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Why the Astros Keep Trading for Fringe Pitchers

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

I know people are wondering what the Astros are doing acquiring replacement level or seemingly worse pitchers over the past week. Why do the Astros want these fringe pitchers at best?

From 2021-2023

Joel Kuhnel has a 6.46 ERA in 61.1 IP

Spenser Watkins has a 5.85 ERA in 160 IP

Maybe even worse for these two is both Kuhnel and Watkins records in AAA this year.

Watkins 7.27

Kuhnel 7.13

Immediately you should ask- WHAT are the Astros doing?

Relax, this is why you have me.

You have heard me talk about FIP multiple times. The FIPs for the newly acquired pitchers are:

Watkins 4.82

Kuhnel 5.14

I will also note that in the international League the average ERA/FIP is 5.13 so far this year.

Let's compare the new pitchers with the rest of the AAA pitching staff.

(Note- if you don't want to worry about all of the numbers just remember RED is good and BLUE is bad.)

  • The players shaded in dark orange are currently on the Astros active roster.

  • The players shaded in light orange are currently in AAA but have spent time in the MLB this year.

  • The players shaded in blue are the players who have been acquired this year.

You will notice that the top SPs in this table sorted by FIP- France, Blanco, WATKINS, Bielak, and Allgeyer- Watkins would rank third. Even factoring a more favorable pitching environment in the International League, Watkins might be the next SP the Astros call upon.

Kuhnel would also be near the top of RP in the table. He represents an OPTION for the Astros.

Now, let's compare a few more stats of Kuhnel and Watkins with the back end of the Astros rotation- France, Blanco, and Bielak in their recent MLB experience. Here is how this group of players compare over 2021-2023 while in the big leagues.

2021-2023 Fringe Pitcher Performance

Yes, the ERAs are terrible but:

- the WHIPs are right in line with the others.

- Kuhnel's FIP is BETTER and Watkins is right in line.

I think there is more to it than just these stats. Let's compare how the PROJECTED stats look for the rest of the 2023 season.

2023 Projection Astros Pitchers

You see how Kuhnel and Watkins stack up? Yes, better!

Let's look at another of my favorite stats for these pitchers in 2021-2023 in the MLB- xwOBA.

xwOBA Finge Pitchers

Kuhnel compares well here too. Watkins has a higher xwOBA than France and Bielak.

However, when the Astros traded for Will Smith last year in a year that he was having a bad year for him, I proposed they could "fix" Smith by adjusting his pitch mix, and they did, and his Astros performance overall was really good. Read more about this process here.

So, what if the Astros acquired both Kuhnel and Watkins with the intention of following the same optimization pattern? Well let's look at what COULD be done for all of the pitchers.

This massive table shows the xwOBA data for each major pitch for each of these five pitchers vs. LHH and vs. RHH in 2021-2023.

Pitch xwOBA data

To summarize the optimization impact let me put the data in the same table as before.

xwoba optimized

As you can see Watkins would likely benefit the MOST by abandoning some pitches that are just not working for him over the past few years. Depending on his roles, this might be possible.

Therefore, WHAT are the Astros doing?

They are doing what they have done with several pitchers. In this case they have acquired guys that have some plus pitches and some not so successful pitches. Expect both of these guys to get the Astros pitching optimization process and then to test it out in AAA.

Here is the reality for the Astros. They do NOT have a lot of arms ready to pitch in the MLB in AAA right now. Both Watkins and Kuhnel give the team an additional OPTION to try to improve and see if they can return to the MLB being a better pitcher than they were before.

Both were acquired for cash considerations. Our GM, Dana Brown is doing his job. If this doesn't work expect these and others struggling in AAA to be released and more options to be explored.

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