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Houston Astros: Who’s going to pitch the ninth?

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Sep 29, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Ken Giles (53) and catcher Cameron Rupp (29) celebrate a victory against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Ken Giles (53) and catcher Cameron Rupp (29) celebrate a victory against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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Houston Astros Have Competition at Closer, Isn’t This Cool?

The bullpen for the Houston Astros has always been a sensitive issue. However, with the massive improvement from the worst bullpen in the American League in 2014 with a 4.80 combined ERA to a fourth place finish with a combined 3.27 ERA in 2015, the Astros come into Spring Training with hopes for a sense of stability once the starter is done for the day. Coming out of this sense of stability, two capable options, Luke Gregerson and newcomer Ken Giles, are battling to see who will be named the closer come April 4th.

As he reported to camp, Gregerson told reporters (via Evan Drellich) that he was still a viable option to be the guy in the ninth. “How do you think I did last year? I don’t see any reasons things should change. Obviously, bringing the guy we brought in, he’s got a strong power arm, he’s shown he can get guys out in the major league level, and I think he’s going to be a great addition to our bullpen no matter where we all fit in.”

Here is a deeper look at both Gregerson and Giles to be AJ Hinch’s guy at the end of the game.

Ken Giles is the flamethrower that the Astros were wishing for to be Brad Lidge’s successor. In his two seasons in the league, Giles has thrown 100 mph or higher 14 times while Astros pitching in that time has crossed that mark only once. Giles, who finished in fourth place in 2014 National League Rookie of the Year voting, has a career 1.56 ERA with 151 strikeouts and three home runs given up in 115.2 innings pitched. In 2015, for the Philadelphia Phillies, his four seam and two seam fastballs averaged 96.5 and 94.8 mph respectively and his slider averaged out at 86 mph. However, Giles’ velocity dropped from his 2014 rookie season.

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With that drop in velocity came a steep drop in strikeout percentage, from 38.6% in 2014 to 29.2% in 2015. Giles’ WHIP also increased from 0.79 to 1.20 in his two years in the league. In his chance to take over closing duties after Jonathan Papelbon left for the Washington Nationals, Giles saved 15 games in 20 opportunities. Still, Giles posts the lowest career ERA with a minimum of 100 innings pitched in baseball history. Giles has the lights out ability the Astros were willing to sell high for him.

Luke Gregerson came into Spring Training last season as the top reliever signing the Astros made in the previous offseason. 2015 was Gregerson’s first year as a closer, and he performed very well. He saved 31 games in his 36 opportunities and posted a 3.10 ERA with a 2.86 FIP. Not your prototypical closer, Gregerson tops out at 89 mph on his fastballs (four seam, two seam, cutter), but throws a slider, which he threw about 40% of the time last season, a changeup, and a curveball. Compared to Giles, Gregerson does not strike out as much, averaging only 8.7 per nine innings.

However, he relies on the ground ball with a career-high 60.4% ground ball percentage last season. After having a rough outing against the Royals in the ALDS, Astros fans were thinking a change was imminent yet again at the closer position. However when you take a closer look, Gregerson’s SIERA, xFIP-, and xFIP were all better than Giles last season even with Giles’ impressive ERA and strikeout numbers.

Next: Astros Spring Training: Pitchers and Catchers Report (Day 1)

Even though the Astros gave a lot up for Giles this offseason, the numbers say that the battle between these two potential closers may be closer than expected.

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