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Rode Hard and Put Up...Runs: The Astros Bullpen

A baseball season is 162 games. 81 games at home (unless you're the Astros), and 81 games on the road (unless you're the Chicago Cubs). I realize this, and usually my reaction to an early May loss or an early May win are about the same: We'll get 'em tomorrow/Let's build on this win.

After a loss like last night's though, I couldn't help but be frustrated. There are very few teams that I feel the Astros should consistently beat. The Washington Nationals are one such team. Understandably, if a starting pitcher is just dealing the opposing team is going to have a tough time winning. Or if an offense is struggling, a win seems an unatainable goal often times.

Washington starter John Lannan pitched six unremarkable innings last night, allowing four runs. The Astros offense had ten hits, four of them doubles. Even the ice cold Lance Berkman collected two hits. Scoring at least four runs means winning for the 2009 Astros, at least a month into the season. A 9-2 record when scoring at least four runs is where we stood going into last night's game in our Nation's Capital. That speaks to: 1) the fact that our bats usually haven't scored four runs in a game so far this season and 2) our pitching has been good enough to allow the Astros to win most of the games they've played this season.

What's interesting about our season so far is that the bullpen has had mixed results, despite a solid 6-4 record. Below is a stat line for our relievers this season:

IP W-L Save Opps Blown Saves HR/9 LOB% BABIP ERA
88 6-4 11 6 1.33 81.4% .314 3.99

To start, that 88 IP is through 25 games. Some quick third grade math tells us that our bullpen has averaged 3.52 innings pitched per game in this young season. Too, too many. On the flip side, of course, our starters have pitched less than 5.5 innings per game. What is a happy ratio of starter IP: bullpen IP?

I took at look at Fangraph's team pitching statistics last season, and determined that a mid point for team FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was 4.30 in 2008. For what it's worth, the Astros had a team FIP of 4.53 in 2008, good for 23rd in MLB. (Our ERA rank was 17th, which makes sense considering FIP's greater emphasis on the home run, and our defense's ability to turn a questionable ball into an out.) Since three teams tied for a 4.30 FIP in 2008, I chose the Phillies for an innings break down comparison. Their team ERA was better than ours was last year, but a number of categories- K/9, BB/9, WHIP, HR/9 to name a few, were similar to our own staff.

Philadelphia starters pitched 966.2 innings last season, compared to 483 for their bullpen, equaling 1449.2 innings total. Starters averaged 5.94 IP/game, and the bullpen averaged 3.06 IP/game. The Phillies won 90 games last season, another benchmark for being a successful ball club. In essence, our starters need to face another 1.5 batters per game to make up this difference (the equivalent of a regular batter and David Eckstein).