Rays, Astros find 'best version' of players

October 4th, 2019

HOUSTON -- ’s trade to the Astros hadn’t even been finalized in January 2018 when he received a telephone call from a former Pirates teammate.

“You’re going to love it here,” told him.

Morton recounted how a year earlier, the Astros had signed him and then helped transform his career by peppering him with data about pitch usage, mechanics, spin rates and plenty more.

If the Astros could remake a 33-year-old, nine-year veteran -- and they did -- think what they could do with a hard-throwing right-hander in the prime of his career.

“He convinced me this would be an unbelievable opportunity,” Cole said.

That it has been.

His is a story that’ll be told again and again over the next few days as the Rays and Astros decide this American League Division Series, starting Friday at Minute Maid Park. These teams at the forefront of baseball’s information age find talents in players that other teams have overlooked.

And they hone and emphasize those talents and show players a path to getting better. From first baseman and outfielder to reliever and others, Tampa Bay has a long list of players who’ve reached a new level.

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Likewise, the Astros helped relievers and get better. Even established veterans like Cole and have benefited.

Both teams closely guard their special sauce, but the teaching revolves around pitch usage and velocity for pitchers. To sum up, throw your best pitches more. Throw everything hard.

For hitters, it's about swing mechanics, pitch recognition and exit velocity. For Tampa Bay, a swing of acquisitions the past two seasons have focused on exit velocity for hitters and on pitch velocity and movement for pitchers.

First, Cole.

He’d been very good during five seasons with the Pirates. Now, after two with the Astros, the 29-year-old right-hander heads into free agency this offseason as perhaps the most sought-after player on the market.

Over the past two seasons, he leads the Majors with 602 strikeouts and is among the top five in virtually every category. He has done this by studying an array of charts and graphs that convinced him to throw fewer fastballs, more sliders and fewer curves. When he does throw his fastball, he throws it harder.

Morton said that’s one of the changes the Astros made with him: Throw hard. Then throw harder. As a result, Cole’s spin rate has improved on both his fastball and curveball.

Morton’s perspective is unique because he signed with the Rays last offseason after two years with the Astros.

The secret sauce is mostly secret as teams look for every competitive advantage, from pitch location to swing angles to attacking a hitter's or pitcher’s weakness.

“Well, I think it starts with the buy-in and kind of an all-in approach when it comes to trying to find the best version of that player,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “And both organizations seem to be really good at exhausting every opportunity to make somebody even a little bit better, all the way to a lot better.

“Some of it is the player development backgrounds of both organizations. Some of it is having some good analytical departments that find hidden gems in certain areas. But most of it is just a pure commitment to producing the best version of the player at any opportunity.”

Verlander, Houston’s ALDS Game 1 starter, almost certainly had punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame when the Astros acquired him on Aug. 31, 2017, in a trade that jump-started a quest that would result in the franchise winning the World Series for the first time that fall.

He’d begun to dabble in analytics toward the end of his 13-year stay with the Tigers, but the Astros helped him get even better. He’s 42-15 with a 2.45 ERA in 73 starts for the Astros. This season, he led the Majors in innings and was second to Cole in strikeouts.

“It was a pretty seamless adjustment,” Verlander said. “I started doing my own due diligence and kind of looking into analytics with my time in Detroit. So coming here was, I don't want to say an easy transition. It took a lot of work.”

Here’s what Statcast has on Verlander:

Four-seam fastball swing-and-miss rate:

• 2015-17 with DET: 23.0%
• 2017-19 with HOU: 29.7%

Slider swing-and-miss rate:

• 2015-17 with DET: 29.9%
• 2017-19 with HOU: 39.7%

“[Former Astros catcher] Brian McCann was somebody that helped me a lot,” Verlander said. “[Former Astros ace] Dallas Keuchel helped me a lot. Guys that used the system here and how they best used it. Those guys did a lot of work with me when I first got here. I'm kind of passing that on with guys who come here now.”

The Rays have an array of similar stories, including Game 1 starter , who was acquired from the Pirates at the 2018 Trade Deadline.

“I think it just helped me utilize my stuff,” he said. “I think just seeing … some of the advanced spin stuff, just kind of how I can formulate the way I pitch to kind of work in my advantage a little bit.

“I think it was moreso not trying to be nitpicky, but kind of throw more aggressively to bigger zones. It's helped me a lot so far.”

When Pressly arrived at the 2018 Trade Deadline, he was taken into a meeting room with coaches and analysts and showed charts of his best pitches and those that weren’t working.

He didn’t understand all the data, but he’d seen enough success stories to buy in.

Here are Pressly's Statcast numbers:

Curveball spin rate:

• 2015-18 with MIN: 3,055 rpm
• 2018-19 with HOU: 3,291 rpm

Curveball usage:

• 2015-18 with MIN: 21.3%
• 2018-19 with HOU: 35.8%

Rays manager Kevin Cash credits his front office with identifying players who have talents that can be utilized.

“Well, you've got to credit the front offices,” he said. “They recognize these things about some of these players. And then the messaging, the communication that's involved early on, once you acquire them, there's something to be said for that.

“A lot of these players … kind of fall through the cracks at times. [We] put them in the best position for them to succeed. And then you're going to see how that really helps a team overall succeed.”