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Shades of the past: The Astros September pitching is a mess

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Despite fans bellyaching about a perceived inconsistent offense, the real culprit of the Astros' September slide is the pitching staff....particularly the once-ballyhooed bullpen.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

So the Astros have kind of stunk lately, huh?  We're hot on the heels of former Cy Young Award-leading candidate Dallas Keuchel barfing up nine runs to the Texas Rangers, not to mention a couple games where the Astros offense looked inept against the likes of Martin Perez, he of the 4.96 ERA.

"So there's a lot of frustration", says Captain Obvious.

"But what is exactly wrong with the Astros?" asks Captain Rhetorical.

"Well, I'll tell you," replies Captain of Answering Leading Questions.

Offense

A lot of words have been spilt over how the Astros really haven't been that bad.  That they've outplayed the Rangers during August and September.  And yet, at the time of this writing, they sit with a record of 4 and 10 in the month of September.

Carlos Correa, Evan Gattis, and George Springer, all supposed to be lineup stalwarts by mid-season, have struggled mightily in the past month while receiving full playing time.

But several guys stepped up in September to cover for the guys who are struggling, as has been the case all season.  Leading the pack are Jose Altuve (113 wRC+), Colby Rasmus (168), Carlos Gomez (168), and Jed Lowrie (143), with nods to strong production in smaller samples from Jake Marisnick and Preston Tucker.

[ed. note: This might surprise some of you, but Gomez was excellent during the month of September, batting .306/.381/.611 in ten games before going down with an injury.  By wRC+, he was the 22nd most valuable offensive player in the major leagues during this month.  Just saying.]

In the month of September, the Astros have actually hit well overall, with a 113 wRC+ (13% better than average), with a sustainable .300 BABIP.  They're scoring runs.  Sometimes in bunches, sometimes not.  Oh, they'll occasionally be overmastered by an elite pitcher like Sonny Gray.  But by-and large, they're good at scoring runs every game.  During September, they've only been held to less than three runs four times in fourteen contests.

So I contend that the offense, despite what perception seems to be, isn't the issue.

Starting Pitching

Keuchel laid an egg, no getting around it.  Before him, Collin McHugh didn't have his best start either.  In September, there is no doubt that the Astros starters have gotten roughed up.  Their ERA for the month sits at 4.88, which certainly can be better, and should be, given the names on the staff.  In fact, only Lance McCullers can be said to be having a good September, as he's 2.25 ERA in two starts so far.  Scott Kazmir's the next best at 4.15 ERA in three starts, which should be okay given the number of runs the Astros typically score.  But Keuchel, McHugh, and Mike Fiers have all struggled mightily in their eight starts, and when a team has guys like that struggle, so goes the team's record.

But not entirely, and I'll get to that in a bit.

Keuchel is suffering from an uncharacteristically high homer rate.  his 30% HR/FB rate is frighteningly high.  That's six home runs in eighteen innings for a guy who's typically stingy with them.  Fiers has also been bitten by the homer bug, with four in twelve innings, for a 20% HR/FB rate.  The good news is that there is no reason to expect those numbers to continue into their next starts.  It's just as likely for them to throw a great start with no home runs as either of those guys are to maintain that kind of home run rate.  So there's that to hang on to.

McHugh's problem is a little different in that he's been the victim of a .373 BABIP.  The balls in play he's allowing are finding holes in the defense that wouldn't ordinarily be there.  That's also good news in a way, because there's no reason to expect continued crappitude from him either.

But what's up with Kazmir?  His HR/FB and BABIPs are perfectly normal, he's not walking batters, and yet he has a 5.05 FIP to go with his 4.15 ERA.  He's just giving up a bunch of hits.  Even though his September ERA is lower than the other fellows mentioned above, I find his performance to be more troubling than the rest of the staff''s.  But he's just one guy, and if the others regress back to a normal level, it will help the club's cause in remaining tilts.

The Bullpen

The bullpen, oh that previously-vaunted bullpen.  
That lauded bullpen and it's previously AL-leading ERA ways.
Where have you gone?
Why have you left us?

A couple times this season, Clack has written articles about how much impact a good (or bad) bullpen can have on a club's win/loss record.  And for the season, the Astros bullpen has been fantastic.  Their 3.03 ERA is (still) second in the AL to only the Royals.

But, oh, that previously-vaunted bullpen.

In September, Astros relievers have allowed 26 runs in 40 innings.  That's a 5.85 ERA.  That is far worse than even the crummy 2012-2014 Astros bullpens that so richly deserved the criticism heaped upon them.  And as clack shows in his posts, this can have a large impact on a club's winning percentage.

Look at the players who earned a loss during September:

Neshek (twice)
Gregerson
Fiers
Kazmir
Keuchel (twice)
Harris (twice)
Perez

In ten games, a relief pitcher has allowed the losing earned run six times.  While that seems not so bad, keep in mind that in most games during that stretch (Keuchel's implosion excluded), the starter is pitching twice as many innings as the bullpen.  So in half as many innings, the bullpen has earned the loss more often than the starters have.

"That's not very good," says Captain Understatement.

It's no one player's fault either, despite the temptation to pile onto Harris or Neshek for their two losses.  Those guys have actually been some of the better performers in September, believe it or not, with 4.50 ERAs each.  But Vincent Velasquez "boasts" a 5.68 ERA over six innings.  Michael Feliz has a 7.50 ERA in six innings.  Josh Fields, in only four innings, has allowed seven runs (do the math yourself, it's not a pretty ERA).  The closer, Luke Gregerson, has a 5.40 ERA. Chad Qualls has been the most dependable reliever this month, and it's not close.  There's a statement that wouldn't have been uttered in June.

It's like an earned-run disease has struck the Astros bullpen, and they need to find a cure, and quickly.  Collectively, they're allowing too many home runs, not striking guys out, and walking too many. Oh, and they're also allowing too many hits.  They're doing everything they're supposed to be doing well...not well.

Looking Ahead

There's no reason to conclude that the Astros pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, definitely will continue their abhorrent hurling.  That's the good news.  These are still the same guys who dominated the American League all season...they didn't suddenly forget how to pitch, and coach Brent Strom didn't suddenly develop senility that made him backtrack on all of his instruction.

Unfortunately, baseball is baseball, and while small samples are not predictive of anything useful, we all know that hot and cold spells happen several times a year.  The Astros are in a cold spell, and it's entirely possible (though not statistically likely) that it will continue, and that the Astros will end the season missing the playoffs entirely. That would stink.  But fear not, because there are no strong reasons to predict that will happen at this point.

It's been a bad stretch.  A terrible stretch.  But the Astros are only a game and a half out (and perhaps by the time this article is published they'll be only a half-game out and heading back for home!).  There's plenty of baseball left in which the Astros can reach the playoffs, and even win the division.