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Houston Astros: Closer to be revealed Sunday

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Mar 11, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Ken Giles (53) throws in the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Ken Giles (53) throws in the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /
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What does a “closer” mean to the Houston Astros?

This is the question that we must about a franchise that doesn’t mind bucking a long time industry-wide trend. And in the age of advanced statistics, naming a traditional closer does not seem to be high on the Houston Astros to-do list. It just seems like something rather symbolic than a matter true importance to the team. And this is where the argument for Ken Giles or Luke Gregerson begins to be rather interesting.

Per a recent report from Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle, who happens to be half of the new beat writer duo for the Astros, manager A.J. Hinch is going to make a “declaration” of sorts regarding the closer role tomorrow. And as expected when Giles was acquired earlier in the offseason, the answer is still as clear as mud.

Giles was acquired in part to help remedy a bullpen that faltered down the stretch this past August and September. But last year’s closer, Gregerson, wasn’t necessarily the problem. The 31-year old right-hander finished the 2015 season with a 2.86 FIP, 4.2% walk rate, and 24.7% strikeout rate. Those are definitely respectable numbers for pitcher relied upon to throw in high pressure situations. However, the Astros felt the need to add some gas in the back end of the bullpen.

2015 Pitch Data for Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson; courtesy of Brooks Baseball
2015 Pitch Data for Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson; courtesy of Brooks Baseball /

As one could summarize from the data above, Giles throws harder than Gregerson by at least a few miles an hour. In fact, Gregerson leans more on a sinker/slider combo to generate results while Giles opts for a four-seam fastball/slider blend. But while both sliders generate roughly the equivalent whiff percentage, Gregerson’s has more of a horizontal movement (3.54 inches) while Giles’ has noticeably less (0.17 inches). The vertical movement of their sliders’, however, possess roughly similar movements (0.48 inches, Gregerson; 0.63 inches, Giles). Similar results in terms of whiff percentage, but the utilization of different approaches.

It is that preference of utilization in high leverage situations that will dictate how the Astros decide to handle Gregerson and Giles. There are liable to be certain situations where Gregerson’s skill set will be better suited than Giles and vice versa. But with the prestige and monetary benefits of having that “closer” role attached to your name for players, the Astros are also forced to make a public declaration of sorts that attributes the role to one of the two. And at this point in time, it appears that Giles is the favorite considering the package of prospects that general manager Jeff Luhnow surrendered to the Philadelphia Phillies to get the young flamethrower.

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Regardless of who is named closer though, the Astros don’t want to be tied down to simply just titles that dictates who pitches in certain situations. Here is a quote from Hinch in Kaplan’s referenced article above that may shed some more light in how the team will handle high leverage situations with the bullpen:

"“I’m not playing coy here as much as I am setting the tone,” said Hinch, the second-year Astros manager. “The most important part of the bullpen is closing out the game, and that closing situation might come in the seventh, eighth, ninth. It might be a pitch in the sixth by any number of guys."

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This just demonstrates that the team is committed to win, no matter what. That even means disregarding the trend of naming one pitcher as your closer. And sure, the team may very well name a closer, but it will not hold the same significance like it did when Billy Wagner, Octavio Dotel, Brad Lidge, and Jose Valverde where in town. Winning is the objective, no matter who gets job done.

**Statistics provided by Fangraphs**

**Pitch data provided by Brooks Baseball**

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