On the Astros: Bullpen brings tandem starting to the big leagues

Scott Halleran

We know that the Houston minor league tandem starter situation is working, but is Houston also trying to change how it deploys relievers in the majors?

We joked about it on Opening Night, when Erik Bedard came in to relieve Bud Norris for an extended relief appearance. It turns out, we were kinda right.

When Houston deployed the minor league strategy of stacking starting pitchers in games, having a sort of "tandem" starter setup, it was roundly mocked by national media. People didn't understand how it would help at the upper levels and thought it was ill-advised since it broke with so much baseball tradition.

Well, the Astros seem to also be turning back the clock on how bullpens are used this season, by deploying relievers for multiple innings of work, almost like the tandem starter situation they've set up in the minors. It happened again in last night's game against Oakland. Starter Brad Peacock failed to get out of the fifth inning, so Dallas Keuchel came in for three shutout innings of relief.

Anecdotally, at least, the theory holds up. But, we can look at the numbers to see if Houston is really trying to return to an earlier model of bullpen usage or just a statistical early-season blip.

So far, Houston has played 14 games and used a reliever for two or more innings seven times. That projects out to 81 games of two innings of relief or more by the end of the season. How long has it been since Houston has had at least 80 games like that? Try 2003.

It's also a radical shift in the general direction of bullpen usage. Take a look at the past 13 seasons and the number of 2+ inning relief outages, courtesy of Baseball Reference.

It's been a see-saw effect since about 2004, with the numbers dropping and rising each season. However, on the whole, no team has topped 80 games since 2003.

Those of you familiar with baseball before the 2000's will realize Houston's reliance on long relief is nothing new. It's just a throwback to what relievers used to do back when they were first invented. Closers regularly threw three innings with broken legs, up hill in the snow.

The numbers still show that Houston isn't radically different than many teams in the past. To see what sets them apart, we have to up that number of innings per relief appearances to 3. So far, Houston has had five games where a reliever has thrown 3 or more innings.

Already, they've had more long relief stints than they did in 2010, 2011 and 2012 for the entire season. In the last decade, there have been only three years where Houston posted double-digit 3-inning relief stints, and those topped out at 20 games (2009). Fourteen games into the season, Houston is a quarter of the way there.

The franchise record for 3-inning relief stints is 53, set by the 1962 Colt .45's. There have only been 17 seasons with 30 or more 3-inning relief appearances and Houston hasn't topped 30 times since 1985.

To put that in perspective, Houston is currently on pace for 57 relief appearances of 3 innings or more. When you start besting marks that haven't been seen since the '60's, things are going radically different than they have recently.

Of course, there's still a lot of season left to play. Projecting out based on 14 games is a little silly, after all. With these early season games, sometimes starters can't go as deep into a game as they can in June or July. That leaves open the possibility for a reliever to pitch longer in a game than he normally might.

Still, it appears that Jeff Luhnow and Bo Porter are committed to using the bullpen differently than they have in the past. Maybe throwing things back to an earlier model with long relievers is the way they're going.

It should also be mentioned that the different strategy hasn't led to drastically different results. Houston still has a 5.51 ERA in 50 2/3 relief innings this season.

That has to improve. At this point, any experiment Luhnow and Co. dream up to that end are welcome.

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