Astros on the brink
A win at Boston today would wrap up ALDS
BOSTON — From nearly cast off to the starter of a potential playoff series clincher, Brad Peacock has had a breakout season even more impossible to forecast than that of super utility man Marwin Gonzalez.
When the Astros reported to spring training in February full of World Series aspirations, Peacock was a 40-man roster afterthought. The 29-year-old righthander had his chances, and in those chances he hadn’t performed.
So how did Peacock transform himself from a mediocre Class AAA starter last year to the pitcher Astros manager A.J. Hinch tabbed for Sunday’s Game 3 of the ALDS against Boston? For starters, he was finally healthy after years of back issues. The roots of his success go deeper, though.
In July 2016, around the time of the Class AAA All-Star break, Peacock found himself at a career crossroads. Pacific Coast League hitters were having their way with him, so much so that his ERA neared 5.00. If he didn’t make changes, he figured, he would be looking for work elsewhere.
So Peacock dropped his arm slot from a high three-quarters to a low three-quarters and, with help from fellow Class AAA pitcher Jordan Jankowski, started throwing his slider with less velocity and more sweeping movement. The result is the improved command he’s harnessed this season and the nasty breaking ball against which the opposition batted a woeful .188 in the regular season.
“He never stops amazing me every single start,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “I know that me and (second baseman Jose) Altuve look at each other after some of the sliders he throws, and we’re like, ‘Wow.’ Like, I don’t want to face that. The pitch looks like a fastball all the way until you’re going to swing at it, and it just takes off.” 11 strikeouts per nine innings
Behind a 3.00 ERA in 132 innings, 1112⁄3 of which came in a starting role, Peacock was unquestionably one of the three most valuable pitchers on the Astros’ staff in the regular season.
According to FanGraphs, his 3.4 Wins Above Replacement ranked first among Astros pitchers. By Baseball Reference’s version of the metric, only All-Star Dallas Keuchel (3.9) was more valuable to the Astros among their pitchers than Peacock (3.0).
Peacock struck out 11 batters per nine innings. Among AL pitchers with at least 130 innings, only Boston’s Chris Sale (12.9), Cleveland’s Corey Kluber (11.7) and Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer (11.1) had a better strikeout rate.
Peacock’s seemingly out-of-nowhere emergence coincided with physically his healthiest season since 2011, the same year he debuted as a September call-up for the Washington Nationals. For years, he woke up the morning of a start not knowing whether his back would hurt that day.
“This guy had been battling his back for a long, long time. I don’t think many people realize. It was pretty bad,” said pitching coach Brent Strom, who since his first spring with the Astros in 2014 has been a big advocate of Peacock.
“I’ve always liked his young man, his stuff, his fastball, the way it plays. This is a guy who used to throw 95, 96 (mph) when he first came up with the Nationals. His back being bad just curtailed his development.”
In October 2014, Peacock underwent arthroscopic surgery on his hip in an attempt to alleviate the back pain. It didn’t work.
He made one major league start that season, in April, before he was shut down. When the Astros made the postseason that October, he watched his teammates play on TV from a sports bar in his hometown of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Earlier that summer, though, Peacock had found relief in the form of a diagnosis from a specialist in California who discovered bone spurs pinching a nerve near his spine. A doctor in Chicago performed surgery on his upper back in August 2015, which afforded Peacock enough rehabilitation time to come into 2016 spring training ready to pitch.
Last offseason was a much-welcomed winter free of rehab.
“I’ve been through a lot in the last couple years, but it’s brought me here,” the quiet, unassuming Peacock said Saturday from a dais at historic Fenway Park. “I’m just excited to be able to pitch in the postseason, and it’s going to be pretty cool.” Unique path to majors
Peacock took the road less traveled well before the Astros acquired him from the Oakland Athletics in a trade consummated before spring training in 2013. He pitched only eight innings at Palm Beach Central High, where he spent most of his time on the field as a light-hitting third baseman.
Fortunately for him, then-Nationals area scout Tony Arango watched one of those eight innings during Peacock’s senior season in 2006. Arango liked the pitcher’s athleticism, composure and ability to repeat his delivery with clean arm action. He recommended the Nationals draft him, which they did but not until the 41st round.
Peacock’s draft class was the last of the draft-and-follow rule, which allowed teams to maintain exclusive signing rights of a player it selected until a week before the following year’s draft. Peacock spent the intermediate season at Palm Beach Community College. Before the 2007 draft, the Nationals signed him for $110,000, which was top 10-round money.
The Nationals were high enough on Peacock by 2010 to send him with phenom Bryce Harper to the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League. By midseason 2011, Baseball America regarded Peacock as the 42nd-best prospect in the sport. Washington promoted him to the majors for a cup of coffee at the end of that season.
The following winter, Peacock was included in the prospect package the Nats sent the A’s for starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez. Two years later, the Astros became Peacock’s third organization. He had major league stints with them every season from 2013 to 2016, exhausting his minor league options by the time he reported to spring training in February.
With a 4.76 ERA in the majors over the four previous seasons, his future was very much up in the air.
But Peacock pitched well in spring training. Starting pitcher Collin McHugh beginning the season on the disabled list paved the way for Peacock as the long reliever on the Astros’ opening day roster, though Hinch said Saturday he thinks Peacock would’ve made the team even had McHugh been ready to start the season.
“His pitch effectiveness has always been really good, and I think that’s been the appeal of Brad Peacock,” Hinch said. “We’re lucky we hung on to him because had he not been in our rotation, no doubt he would have been on someone’s pitching staff throwing important innings.”
But Game 3 of a postseason series? Even Peacock admitted if someone had predicted that in February, he “would have told them they were crazy.”
“Just being here is special for me,” he said. “I’ve been humbled along the way. I’ve been injured along the way, and it just makes it that much more special for me. It’s the biggest start of my career and hopefully I can keep saying that as it goes on.”
Once a player fighting for a roster spot, righthander Brad Peacock will start Game 3 of the ALDS against Boston today with a chance to pitch the Astros into the AL Championship Series.