When Luke Gregerson reported to camp on Thursday, he told Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle that his performance last season was good enough that a change in the ninth inning shouldn't be neccessary. This is obviously a new storyline to keep an eye on, as many have presumed that the closer role would go to the team's biggest acquisition of the winter in Ken Giles. Obviously Gregerson wants to keep his job for a number of reasons, with pride likely being one of the key factors, but there is also money on the line for Gregerson, who could earn bonuses for closing out games, including an extra $500,000 if he finishes a combined 100 games between 2015 and 2016. He finished 53 games last year, so that mark is certainly within reach for him, if he remains the team's closer.
The common argument for Giles supplanting him however, is the amount of talent that Houston gave up for Giles, which suggests that he will take over in the ninth. Real quick, let's take a look at each potential closer's stats from last season and their projected stats for this coming season before we dive into some advanced metrics.
The two options are very close statistically, and a case can be made for either party. For Gregerson, it's that his control is a bit better and that he outperformed his FIP last year. He also blew as many saves as Giles, but in more chances. For Giles that strikeout rate certainly stands out, and if the bullpen is going to have one bullet left to fire, he could be the best option to get a swing and a miss, instead of having to rely on his pitches being accurate to acheive results.
There is a bit of regression tagged on to Giles' projections, and that could be attributed to two factors. First, the switch in leagues will take some adjustment, as will pitching in games that actually matter for a contending team. How quickly Giles makes those adjustments could determine just how well his season goes.
Since this comparison is so close, I wanted to call attention to one more stat, and that's Clutch. Owen Watson of FanGraphs turned me on to it when we talked in the most recent episode of the Astros Turf podcast, and it's basically a measure of how well a player performs under pressure. It's similar to WAR in that a 1.0 Clutch rating means that a player provided the equivolent a win for the team in a big spot.
The downside here is that both players ended 2015 in the red, with Giles putting up a -0.16 mark, and Gregerson coming in at a -0.71. I'd hesitate to use this for other pitchers, but closing out a game typically means that the game is on the line, so it seems appropriate in this circumstance. To make matters worse for Gregerson in this regard, in only one of his seven years in the big leagues has he put up a positive Clutch, which came for him in 2012 with San Diego.
There are a number of factors that will go into making a final decision at the end of spring training, but with Gregerson reporting to camp with a minor injury, Giles should certainly have a leg-up in the race. The bullpen faltered last postseason, which led to the Astros making a big move this past offseason, and that Game 4 meltdown may have cost Gregerson his role in the ninth and the chance to earn some extra cash.
Gregerson's words on Thursday were likely more a showing of the competitive spirit that's inside of him, but if it's more than that then the Astros season may be off on the wrong foot.