Astros Begin Bullpen Rebuild, Give Joe Smith Two Years Again

If one organization is repeatedly making headlines during the months of October, November, and December, it’s generally a safe assumption that there is a positive reason for that. Those are the months in which teams are either winning titles, adding major talent, or both. The reasons the Houston Astros have stayed in the news, however, have been consistently terrible. Their assistant GM belittled female reporters. The players cheated. Their world-beating ace left to join the their ALCS opponent. And they’ve considered trading their franchise shortstop in an effort to — stop me if you’ve heard this before — gain payroll flexibility. Since the offseason began, there’s been a lot to talk about when it comes to the Astros, but most of it had nothing to do with actual roster moves that usually get a team attention in the winter.

On Monday, Houston finally changed that. The Astros signed 35-year-old right-hander Joe Smith to a two-year, $8-million contract, giving him a little more than half of the deal they gave him this time two years ago. It’s just the second contract handed out by the team this winter, the other being a six-figure commitment to backup catcher Dustin Garneau. Smith, a 13-year veteran, has pitched for Houston since signing that two-year, $15-million contract with them before the 2018 season. He’s one of four relievers to reach free agency after finishing 2019 with the Astros, along with Will Harris, Collin McHugh, and Hector Rondon.

The fact that Smith is the not only the first of those pitchers to be brought back by Houston, but the first to sign a contract in general, is interesting. Of the aforementioned four relievers, he had the lowest FIP and second-lowest ERA in 2019, but he also pitched the fewest innings. An achilles injury in the spring held him out until July 12th. From that point, he pitched just 25 regular season innings, albeit effective ones. He was worth 0.4 WAR and held a 1.80 ERA and 3.09 FIP. Houston leaned on him hard in the postseason, trusting him with 10 appearances, including four in the World Series, and he responded well. In 8.2 innings, he allowed three runs and a .526 OPS from opposing hitters.

Based on his usage in the playoffs, it’s clear the Astros thought a lot of him. That helps to understand this signing, but the multi-year commitment is still a bit of a surprise for a pitcher of this age and such a recent serious injury. While Smith’s walk and homer rates were cut down in 2019, he also had his lowest chase rate since 2013, and his 7.9 K/9 rate is rather pedestrian for a reliever. The lack of strikeouts aren’t out of character for a pitcher like Smith, who has relied so heavily on two-seamers throughout his career, but as is typical with Houston pitchers, he wasn’t a predominant sinkerballer in 2019 the way he used to be. He used the sinker with a career-low 32.3% of his offerings this season, while the slider became his main pitch.

One would expect that changing sinkers into sliders would increase overall whiffs, but Smith had a very weird year with his slider. It was incredibly effective, as it has been throughout his career, but it achieved great results amidst very strange circumstances.

Joe Smith’s Slider Is Good!
2017 0.150 0.175 0.167 0.153 0.177
2018 0.127 0.158 0.309 0.200 0.195
2019 0.080 0.080 0.120 0.083 0.095
At Least I Think It Is?
Year GB% FB% Zone% Swing% O-Contact%
2017 25.9% 37.0% 56.5% 39.3% 53.3%
2018 42.4% 45.5% 46.2% 40.3% 41.0%
2019 14.3% 64.3% 62.4% 36.9% 64.3%

There’s a caveat that 25 innings is a very small sample, but this still seems weird. Smith’s slider got some of the best results of any pitch in baseball in 2019, even if you look at the Statcast data for expected outcomes. But those results didn’t come from a ton of weak grounders and whiffs. They came in spite of an incredibly high fly-ball rate, an extremely low ground-ball rate, and a ton of contact when the pitch is thrown somewhere hitters shouldn’t be able to reach it. Admittedly, that last part didn’t happen all that often, because when Smith threw a slider, it was often over the middle of the plate.

This all seems like a recipe for disaster, but at least in a short sample, it worked. Despite the bad location of the pitch, hitters just couldn’t get on top of it.

How he was able to do this isn’t all that clear. It wasn’t the speed of the pitch — at 79.7 miles per hour on average, Smith’s slider is much slower than some of the elite ones we see in today’s game. It also isn’t the movement — according to Statcast, the pitch’s movement on both the horizontal and vertical planes was below average. That could lead one to believe this was just some incredible luck over a small sample, but it isn’t as though the slider was never good before. For his career, Smith is holding opponents to a wRC+ of just 10 in plate appearances ending with the pitch. It’s a great offering, even if the cause of that isn’t obvious.

Smith’s signing keeps him in a bullpen that was in decent shape as is but could still likely benefit from more help. Our Depth Charts project them to have the fourth-most valuable ‘pen in baseball, despite throwing fewer innings than any team outside of Washington. Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, and Joshua James should all be plenty valuable, and there is a large group of solid middle-relief options behind them, Smith included. But they have lost their third- and sixth-most valuable relievers of 2019, Harris and McHugh, who are still on the market, with Harris likely standing as the best remaining option.

There are no big-ticket options left with Will Smith, Chris Martin, and Drew Pomeranz all claimed, so moves like this one are the right ones for Houston to make if it is hoping to improve its bullpen — or in this case, maintain as much of what was there last year as possible. And while there are very few cases in which a narrative about a team’s payroll making it tough to sign major free agents isn’t bunk, the Astros might be one of the few exceptions. Our Roster Resource page estimates more than $234 million on the books for them in 2020, which will make significant splashes on the open market tough to accomplish for them. Smith is no major splash, but he’s enough to get me to write all these words about the Astros without having to talk extensively about a heinous act or the departure of a star player. As this organization’s 2019 comes to a close, that ain’t nothing.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Rebuild seems a little dramatic considering they’ll have to replace their 3rd best reliever and a couple of guys they left off playoff rosters.