On the Astros: Jerome Williams and Bo Porter's bullpen usage

Bob Levey

Why does Bo Porter continue to use Jerome Williams in close games?

Almost like clockwork, Jerome Williams gives up a run in every game he appears. To find a game where he appeared and didn't give up a run, you have to go to that non-appearance in Arizona, where he walked the only batter he faced before Tony Sipp came back from the outfield.

Before that, you go back to May 26. That's a stretch of six appearances where Williams gave up at least one run. In those 12 innings, he's given up seven runs and 14 hits with a 5.25 ERA, 10 strikeouts and five walks. That's not much worse than he's been in the other 17 innings he appeared in this season.

It's also not good. Including Sunday's loss, Williams has melted down seven times out of the bullpen for Houston, resulting in three losses. He's by far the bullpen leader in meltdowns, with the recently DL'ed Josh Fields and the Triple-A'ed Kevin Chapman as the only other Houston relievers with over two meltdowns this season.

On the flip side, Williams only has one shutdown this year. The only Astros reliever with fewer shutdowns are Josh Zeid, Jose Cisnero (who's hurt), Brad Peacock (who's a starter now) and Chapman (who's in the minors). Paul Clemens is tied with Williams with one shutdown and is the only other Astros reliever with more meltdowns than shutdowns.

If those last two paragraphs sounded like gibberish to you, here's Fangraphs' explanation on what a "shutdown" and what a "meltdown" are:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are two relatively new statistics, created as an alternative to Saves in an effort to better represent a relief pitcher’s value. While there are some odd, complicated rules surrounding when a pitcher gets a save, Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

If all Jerome Williams does is melt down when he gets into games, why does Bo Porter keep using him?

Well, that's not the only measure we have for relievers. We can also look at their Leverage Index, which attempts to quantify the situation facing each reliever when they enter a game. Come into a blowout in the ninth inning and your leverage index is very low. Come in to get the final three outs with a runner on third in the ninth inning with a one-run lead? Very high leverage index.

Williams' pLI is really not that high. Only Kyle Farnsworth, Paul Clemens and Darin Downs have lower pLIs than Williams 0.70, which indicates that, while he's coming into games, Williams isn't pitching in many meaningful situations. Looking at his last 30 days and even his last 14 days, Williams still hasn't been used in a ton of high leverage situations.

Why, then, has Williams thrown more innings than any Astros reliever this season, by a good margin? Why has he also topped that list in the last 30 days, when Houston has been more effective and featured one of the best bullpens in baseball?

One of the TCB staff posed the question like this earlier Monday: why on earth is Williams the first arm out of Bo Porter's bullpen?

To me, the answer is simple. The top two relievers in terms of innings over that stretch are Williams and Josh Fields. What links the two of them? Veteran status.

Last year, Porter had to deal with a bullpen filled with youthful enigmas. He had to manage a relief corps consisting of mostly rookies or players who had never pitched in relief before their promotion. This led to disaster, especially after Jose Veras was traded to Detroit.

This was Bo Porter's first season as a manager. Can you imagine why that experience may have scared him of dealing with inexperienced relievers? Maybe he feels its safer to use guys like Williams or Josh Fields (who he grew to trust last year), than to build trust in Anthony Bass, Darin Downs or someone else.

That's not the only explanation, but it's a simple and plausible one. I'll also note that Williams hasn't really been as bad as his statistics suggest. There's ample evidence that he could see his performance go on an upswing soon. The problem is that with relievers, sample sizes are always small.

Williams just may not get enough innings to see things normalize to his career numbers.

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