When your team reaches Nirvana in its sport, it is easy for a fan to remember only the good things. The mind plays tricks. Nori Aoki as the opening day left fielder? Carlos Beltran’s 509 plate appearances? Mike Fiers? They fade, because really, what can one legitimately complain about when one’s team wins it all?
Another thing that gets lost in the throes of Dionysian bliss is that the Astros’ bullpen, a major strength in 2016, had a twisty and bumpy road through 2017 that ended with its regular denizens being eschewed in favor of starters Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton during the World Series.
13-1/3 of the 27-2/3 bullpen innings pitched by the Astros during the World Series, a full half, were by regular season starters Peacock, Morton, and Collin McHugh.
This isn’t entirely a slight at the regular bullpen — Peacock was one of the most dominant relievers in 2017 before moving to the rotation to plug an injury-caused hole. But it is a partial slight, because if the regular relief corps were as shut-down trustworthy as, say, the Dodgers’, they would have appeared in higher-leverage situations than they did, rather than in mop-up efforts or late in losing causes.
The 2017 Astros’ bullpen posted a 4.27 ERA during the regular season, good for 17th-best in the majors, and worse than the league average of 4.15. By the neutral stat FIP*, they performed much better; their 3.84 was 6th-best in the majors.
*FIP = Fielding Independent Pitching: a pitching stat that attempts to remove factors outside of the pitcher’s control to quantify their performance on a scale that is comparable to ERA’s. FIP has proven to be far more predictive of future ERA than ERA itself, and so is always worth examining when discussing pitching performances.
The data points out that the Astros bullpen was perhaps better than its ERA indicated during 2017. If so, if nothing changes between 2017 and 2018, there is a better-than-even chance that it will yield better run prevention results this upcoming season.
Of course, things have already changed in the Astros’ bullpen. Let’s see how much. Prepare to dig into an exhaustive examination of the Astros’ 2018 bullpen options.
The Dearly Departed
We first pay respects to those relievers who contributed to the Astros’ World Series winning run who will not return for the repeat try.
Musgrove was traded to the Pirates this offseason in the deal that brought starter Gerrit Cole to Houston. Musgrove’s past and future reside with the starting rotation, but after struggling in that role with the Astros, he exploded when given a chance to pitch out of the pen.
In his 31 innings in relief, he pitched brilliantly, limiting opponents to 1.44 earned runs per nine, while striking out a batter per inning.
Also gone in the same deal, Feliz’ 48 innings for the Astros were not quite as successful, with a 5.63 ERA. Under the hood looked better though: his 3.78 FIP reflected his 13 K/9 strikeout rate. Unfortunately, timely hits led to untimely runs. Prognosticators project a big breakout for Feliz as an elite bullpenner in the near future.
Gregerson had a stellar 2015-2016 with the Astros, posting ERAs in the very low 3’s. His sinker/slider combo stopped working as well during 2017, resulting in a 4.57 ERA, primarily due to an unusually high home run rate. This trouble was unaccompanied by any red flags in his velocity or pitch selection, so a bounce-back is likely. That bounce back will have to come with the St. Louis Cardinals with whom he signed after leaving as a Free Agent.
Liriano was acquired near the trade deadline to provide some much-needed lefty relief options to a 2017 bullpen that had a perception of struggling versus southpaw batters (a false perception, as it turned out, as the Astros’ relievers ERA and FIP versus lefties was actually better than against right-handers).
Liriano, converted to the pen for the first time in his career, did not pan out as hoped, although he seemed to settle in late during the season and provided a couple important playoff innings. His strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate increased, and the run prevention results did not match his sparkling career numbers versus lefties.
In September though, the story turned around. In a (very) small September sample, his ERA was 1.59, striking out well more than a batter per inning. During the playoffs he allowed one earned run in 2-1/3 innings.
Liriano probably wants a contract as a starting pitcher, but the pickings are slim, especially for a 34-year-old with poor recent results in the rotation. His best offer may be a one-year return engagement as a lefty reliever with the reigning champs.
Other guys: Dyan Diaz, Ashur Tolliver, Tyler Clippard, Jordan Jankowski
Clippard was also acquired late in season to provide some assistance to a tired pen. And he was just a disaster, ‘nuff said. The other fellows saw limited time with the Astros, providing below-average production.
All told, nearly a third of the innings pitched by 2017 Astros relievers were thrown by players who are no longer with the organization, putting up an ERA of 5.76. Without Musgrove’s 31 innings, that figure was 6.77, illustrating that the Astros stand a great chance of improving their overall bullpen output in 2018 just by upgrading to “average” from the fellows lost.
A core group of relievers performed well last season and are locks to return to the fold. This group of four pitchers was responsible for 209 innings during 2017, with a shiny 2.54 ERA.
Far and away the Astros’ best reliever throughout the year was their closer Ken Giles, who baffled batters by striking out twelve per nine innings, limiting walks, and generally befuddling them en route to a 2.30 ERA and 2.39 FIP that was 11th best in the major leagues out of 155 qualified pitchers.
Giles, of course, seemed to develop the yips during the 2017 playoffs and was essentially benched during the World Series.
But “100 Miles Giles” is only 27 and is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the major leagues. His lethal fastball-slider combination recalls to Astros fans the arsenal of past Astros relief greats Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner.
Despite a vocal sect of Astros fans continual disparagement, Giles holds a 2.43 career ERA and an even-better 2.25 FIP, and is the ideal closer, having blown only 4 saves or holds in 40 chances during 2017.
Still seemingly the oft-forgotten man in the bullpen by the fans, Harris is perhaps the most successful free pickup of GM Jeff Luhnow’s long list of darned good free pickups. And that’s saying a lot, when one considers Marwin Gonzalez and Collin McHugh.
During his three seasons with the Astros since coming over from the Diamondbacks on a waiver claim, Harris holds a 2.30 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 180 innings, an All Star selection, and has been one of the most consistent relief pitchers in the majors.
With his combination of cut fastball and curveball, he presents a different look from Giles that will continue to generate outs in 2018.
Devenski, or Devo, was a nondescript starting pitching prospect who went unprotected and unclaimed during the 2015-2016 off-season Rule 5 draft. Since that happy happenstance, Devo has pitched as one of the major league’s most dominant relievers, and one who gobbles innings.
Armed with a change-up that makes All Stars look foolish, Devo logged the fourth-most bullpen innings in the major leagues last season, with 81, en-route to a 2.68 ERA and 11 K/9 season.
He will be under club control for a further four seasons, and this former non-prospect figures as an indispensable cog in the clockworks of Astros’ future successes.
Once a top-100 starting pitching prospect, then an oft-injured never-was, and finally an ineffective journeyman, Peacock at the age of 29 transformed himself into one of the most dominant pitchers — rotation and bullpen — in the majors.
A long shot to even remain with the club out of spring training, a lingering injury to McHugh landed Peacock a bullpen spot, and he rewarded the Astros for their long patience after acquiring him in trade prior to the 2013 season.
As a reliever, Peacock held a 1.77 ERA in 20 innings, striking out 26 batters. After injuries to Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers opened up the rotation, Peacock then made 21 starts, allowing a shockingly low 3.22 ERA.
He credits his success to a new arm angle and a new pitch taught to him by teammate Jordan Jankowski during the AAA All Star break in 2016. Since his sudden production outburst is rooted in tangible changes to his approach, there is no reason to doubt that his success can continue.
(Incidentally, Peacock then taught the pitch to McHugh, who was also pretty good in 2017, and Jankowski apparently learned it from Gregerson, so we have a tidy little circle that ties back to the value Gregerson brought to the Astros during his tenure that can’t be overlooked.)
The “New” Locks
So that’s four locks for the bullpen. The Astros have also added two quality free agents to strengthen the core.
In the midst of a MLB Hot Stove season that currently has a burnt-out pilot light, the Astros struck early and quickly, quietly signing free agent reliever Rondon to two years and $8.5 million.
The right-hander served as the closer for the Chicago Cubs from 2014 through 2016, racking up 77 saves during that time. Last season, he backslid, posting a 4.24 ERA in 57 innings, during which he struggled by allowing career-high home run and walk rates.
The Astros hope that 2017 proves an aberration; prior to 2017, Rondon typically walked fewer than two batters per nine, a figure which would keep him in the top 20 among qualified relievers.
Rondon throws a fastball that averages 97 miles per hour and couples it with a hard slider that comes in at 86 mph.
One day prior to inking Rondon, the Astros signed righty Joe Smith to a two year $15 million deal.
Smith, 33, bounced around the league during his career, always providing production somewhere between good and excellent, while never wowing anybody with strikeout numbers or walk numbers.
That changed in 2017, Smith increased usage of his four-seam fastball at the expense of his sinker, and his strikeout rate increased from 7 per nine innings to 12 per nine. His walk rate decreased to a minuscule 1.67.
The Astros obviously are counting on him to not only retain that level of performance, but to also continue another trend - that of dominating right-handed batters.
As noted above, the Astros struggled more versus right-handers than lefties during 2017, and Smith will help fix that. Against northpaws, Smith was lethal in 2017, holding them to a .216/.235/.311 line that mirrors his career averages of .213/.282/.306.
But wait, there’s more!
That makes six. The Astros will carry seven or eight relievers at any one time, depending on how they choose to use the Designated Hitter lineup spot.
That means that there isn’t much room remaining in the bullpen, despite many remaining candidates.
Sipp inked a 3-year, $18 million contract with the Astros after the 2015 season. In 2015, it looked like money well spent, when the lefty pitched 54 innings of 1.99 ERA ball.
In 2016, however, Sipp took an enormous step backwards. Everybody hoped he would recover and make the investment worthwhile in 2017, but that proved futile when he allowed a 5.79 ERA in 37 innings.
Sipp, plagued by homers despite good strikeout and adequate walk totals, may be a sunk cost in 2018. However, that contract assures that he will get an opportunity, at least in Spring Training, to show that he still belongs on a championship roster.
Quick! Which Astro logged the fourth-most innings out of the bullpen in 2017?
You’re wrong. It was Hoyt. Hoyt, only 31 and entering his second full major league season, remains an enigma. For the second season, he posted a lackluster ERA despite impressive walk and strikeout peripherals.
He was doomed in 2017 by a high BABIP. Whether that was bad luck or whether his pitches are too easily identified by batters has not been determined. If those hits are flukey, then Hoyt has the goods to be one of the best middle relief options in the majors.
If the Astros make no further moves, Hoyt is right on the bubble to open the season on the Astros’ major league roster with another chance to establish himself.
Many colleagues see McHugh as the odd man out, requiring a trade now that the Astros’ rotation seems full-up.
To this author, that seems a hasty assessment. McHugh was an above-average starting pitcher during his healthy stint in 2017. He notched a 3.55 ERA in 12 starts, struck out a batter per inning, kept his walk rates characteristically low. He remains one of the majors’ underrated starting pitchers, even after garnering Cy Young Award votes in 2015.
A potential criticism has been how well his stuff could play out of the bullpen, a fair question to ask of a pitcher that barely tops an average fastball velocity of 90 mph.
But one could also argue that he fits into a bullpen no worse than the starter version of Devenski (90 mph as a starter, 94 mph out of the pen) and Musgrove (93). Pitchers usually gain a couple miles per hour when moving into the pen, and McHugh should be no different.
His five-pitch mix should keep batters off-balance, and if his new slider is as helpful to him as it has been to Peacock, it is possible (although obviously far from certain) that McHugh could be an effective force in relief.
Considering his lack of minor league options, and the Astros’ need for depth to protect against injuries in the rotation, the high likelihood is that McHugh will feature prominently in both roles for the 2018 Astros. That is, if he doesn’t push fellow rotation mate Charlie Morton into the bullpen instead. Think about it.
Martes, the former Top 50 prospect who no longer qualifies as a prospect, is likely destined to begin the season at Triple A as a starting pitcher. There he will be available for the Astros to call on for either rotation or bullpen help, as-needed, while further developing to reach his eventual calling as a Top of Rotation starting pitcher [crossing fingers].
Paulino, on the other hand, still qualifies as a prospect, and will be looking to recover his disastrous 2017 (PED suspension, injury) as a starting pitcher in AAA. But he has already tasted the big leagues and is on the 40-man roster, and so is an option to pitch some innings for the Astros this season.
Fans looking for the next miraculous Luhnow “free pickkup” have pinned their hopes on Boshers, a 29-year-old lefty claimed off waivers from the Twins a few weeks ago.
Boshers is a mixed bag of results, with a fastball that has been measured all over the low 90’s, a slider, and a mid-80’s changeup. In the majors, his ERA stands at 4.59 over 86 innings, mostly during 2016 and 2017. He will be given an extended look in Spring Training as the Astros try to figure out who their designated lefty will be, or if they even have one.
Another candidate for that role is Gose, selected in this year’s Rule 5 draft from the Rangers.
Gose, a converted outfielder who was once traded for Roy Oswalt and after being an Astro for a minute, was traded for first baseman Brett Wallace. Still only aged 27, Gose has nonetheless played in 372 major league games and holds a .240/.309/.348 line with 12 home runs and 57 stolen bases.
Last season, Gose converted to the mound, where he reportedly hits 100 mph with his fastball. He pitched a total of 11 innings in his professional career so far, all at advanced A for the Tigers’ farm, with a 7.59 ERA and 2.65 FIP.
Those results are meaningless at that sample, and the Astros were interested enough to nab him in Rule 5 draft so they could figure out if they can harness that fastball to be an effective major league pitcher.
Recall, that in order to keep Gose, the Astros are required to keep him on the 25-man roster, making him an automatic member of the 2018 bullpen, unless they return him to the Rangers from whence he came. Alternately, they can work out a trade deal with Texas that will allow them to return the high-octane hurler to the minors for seasoning.
The Mystery LOOGY
Which raises some questions. Who will be the Lefty One Out GuY (LOOGY) that has become the staple of major league bullpens? For that matter, who will be the lefty pitcher at all? Or...do the Astros even want one? Do they need one?
These are all valid questions, as they were in 2017 when first Sipp, and then Reymin Guduan, and then Liriano all struggled to put away major league batters with their left arms.
Sipp, with his contract, probably gets first look, if only to confirm that it is time to part ways.
The next most realistic option is Boshers, who has some major league experience, as pedestrian as that is. Perhaps the Astros can change something in his approach to make him adequate at the position.
Gose realistically is going to need to perform miracles (read: walk no batters, allow almost no runs) during Spring Training to prove he belongs in a major league bullpen, due to his lack of experience. But his stuff is obviously tremendous, and so his will be a story to watch this spring.
Finally, perhaps the Astros don’t need a designated lefty-getter-outer this season at all. Say what, you say? That’s right. They already have lefty killers in the pen.
Among ALL major leaguers who faced lefties for at least 30 innings (not just relievers), Devenski’s wOBA (a useful stat that encompasses all aspects of offense) versus LHB ranked BEST in the major leagues (you read that right) at .184. (note: second best? Astros’ starter Keuchel, with Morton clocking in at 20th and McCullers at 30)
Left-handers batted .110/.178/.236 versus Devenski, a number that encompasses 157 batters faced.
Do the Astros really need a LOOGY? When facing a lefty-heavy lineup, Devenski can come in for a couple innings in a row, on only a few days’ rest, and mow through them with ease.
His weapon? A changeup that fades so hard away from lefty batters that it looks the way a slider would coming from a lefty pitcher. Coming as it does from the opposite side of the rubber, to the batter it looks like a meatball out of Devo’s hand, traveling towards the center of the plate. But it never quite makes it, breaking down and away and eventually forcing foolish looking swings. (see video at 0:28)
Not to be overlooked: Harris also boasts a better line versus lefties for his career than he does against right-handers, with an average slash line of .200/.253/.297 against them.
On the Farm
Whew! Are we done yet? NOT REMOTELY! Every year there are call-ups from AAA or AA, for injury fill-in or because of surprise dominance that demands attention. In no particular order:
Reymin Guduan - 26 YO, hard-throwing lefty who struggled in his ML debut in 2017. Has a lot going for him, if he can command the strike zone the way he did at AAA in 2017.
Jandel Gustave - 25 YO right-hander with typical middle-relief stuff who is currently on the shelf after having Tommy John surgery in June.
Brady Rodgers - 27 YO starting pitcher with nothing left to prove in the minors but no room at the inn. A control artist who would do well at the back of rotation for many non-Astros clubs. He also had Tommy John surgery in 2017, but will be back in time to log many innings in 2018. Deserves a chance. Won’t get it in Houston.
Brendan McCurry - 26 YO; after returning from a suspension for testing positive for meth, the short right-hander has always dominated batters in the minor leagues, posting high strikeout rates and low walk rates. He’ll get his chance, but probably not in 2019 unless he is traded or things go horribly off the rails at the big league level.
Cy Sneed - 25 YO; unabashed hunting enthusiast Sneed still has a bit more to prove in the minors after barely reaching AAA. Still, he is seen as having big-league stuff, and may peek into the majors in September.
Trent Thornton - 24 YO; a starting pitching prospect who has hit the glass ceiling, he will spend 2018 in the Fresno rotation trying to learn a killer put-away pitch to prove that he can be effective above Double-A. Probably won’t see the majors this year with the Astros, but there’s always a chance.
Kent Emanuel - 25 YO; a starting pitching prospect in much the same boat as Thornton and Rodgers - nowhere to go, and still some things to prove. The former 3rd-round draft pick needs to find a wipeout pitch and prove that he can stay healthy
Mike Hauschild - 28 YO; taken in the Rule 5 by the Rangers in 2017, then returned after eight homer-prone innings in the major leagues, Hauschild is prob/ably running out of options to show he can reach the majors and be successful. But there’s always a chance, and he has had a long and moderately successful minor league career to prove that he deserves a chance somewhere.
Rogelio Armenteros - 23 YO; could be this year’s starter-to-bullpen call up, a-la Paulino, Feliz, and Martes in recent years. The righty wrecked double (1.93 ERA) and triple-A (2.16) this season, suddenly putting his name on the map among the Astros’ most intriguing prospects.
Forrest Whitley - 20 YO; MLB’s #9 prospect, with his trajectory through the minors comparable to those of Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez, if the Astros need a late-season boost by one of the most dynamic arsenals in professional baseball, they could turn to Whitley, before he is even old enough to order drinks.
Just for Fun
Oh, but let’s not forget! The Astros’ best reliever last season, bar none, was third base prospect J.D. Davis, who pitched 1-2/3 innings with the 2017 major league club, striking out three of the seven batters he faced while walking one.
Hat tip to corner infielder Tyle White as well, who will probably break camp in a 1B/3B/LF/DH utility role. He pitched an inning last year. Alas, he did not fair as well as Davis, allowing two earned runs. The silver lining? He pitched in relief better than Fiers, who also allowed two earned runs in his one relief inning, but who gave up a walk, something White did not do.
Predictions / Projections
So how does the dust settle? Opinions differ among fans. An informal poll taken on an Astros Slack chat workspace [ahem, join. It’s fun. I’ll post the link in the comments] resulted in 21 votes and no clear conclusion.
The question asked: Who will be the LOOGY, as that seems to be the role that will define the last couple spots in the pen.
5 - Buddy Boshers, the lefty du jour
5 - Devenski and Harris
3 - No designated LOOGY (which is really the same thing, now I think about it)
3 - Some other Free Agent, other than:
2 - Francisco Liriano again
2 - Tony Sipp and his contract
1 - Anthony Gose (only Brian believes!)
If the Astros do carry a lefty, the bullpen probably will look something like this:
McHugh or Morton
If they opt for the Devo flavor of lefty dominance, it could be this:
McHugh or Morton
If the Astros choose to only carry seven relievers, then who the heck knows what they’re going to do. Smart money would be on the second option, with Hoyt returning to AAA for a quick call-up, because it’s hard to imagine the Astros not wanting the depth in their starting rotation that keeping McHugh or Morton in the bullpen would provide them.
Either way, considering the performance of those pitchers leaving the Astros, coupled with (presumably) the loss of Sipp’s pitiful 2017 output, the 2018 Astros bullpen, with the addition of two strong free agents, looks to be a big step upward from a 2017 unit that was already pretty good.