To be fair, things are going pretty well for the Astros right now. Winners in 11 of their last 13 games, the Astros have put themselves back in the race before the summer really begins to heat up. However, throughout this fantastic stretch, one guy has begun to struggle - closer Luke Gregerson.
Since converting his first seven save opportunities, Gregerson has blown five of his last 11 save tries. Perhaps the problem hasn't been spotlighted more heavily because Houston has gone on to win four of the five games in which Gregerson has been saddled with a blown save.
Meanwhile, the Astros have received strong contributions from much of the bullpen, especially Will Harris, Michael Feliz and more recently, Ken Giles.
Harris has allowed just one earned run in 25.2 innings this season while striking out 28 and walking just four. Feliz has allowed one earned run in his last 20.1 innings while striking out 31 and walking just two. Giles has a 2.13 ERA in his last 13 appearances with 16 strikeouts in 12.2 innings.
So yeah, there are other options. Harris closed out the Astros win Sunday, and manager A.J. Hinch didn't exactly put forth a ringing endorsement of Gregerson remaining as the team's exclusive closer.
(1 of 2) #Astros— Angel Verdejo Jr. (@ahverdejo) June 5, 2016
Hinch: "I'm not going to name a closer. Luke's going to get his fair share. Obviously Will was the closer today."
(2 of 2) #Astros— Angel Verdejo Jr. (@ahverdejo) June 5, 2016
Hinch: "Gles may get a look. Feliz may get a look...but for the time being, I'm going to ease that burden off of Luke."
All of this leads us to this Monday morning's Starting Nine question:
What changes, if any, would you make to the construction of the Astros bullpen roles?
I don't know what to think about this bullpen in general. First, Giles is supposed to be the lockdown guy that is going to get our bullpen over the hump in the post-season, and he starts the season horribly. Now, it looks like he's getting back to his old-self but my confidence isn't super high right now.
Gregerson had a good start to his season but is now looking shaky due to his blown saves. One of these guys should be the answer in the late innings, maybe if Giles is getting it back together then Gregerson's meltdown will be the impetus to place Giles into the closer role. I'm not sure if it really matters either way. Perhaps shuffling everyone around until the team gets the desired performance out of everyone will work, or perhaps the hiccups in performance are just that, hiccups.
I would probably shuffle Giles to the closer role if Gregerson continues to falter, and hope that everything works out. This whole predicament just makes me appreciate Will Harris and Michael Feliz even more than I already do.
No change. Why? Because the Astros are still winning, and Gregerson is fine.
BUT CHRIS, HE HAS A 4.56 ERA. Yeah, I know. But I'm not making a judgment call like pulling a guy from his job just because the hits he has allowed have fallen at the least opportune times. There isn't much a pitcher can control when the BABIP gods are going to smite, anyway.
The only statistic of Gregerson's that is out of whack with his excellent career numbers is his ERA. He's got a 3.16 FIP and a 3.09 xFIP. His HR/FB rate is identical to last season. His BABIP is a perfectly-normal .279. His walk and strikeout rates are nearly identical to his career rate. He's actually giving up more ground balls and fewer fly balls than usual. There's literally nothing wrong with his stats.
That tells me that his inflated ERA and the blown saves are nothing more than the erratic-ness of small sample baseball. He could pitch another 25 innings and allow only one or two runs without making any changes at all.
Leave things alone. The Astros are 8-2 over their last ten games. This is not a good time to go messing with the team constitution.
The idea that the "save" stat and the "closer" position are overrated is not a new one; many readers here are already familiar with it. But that's not really what we're talking about here. The concern from the fan base is specifically tied to blown saves, and everybody gets those. Baseball is a sport in which the statistics are always trying to self-correct. Give me the guy (Gregerson) who's due a stretch of dominance going forward over a guy like Harris, who's due a regression similar to the one he experienced last year. Or Feliz, for that matter, who lacks the track record for reasonable prognostication but who is likely to have some regression as well.
I certainly understand the frustration with the Gregerson. Here's a guy who was pretty damn good last season and yet he's struggling to close things out this season. Compound that issue with the horrendous start early in the season and it's not surprising that people are getting fed up with the recent blown saves.
Honestly, the one change I'd make is to give Gregerson a couple of days rest to clear his mind and refocus. Sometimes it's just a matter of fatigue, whether it be physical or mental. With how often Gregerson has been used lately I think some rest will be to everyone's advantage. Start upping Feliz's usage a bit, and shut the door with Harris if needed.
I don't care, really. If the Astros want Harris and Gregerson to switch roles, I'm fine. If the Astros decide to let Feliz occasionally close out games, that would be an interesting move. But, also, I'm fine with continuing to send Gregerson out there for the 9th inning. It's not that I'm indifferent to Gregerson's performance. But his performance would be just as critical in the 8th inning as it is in the 9th inning. So, we have to hope that Gregerson begins to have better results, no matter what the Astros decide to do. I've always favored a "mix and match" approach in the late innings, including the 9th. And, my preference would be to share the 8th and 9th inning among Gregerson, Feliz, and Harris based on the specifics of the game context and match ups. But I doubt that the Astros would do that at this point in the season.
I'm not overly worried about Gregerson. Currently he has a solid FIP and xFIP, and his strike out rate is the best of his career so far. His walk rate is up, but it's gone from super-elite to merely really, really good. As long as it doesn't get in his head, there's no logical or statistical reason why he couldn't or shouldn't reel off 10-15 saves in a row.
That said, Will Harris has been stupid-good (no, not sub-0.50 ERA good, but easily-best-reliever-on-the-team-good), so I wouldn't argue with anyone that wants him used as the closer. Heck, maybe 5+ weeks of him doing what he's doing as THE OFFICIAL CLOSER will finally get him the national attention (and All-Star selection) he richly deserves.
In related news, JAMES HOYT WHEN?
I've never been a fan of having one assigned closer. Maybe it helps psychologically for the guys to have specific roles, but I honestly would have faith in Gregerson, Harris, Feliz, and Giles closing out ball games depending on who is due up in the 9th and which of the relievers hasn't been used much lately. It seems like we've been in way more extra inning games than I can remember for being only this far into the season. Our relievers have been used alot so I really wouldn't mind using various relievers in the 9th inning if someone has pitched 3 of the last 4 games. That being said, I'm also fine sticking with Gregerson if we're married to the one closer idea. As others have said, his peripherals aren't as bad as his blown saved might imply. I also seem to remember most of his blown saves being 1-run ball games. It doesn't excuse him entirely because that's his job, but it's not like he's been giving up 4 runs every time he blows a save.