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Astros Bullpen: Just how bad are they?

The only thing worse than the Astros bullpen is all the others.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Seems sometimes like the Astros’ bullpen is terrible. How many times have we seen meltdowns like this:

Or maybe because you just can’t trust the bullpen, stuff like this happens.

Well, here’s some news. The Astros bullpen isn’t the only one to blow games. All things considered the Astros’ bullpen, like last year’s, is one of the best in the AL.

First. let’s look at that blown saves thing. Now keep in mind, as a team near the top of baseball in winning percentage, and with one of the best rotations in baseball as well, the Astros bullpen has among the most save opportunities, and therefore the most opportunities to blow saves. Yet among contending teams the Astros are second best in terms of blown saves, with 18, two more than the Indians, and two less than the Rays and Twins, followed by the Yankees and Athletics.

The Astros’ bullpen has outright lost 15 games, third best in the AL, three more than the Indians, and two more than the Yankees.

Let’s look at some more advanced stats. The following chart is a statistical comparison of the bullpens of the contending teams on the AL. I threw in the Dodgers as they appear to be the most likely NL opponent in the World Series.

Bullpen stats of AL contenders, 2019

Team ERA/rank AVG/rank WHIP/rank xFIP/rank SIERA/rank
Team ERA/rank AVG/rank WHIP/rank xFIP/rank SIERA/rank
Astros 3.76/3rd .226/1st 1.21/1st 3.99/1st 3.81/1st
Indians 3.44/1st .242/6th 1.25/3rd 4.52/6th 4.05/5th
Rays 3.63/2nd .227/2nd 1.21/1st 4.18/2nd 3.93/2nd
Yankees 4.08/4th .239/5th 1.32/5th 4.23/3rd 4.02/4th
Twins 4.40/8th .258/11th 1.37/7th 4.37/5th 4.06/6th
Athletics 4.00/4th .235/4th 1.29/4th 4.85/12th 4.34/8th
Dodgers 4.13 .226 1.21 4.41 4.04

As a group, the Astros are first in all of these categories except ERA, where they are not far off.

Of course, as we approach September, all eyes are starting to cast their gaze on the playoffs. The stats above can be misleading in that they may reflect bullpen depth and overstate the importance of performances in low-leverage situations. But in the playoffs there are fewer low-leverage situations, and what matters most is the performance of your top four or five arms.

So let’s look at who has the best four or five arms.

Using the metric SIERA, which Fangraphs considers to be its most accurate and predictive tool, The Astros have four pitchers rated in the top 30, Ryan Pressly #4, Will Harris #15, Roberto Osuna #18, and Josh James #26.

By comparison, the Athletics have only one pitcher in the top 30, Liam Hendricks, #6. The Indians have three in the top 30, Brand Hand, Oliver Perez and Nitt Wittgren, numbers 9, 14 and and 27 respectively; the Rays three, Emilio Pagan, Colin Poche, and Oliver Drake, numbers 1, 2, and 21 respectively. The Twins have two, Taylor Rogers, and Tyler Duffey, numbers 7 and 17 respectively; and the Yankees also have three, Tommy Kahnle, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green, numbers 5, 12 and 30 respectively.

If you use xFIP as your metric it brings a few changes to the top 30. Collin McHugh as a reliever replaces Josh James for the Astros. The Yankees add Zack Britton to the list, and the Rays add Diego Castillo. Ryan Pressly moves up to #1 on the leaderboard.

So the Astros compare favorably in terms of overall bullpen strength as well as strength at the top of the pecking order.

But every Astros fan knows there is a giant elephant in the room that I haven’t discussed; injuries. The Astros’ best reliever, All-Star Ryan Pressly, is on IL and may not be ready for the ALDS. Josh James, inconsistent even before his injury, is also on IL. Brad Peacock has just returned from IL, and we wait to see how complete his recovery is.

So if healthy, despite glitches that happen to every bullpen, the Astros bullpen is among the best in baseball. However, due to injuries, the Astros may be at a handicap in the bullpen going into the playoffs. That remains to be seen.