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Playoff Planning: Which Pitchers Will Make the Playoff Roster?

There’s been a lot of turnover in the Astros’ pitching staff in the past year; what does it look like this October?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros’ playoff chances continue to chug along at essentially a certainty (Fangraphs has it at 100%, with a 99.2% chance at taking the AL West), so we’ll continue to look at possible configurations of the playoff roster. Last time we focused on position players, so this time we’ll be looking at the team’s pitching options.

Based on the numbers from last time, we have eleven or twelve roster spots open for pitchers. That lines up pretty neatly with the playoff roster from last year, which featured eleven arms in the Division Series, then added Collin McHugh for the final two rounds.

The rotation is an easy place to start from. There was some degree of ambiguity in which starters would join the Astros in the 2017 postseason, with seven different starters starting a dozen or more games for the Astros even before accounting for then-new acquisition Justin Verlander. This year, that doesn’t look like it will be at all confusing; Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers have started 143 of the first 150 games for Houston this year, an incredible run that hopefully holds up for the rest of 2018.

McCullers will likely return in a bullpen role given his late-season injury, going by recent reports, and that’s not the worst thing. Someone would have had to go to the bullpen anyway to make up for the smaller rotations of playoff teams, and McCullers had a pretty good case given his relative struggles multiple times through the order.

Opponents’ OPS each time through the order [Starter: 1st/2nd/3rd]

Verlander: .588/.549/.735

Cole: .531/.665/.590

Keuchel: .739/.556/.806

Morton: .505/.736/.786

McCullers: .526/.720/.815

He’s not substantially different from Morton or Keuchel (other than first and second time numbers being flipped), so it won’t be like having to use Mike Fiers last year and dreaming about what could have been. Only having four players who can start does mean things would be a little thinner, given that likely-replacement starters Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock haven’t been stretched out at all this year (neither has gone more than three innings at the Major League level for a full year now), but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

That gives us six or seven bullpen spots to work with. This is a good time to note just how much turnover Houston has seen in over the last few months; over half of the 2017 playoff relievers (Francisco Liriano, Joe Musgrove, Ken Giles, and Luke Gregerson) are on different teams now, and the half that are still on the Astros aren’t necessarily locks for this year’s postseason.

Depending on how you look at it, there are about just under a dozen candidates for the last six or seven roster spots. Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock, and Will Harris have all thrown over fifty innings this year out of the bullpen. Joe Smith was one of the team’s headline free agent acquisitions last winter. Chris Devenski regressed after his breakout 2017, but he was still an All-Star arm last year. Tony Sipp seems to have rebuilt the team’s confidence in him to some degree this year (while also being more or less the only lefty in the pen). Plus, there’s midseason trade pick-ups Ryan Pressley and Roberto Osuna and late call-ups Josh James and Framber Valdez.

Of those, Valdez is probably the easiest to cut from the discussion. He’s been a solid spot-starter late in the year (he’s the only other Astros with more than one starts, and his one non-start of six appearances was 4.1 innings in relief to Brad Peacock’s lone, sub-2-inning start), and he has a wonderful story, but he also walks way too many guys (19 in just under 29 innings) even before considering that most of his starts have come against rather soft schedule (two appearances against the Angels and Mariners, one each against the Twins and Tigers; only the Angels are even in the top half of the AL in wRC+, at seventh).

I’ve seen some chatter around Josh James given his high velocity as a late-season call-up. I think the prospect is intriguing; given the higher degree of specialization in the playoffs, with greater focus on on things like pinch runners and defensive subs, could there be a place on a postseason roster for a pitcher with overpowering stuff, coming in to pump in triple-digit heat for a batter or two? While it’s an interesting question, I think there are enough options with more of a track record that experimenting on a guy with not-quite 11 major league innings in a high-leverage moment seems superfluous. Plus, the biggest benefits that I could think of to having a “stuff” specialist is to get whiffs in the form of strikeouts and swinging strikes, and James’s K% for the year (between the Majors and Minors) isn’t too far off from Brad Peacock or Ryan Pressley’s, nor has he shown an above-average ability to induce swinging strikes in his short stint the Major League level so far. He and Valdez could definitely factor into future Octobers, but this year just seems too soon.

On the flip side, Collin McHugh is probably the easiest call to make the roster. He leads or nears the top of a lot of different team reliever rankings, including innings, ERA, FIP, xFIP, WHIP, K%, and K-BB ratio. That kind of value in that quantity will be invaluable in October, and it’s hard to see the team deciding that seven other relievers would better serve their bullpen.

