tight division or Wild Card race. Let’s brainstorm what that could look like.

  • The tandem start concept: Schedule Devenski and Musgrove for 3+ innings, or at least one trip through the order, on the days where Fiers and Morton start. This could mentally enforce a twice-through-the-order limit for the back-end starters. It also leaves a heavier load for other relievers on the other days of the week, but, as explained, they have enough trustworthy firepower to handle it with Ken Giles, Will Harris, Luke Gregerson and Tony Sipp being joined by either Feliz or Hoyt.
  • The six-man rotation: Perhaps, with Keuchel and McCullers both coming off injury-shortened seasons, Musgrove slots in to slow the play of those high-priority arms. Either he or Fiers could get work out of the bullpen when off days stretch the schedule even further, and Devenski could continue to play a flexible high-stamina fireman role.

These are just thoughts. They are perhaps more complicated solutions than the “problem” demands. Maybe the Astros are a final straw away from kicking the inconsistent Fiers to the bullpen (or the curb) and proceeding with Musgrove!

Baseball has a way of shaving flashy plans back into its well-worn mold through injury and attrition, but even a cursory glance at the projections illustrates what could be gained from considering a course of action that takes Devenski and Musgrove’s contributions seriously.

FanGraphs’ depth charts have Devenski down for 49 innings and Musgrove down for 47, and projects the Astros to get the least value out of their pitchers of any contender this side of the projection-flummoxing Blue Jays.

PECOTA, meanwhile, gives Devenski 82 innings of a 3.52 ERA and Musgrove 92 innings of a 3.88 ERA. In turn, 277 innings of Fiers and Morton becomes 248 (PECOTA also takes a more conservative, and probably more realistic, approach to McCullers’ innings count). That, in part, explains how PECOTA optimistically projects the Astros to allow the fewest runs in the American League.

Projections are projections, of course, and teams have their own systems, with more complete information about players. But, as incentives go, the fear of missing out on valuable young pitching performances for a lack of creativity seems like a pretty strong one.

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Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.