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Can the Astros Rookie Bullpen Prevail in the Playoff Wars?

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It’s a longshot. But that’s why they play the games.

Houston Astros v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Outside of Houston and the few other cities where the Astros have played this year, almost no one knows who these guys are.

Andre Scrubb. (Remember the jokes? We traded Tyler White for a Scrubb.)

Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Cy Sneed, Brooks Raley, possibly Luis Garcia; these are the unheralded rookies the Astros will have to rely upon to bridge the gap between their starters and closer Ryan Pressly.

These rookies may be the unsung heroes of the 2020 Astros, but are they up to the challenge of a five-game ALDS? In the short Wild Card Series starters like Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez filled almost all the relief innings. But in the longer series to come, it’s all hands on deck. Do these hands have enough experience to keep the Astros’ ship sailing? Or will the ship flounder during innings six, seven, and eight when the team will have to rely on these young arms to hoist the sails?

In the ALDS the A’s and Astros will play five games in five days if the series lasts that long. Amazingly, given the departures from last year’s staff and the injury to Justin Verlander, (and others) the Astros somehow seem to have a pretty solid five-man rotation, including Lance McCullers, Zack Greinke, Framber Valdez, and rookies Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy.

It’s unlikely however that you can expect any of the guys in this group to go past six innings, or even five very often. And that’s when the A’s hope to take advantage. The bullpen is one of the main strengths of the A’s, and looks like an exploitable weakness of the Astros.

In fact, the A’s bullpen was first in MLB in ERA at 2.72. Peripherals weren’t quite as kind, ranking the A’s bullpen ninth in xFIP at 4.27 and sixth in SIERA at 3.84. Still pretty respectable.

The Astros pen came in exactly league average, 15th in ERA, at 4.39. An average bullpen, good enough to get the Astros into the playoffs, comprised almost entirely of pitchers with no or almost no major league experience. As I said earlier this week, quite a good Cinderella story.

But not until they do it in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, advanced stats say the bullpen benefited from some luck during the season. XFIP was ranked 22nd at 4.82, and SIERA 24th at 4.55.

Will the stress of a compressed playoff schedule bring about the expected regression?

Let’s look at some of the individual stats to get a clearer picture at how lucky these rookie relievers have been during the 2020 season.

Andre Scrubb

He leads the relievers in innings pitched with 23.2. He has an impeccable ERA of 1.90 to lead the team, but an xFIP of 5.25 and SIERA of 5.68. He walks 7.61 batters per nine innings resulting in a very high WHIP of 1.48, But Scrubb has managed to strand most of these baserunners. His LOB% is a very high 89.3%, aided by a very low BABIP of .246.

On the plus side Scrubb has managed to avoid hard contact to an impressive degree, so maybe that BABIP isn’t just luck. In fact, it may be unlucky. According to Statcast the xBA for Scrubb is .195, and the xSLG is an elite .298. The discrepancy between his wOBA and xwOBA, .276 and .299, is not as great as the discrepancy between his ERA and xFIP.

The league has not been able to hit Scrubb hard in his limited time this year. The hard hit rate is only 22.4%, in the 99th percentile. The barrel % is only 3.4%, also elite. And he is among the league leaders in my favorite stat, xwOBACON (expected wOBA on contact), again indicating soft contact.

What it comes down to is the league can’t hit Scrubb too well, but he gives away a lot of free passes. Statcast puts it all together and assigns Scrubb a 4.09 xERA, not as severe a downgrade as his xFIP.

Still, expect regression from Scrubb.

Enoli Paredes

Enoli Paredes is tied with Blake Taylor for second among relievers in innings pitched with 20.2. He never pitched above AA before this year and yet his ERA of 3.05 is better than closer’s Ryan Pressly. But like Scrubb and most of these rookies, advanced stats predict regression; a 4.58 xFIP and a 4.63 SIERA.

Statcast measures are even harsher on Paredes. There’s a huge discrepancy between his wOBA, .297, and his xwOBA, .350, in the 13th percentile. His xERA is 5.80, also in the 13th percentile. His exit velocity is almost 90 mph, in the league’s 29th percentile.

Paredes is another rookie who has been blessed by the gods so far.

Blake Taylor

Taylor, a 2nd round draft pick in 2013, was acquired from the Mets in the Jake Marisnick trade and looks like a steal, especially since Marisnick had only one year left before free agency. His 2.18 ERA appears immaculate. Again, appearances deceive.

Both xFIP and SIERA project an ERA over 5.00. He walks over five batters per nine innings. His BABIP is an unsustainable .196.

But Statcast is much kinder to the lefty Taylor. Like Scrubb, Taylor has an ability to induce soft contact. His exit velocity, 83, his xBA, .180, xSLG, .278, and hard hit %, 22.4% are all elite.

Statcast assigns Taylor an xERA of 3.01, regression from his current number, but still in the league’s 87th percentile. Expect Dusty Baker to rely on Taylor.

Brooks Raley

Here, at last, is an under-achiever. Strange to say, given that he is a 32 year-old rookie. The injury-ridden and desperate Astros took a chance on him, picking him up from the Reds early in the season, and although his ERA is 4.95, his advanced stats are intriguing; xFIP 3.63, SIERA, 3.00.

He uses six different pitches. His fastball velocity is below average, around 91 mph, but both his slider and cutter are elite, with pitch values of 2.17 and 2.05 respectively, according to Fangraphs. (Zero being average). He may benefit from ditching the curve, which has a -3.37 rating.

Nonetheless, across the board his Statcast ratings are elite. His exit velocity of 81.7 mph is in the 100th percentile. His hard hit% is in the 99th percentile. His xBA is in the 95th percentile and his xWOBA is in the 83rd percentile at .263, below his current .276. His xERA is in line with his SIERA at 3.13, also in the 83rd percentile.

His K% is in the 87th percentile and his whiff% is in the 79th. He is striking out 12.15 batters per nine innings while only allowing 2.70 walks per nine.

Even better, since August 23rd, given a little time with Master Strom, his ERA is only 2.61.

Expect to see Raley in high leverage despite his high ERA.

The Rest

Besides closer Ryan Pressly, these are the four main pitchers the Astros have to rely on in high leverage situations. It’s not enough, so here’s how the bullpen will probably round out:

Josh James, 5.56 ERA

Cy Sneed, 5.71 ERA

Luis Garcia, 4.91 ERA. (He was not on the roster against the Twins but I presume he will be against the A’s)

Unlike Raley, none of these options look better when you dig into their advanced stats.

Can they do it?

To win this series with the A’s, the Astros will have to pray that the good luck of Srcubb, Taylor and Paredes holds out, that Raley and Pressly continue their recent success, and that James, Sneed and Garcia can be saved to eat innings when they don’t really count for much.

There’s another sleeper in this group. Since August 15th, in 9.1 innings, Josh James has a 1.93 ERA, but with a 5.04 xFIP and 4.47 SIERA. We’ll surely see him out of the pen before Sneed or Garcia and maybe his recent luck will hold as well.

Can this bullpen hold up? Logic says no. But logic said the Washington Nationals’ bullpen couldn’t hold up last year also, and look what happened.

If this batch of mostly rookies can pull it out it will be even more improbable. And it will also be the story of 2020. Some might even call it a miracle.