Tony Sipp probably also has an inside edge on making the roster thanks to being the only lefty to see significant playing time in the pen this year. It’s not a guarantee that the team will find this compelling; after all, they did carry just one left-handed reliever last October and didn’t use him all that much. But that was as much out of necessity as it by design, and thankfully, Sipp has looked more like his 2015 self than his 2016 or ’17 version (or Liriano last year). Sure, the home runs are flukishly low (0.26 per 9 innings), but his BABIP and strand rate are normal while his strikeout and walk rates are up (10.06 and 2.91 respectively, compared to 10.27 and 2.48 in 2015). And he has shut down left-handed batting (.210/.275/.323) while still being tough against righties (.226/.300/.355). If nothing else, he was a claim to the team’s lefty specialist role in the postseason.

Midseason pickup Ryan Pressley will also likely garner a slot. There aren’t many cases of teams not including major in-season trade acquisitions on their playoff rosters, and Pressley seems to have done exactly what Lunhow and company wanted him to when they brought him in from Minnesota, posting a 0.90 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, and 26 strikeouts in his 20 innings since the trade. For the full season, he narrowly tops McHugh’s inning totals (67.0), and his overall numbers, while not quite that unhittable, are still respectable (2.66 ERA, 2.56 FIP, 1.12 WHIP, 95 K). Speaking of midseason trades, that thinking likely extends to fellow new arrival Roberto Osuna, who has taken over closer duties and put up a 2.41 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP. He hasn’t struck out quite as many on the season as Pressley, but he walks much fewer, and his ERA and FIP for the year aren’t too far off from Pressley’s (2.65 ERA, 2.47 FIP).

Hector Rondon, Osuna’s predecessor in the closer role, is also probable (last night’s meltdown not withstanding). Last winter’s big signing is second in the bullpen in Fangraphs WAR (1.2), first in Shut Downs (20), and third in innings pitched (56.2). He definitely seems to have earned the trust of management as well, given his closer-turned-set-up-man status. All of that seems to point to a ticket to October, more likely than not.

That five slots accounted for and two more to go, with five pitchers still in the running. Brad Peacock is an interesting case, so we’ll touch on him next. He looks to have about as strong a case as McHugh, trailing only him for the team lead in innings (62.1), putting up an ERA roughly in-line with Rondon’s (3.03 to 3.02), and leading the entire team in strikeouts per nine (13.43) and K% (36.4%). He still walks a few too many guys, but overall, the team seems to trust him, and he’s been a mostly-dependable arm. The big question is how he’s recovered from his recent bout of hand, foot, and mouth disease. His first two innings back have been less-than-stellar, but it’s still early and I imagine A.J. Hinch will give him more opportunities in the final weeks of the season to show that he’s ready. If problems persist, then I imagine things will be more in question.

Chris Devenski’s case rests heavily on the strength of his 2017 season. He’s seen a slip in his strikeouts and strand rate and an increase in BABIP and home runs that have essentially transformed him into a league-average relief pitcher, with a 4.32 ERA, a 4.47 FIP, a 3.93 xFIP, and -0.1 WAR (in both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference versions). Had the team not added so much depth in the winter and at the deadline, he might have a place as the last man in the pen, but as is, he’s been pushed out. His usage reflects that, with only three appearances since coming off the Disabled List three weeks ago.

That leaves one more spot for either Joe Smith or Will Harris. Going by just ERA, Smith seems to hold a clear advantage (2.86 to 3.74), but a lot of that is driven by luck, with Smith posting a BABIP a full 100 points lower (.321 to .221) and a strand rate about 9 points higher (78.8% to 69.2%). As a result, Harris actually has the lower FIP of the two, 2.38 to 3.40. Neither seems to have totally lost favor as Devenski has, with both seeing regular playing time throughout August and September (in fact, the two are only separated by a third of an inning in that time). If you want someone to serve as a righty specialist, since that’s the one role we haven’t really touched on and the Astros already have plenty of arms who can go multiple innings, either will do nicely. Smith has held right-handers to a .198/.246/.330 line in 2018, while Harris has limited them to .198/.229/.307. Of course, Smith has been better against lefties if you do decide to leave him in against them. Ultimately, this is the roster spot I feel most ambivalent about. I think that the last two weeks might factor in to who makes it, and that whoever misses out will be the next to join the team in the event that the team needs another arm.

In the end, though, I’m going to guess the Astros go with Joe Smith. If the team starts with an eleven-man staff rather than a twelve-man, just based on McHugh’s late addition last year, I would bet a long-reliever like Brad Peacock gets the first week off (which would mean that the Division Series roster features no common relievers with last year’s DS roster). And ultimately, that gives us a twelve-man pitching staff of:

Starters: Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander

Relievers: Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, Ryan Pressley, Hector Rondon, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith