At this point in the season the idea has been beaten to death - the Astros are a near flawless team with one area of question: the bullpen.
Last year, the great debate was where the Astros ranked amongst the all-time great offenses. This year, the question has become whether or not the Astros have the best starting rotation in baseball history.
There have been no similar debates when it comes to the Astros bullpen, however. The very mention of the name “Ken Giles” might as well be the spawn of Cthulhu on Astros twitter these days.
Some fans are growing increasingly frustrated at what they perceive to be a bullpen that lacks any semblance of the “clutch gene”, while the opposition is growing increasingly frustrated at said fans for what they perceive to be a poor understanding of baseball.
The extremes on both side are wrong. The Astros bullpen is by no definition “bad”, but that doesn't mean it couldn't use an upgrade.
On paper, Astros fans have little to complain about when it comes to the bullpen. Astros relievers rank 2nd in ERA (2.70), 1st in FIP/xFIP (2.66/2.99), 2nd in strikeout rate (10.9 K/9), and walk fewer batters than any other team in baseball (2.29 BB/9).
The bullpen lacks any glaring holes. The Astros have long relievers, flamethrowers, hybrids, and it’s a dependable group from top to bottom. The team’s only reliever without a projected sub-4 ERA is Tony Sipp, the staff’s resident LOOGY who has less than 20 innings under his belt.
So what’s the issue? Detractors would point towards the group’s performance in high-leverage situations, and they certainly have a point - for the most part the bullpen has not been clutch this year. Yet, while on the right track, I think that misses the point.
While it's also the big stage I fear for the Astros relief pitchers, its for a different reason. My main issue with the Astros bullpen is that it is too damn solid, which hides the fact that there is room for improvement. To see what I mean by this, look at the table below, which compares the Astros to other quality bullpens. Note: I use Depth Chart projected ERA here because in most cases the sample is too small to use stats from this season, but I still wanted to show something forward looking and relevant to today.
Breaking Down Bullpens with Depth Chart ERA
Out of the seven teams, the Astros are the only one without a sub-3 ERA projected reliever.
It’s a near perfect staff - for the regular season. And that's the problem. In October the bullpen shrinks tremendously. The importance of the team’s top relievers exponentiate, and suddenly it doesn’t make sense to give equal weight to the entire bullpen.
The Astros have three guys that will retire the side two out of three times. But the Yankees have two guys that will retire the side three of four times. Come playoffs, these guys will be pushed to the max, and the best bullpens become the most top-heavy ones.
I do not mean this as a knock on Colin McHugh as I think it's great how he's reinvented himself as a reliever. But is it that much of a stretch to see other starters producing similar results in the same role?
The Astros could probably trade for multiple third or fourth starters, work their analytics and pitching staff magic, let the guy loose on a low amount of pitches, and find mid-to-low three ERA diamond in the rough relievers.
But the Astros don't need any more of that. The only thing this team conceivably needs is a lights out bullpen ace as a look ahead acquisition for the playoffs.
At the end of the season, the stats could easily show that the Astros have the best group of relievers in baseball. But the fact that the bullpen is so deep and consistent hides the fact that where it counts, the staff is a notch below other notable playoff pens we’ve seen in recent years.
Come playoff time, will Hinch continue to push his ace starters to the max and turn to McCullers or Morton over Giles or Devo in big relief situations? Tough to say, but I think adding a Brad Hand or Robert Osuna into the mix could only help things.