$2M buyout on 2023 club option and includes IP escalators that could increase value to $8M and buyout to $2.5M. https://t.co/h4OgvVaZ5S
— Jesse Sanchez (@JesseSanchezMLB) January 14, 2021
The signing adds another wrinkle to the ongoing rivalry between the Dodgers and Astros. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher who felt his personal or team ambitions were derailed because of cheating would join sides with the perpetrators shortly thereafter, but Baez was left off the playoff roster in 2017 due to his struggles in the final month of the regular season and didn’t pitch in that fateful World Series. It’s likely he still felt the sting of the Astros’ transgressions against his teammates, but maybe the resulting resentment toward that organization isn’t as strong as it could have been if he were on the mound to be victimized by it.
Regardless, cold hard cash has its way of smoothing things over, and the money Baez has landed here is no small amount. At 32, he’s still young enough to make a multi-year deal reasonable. The dollar figure also makes sense, given the surprisingly bustling market rate for good relievers in this year’s free-agency class. The guarantee isn’t far off from the $15.5 million the Mets gave last month to Trevor May, who clocked in at No. 21 on our Top 50 Free Agents list. Baez, despite not cracking our list or the one over at MLB Trade Rumors, actually compares rather well to May by the raw numbers over the past three years.
Aside from the strikeout and walk rates — which, to be clear, matter a great deal — Baez appears to be the better pitcher across the board. So why was he left out of the top free agents conversation while May was regarded as one of the three best relievers on the market? It has a lot to do with their trajectory. As I wrote about after he signed, May’s best days are widely thought to be ahead of him, thanks to steadily increasing velocity in recent years and burgeoning swing-and-miss rates. The same cannot be said of Baez, whose velocity has been in pretty consistent decline for several years now.
I’m willing to give Baez a pass for that big tumble in 2020, when the pandemic forced him and every other pitcher out of their regular workout rhythm, then saw him pitch half of his games while recovering from a groin injury. But the overall trend still isn’t pretty. Fortunately, Baez has adapted to the diminishing velocity as needed. The last two seasons have seen him throw more changeups than he ever has while also tossing a good deal of sliders. Those two pitches have given him a ton of success in recent years: the former has produced a .219 wOBA since 2018, the latter a .251 wOBA.
In addition to throwing fewer fastballs overall as they’ve lost their heat, Baez has also taken great care to throw them in less hittable locations. Look at how well this graph of his percentage of fastballs thrown in the strike zone matches up with the above graph of his fastball velocity:
This isn’t Baez losing control over his heater as he ages. Every year, as his fastball loses gas, he simply makes hitters chase it higher and higher. Compare his heat map from 2016 to that of 2020:
The Astros are probably eager to have a pitcher already utilizing this kind of approach, reminiscent as it is of strategies the organization has implemented on its own arms in the past. The postseason experience Baez comes with is no small bonus, either. Even while having to skip the Dodgers’ deep run in 2017, he has made 31 appearances in the playoffs during his career and owns a 3.99 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 16 walks in that span. There are better postseason resumes out there, but it likely matters more that Baez is typically a very good reliever in the regular season and is accustomed to extending his season deep into October, a time when Houston expects to be playing a fair share of games itself.
Baez is the biggest move the Astros have made with their bullpen this offseason, but he isn’t the first. Last week, the team agreed to a major league deal with Ryne Stanek, a 29-year-old righty who turned a pair of good seasons in 2018 and ’19 before allowing a 7.20 ERA in nine bullpen appearances with Miami last year. Still, the departures from Houston’s relief staff outnumber the additions. Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski, Cy Sneed and Roberto Osuna have all hit free agency this winter, leaving the team with a much less intimidating ‘pen than it has had in years past.
Baez and Ryan Pressly should make a decent pair in the back of the bullpen, but many of the candidates for middle relief jobs are guys without much big league experience who project at replacement level for 2021. My feeling is that there’s another high-leverage relief addition somewhere down the line for Houston — maybe someone like Brad Hand, Trevor Rosenthal or Kirby Yates, who all have closing experience the team’s current bullpen group lacks. If Baez continues to pitch the way he did in Los Angeles, he shouldn’t have nearly as much competition around him for late-inning assignments as he has in the past. Maintaining that success with diminishing stuff will continue to require a lot of work, but Houston must believe he is up to the task.