Photo credit to Bryan Green, Flickr
The Astros’ have developed pitching like few other teams since 2015. Travis Sawchik of FiveThirtyEight documented the high-spin revolution and how the Astros in particular utilized that information to the best of their ability. To individuals like Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy, the Astros are so far ahead of other teams analytically it is difficult for the layperson to comprehend. Navigating through a Twitter advanced search of the word “Astros” from Boddy’s account paints a clear picture of his endorsement.
The public, however, is largely blind to the team’s advancements in the minor leagues. This element is substantially more important for their long-term success than small major league tweaks to 30-plus-year-old pitchers. But profiling the changes of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are easy for the public to care about and consume. Forrest Whitley has even become a household name due to his meteoric rise to relevance. Taking a look at two future starting pitchers still in the Astros minor league system show their uniqueness and allows us to consider why they are so effective.
Feb. 24, 2019, vs New York Mets
2 IP, 0 H, 0 K, 0 R, 27 pitches
|Average Velo||94.9 mph||86.8 mph||89.7 mph|
A key similarity between Abreu and Bukauskas is their height. Both stand below 6-foot-2, not typically classified as a good “pitchers build.” But the Astros are far beyond simple aesthetic characteristics. Consider the effectiveness of a high-spin fastball elevated in the zone from a pitcher with a lower release point and a pitcher who achieves good “downhill plane” with a fastball because of a higher release point. Also consider the most effective attack angle of a hitter: one that stays on the path of the ball’s flight for the longest. If hitters in today’s game are trained to swing with a slightly uppercut approach, that particular swing will stay on the path of a taller pitcher’s downhill-plane fastball the longest. The shorter pitcher—contrary to popular belief—may have an advantage with an elevated fastball.
If you are down on a pitcher like Bukauskas because of his height, intriguing evidence exists to dispute your claim. For one, Bukauskas has the highest average fastball spin fastball of all pitchers in the Astros system according to Fangraphs. Allow a short pitcher to elevate a high-spin fastball and it may be contrary enough to limit a hitter with an uphill swing’s chance for contact.
Bukauskas only worked up in the zone on five of his 27 pitches Sunday, but the results were fouled or taken for balls. This concept is not the only way he pitches, but it’s a potential attack that works against the height concerns some express. He also works in a small velocity band for a three-pitch arm. All of his offerings clock in between 97 and 85mph depending on the max on his four-seamer and minimum of his slider. His changeup acts primarily as a groundball-pitch, with minimal velocity separation from his fastball, but it has the ability to generate whiffs at a substantial rate—making it a key overlap of whiff and ground-ball contact that pushes grades on it consistently into the future-plus-pitch window.
Even better than Bukauskas’ changeup is a hard slider. Each of three times he threw the pitch in this spring outing, it ended up at the knees or below the zone, a likely are the pitch will live in. His command of the pitch in this outing wavered slightly, but he generated enough ground-ball contact off his fastball to emerge unscathed.
Spring outings prevent pitchers from having to turn to second and third offerings as lineups turn over. Bukauskas had wavering feel in his trio of offerings to start spring, which is nothing to be concerned about in the slightest. If his secondaries develop in his next few spring outings, his usage and results versus major league talent will be important data points in developing towards his eventual debut.
Feb. 23, 2019 vs Washington Nationals
1.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, K, 20 pitches
Abreu recorded two outs on three pitches to start his spring. On his third batter of his first inning of work, he displayed his biting, 12-6 curve in unison with his riding fastball. He threw two changeups off the plate in his second inning of work, but reverted back to his curveball as his primary secondary offering. This breaking ball is deceptive, continually earning plus grades. His slider—which he didn’t throw in this start—is likely a harder, more lateral pitch than his curve, a complimentary offering to both his arm-side run changeup and vertical breaking curveball.
Like Bukauskas, Abreu’s stride to the plate makes his release point lower than his frame might suggest. This might help in the same way it does for Bukauskas. Abreu started two batters in his second inning work with high fastballs, getting quick first strikes via foul balls. This combination of high fastballs and curveballs could work well, but turning over a lineup for a second and third time will require his slider and changeup to consistently become average offerings. His slider is the pitch more likely to end up above average, but unlocking a true average changeup would help demonstrably with the natural split issues he has run into even at low levels of the minor leagues.
The most positive element of Abreu’s game is his newfound ability to limit home runs, which he uncovered last season with Quad Cities in the Midwest League (generally considered a pitcher-dominated league). If this maintains through higher levels, there’s a chance Abreu, who has been developing in the Astros system since 2014, could blossom into a dominant arm. For now, there’s hope and plus breaking ball feel.
Note: game and pitch data obtained via broadcast, by hand. Excuse errors in pitch classification, particular in distinguishing Bryan Abreu’s curveball and slider—based on pitch shape, I believe he only threw curveballs. Velocities obtained via stadium, on-screen gun. Velocities not available publicly for Abreu’s start.