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Postseason Aspirations May Rely Upon a Leaky Bullpen

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The Astros’ goal of another World Series title could ride on how well the relief corps hold up in October.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

We already know that the Astros will lean heavily on their offense and rotation to propel any kind of postseason run. The lineup, adjusted for league- and park-effects, was 16 percent better than average. It was also the best in baseball this season by that same measure, wRC+. The rotation was more than adequate, if unspectacular on occasion. To borrow a football term, more of a bend-don’t-break unit. Still, this position grouping was worth 4.8 wins above average, with only the White Sox (10.5), Yankees (8.5), and Blue Jays (6.5) finishing better. There is no hidden mystery about why this roster was successful with a 95-67 record overall.

But postseason baseball is an entirely different beast than the regular season. While you can always look towards the next game in June for redemption, you aren’t afforded many of those same opportunities in October. Look at the 106-win Dodgers as they could be sent home for just having one bad day at the office in the Wild Card round. Even a five- or seven-game series doesn’t offer much of an opportunity to atone for past errors. It is a small window and players must capitalize. For the Astros, they’ll need the bullpen to not waste many opportunities to put opposing lineups away. In fact, I’d argue that the overall performance from the relief corps may ultimately determine whether this club can hoist a second World Series trophy.

Of the five clubs who qualified for the postseason in the AL, the Astros by far had the worst bullpen by wins above average at -3.6. Yes, a negative value, which isn’t something you’d like to see. The next lowest by that average were the Rays at a positive 1.3 wins, with the Yankees leading the way at 5.2. But those totals were compiled during 162 games and the front office made some changes along the way. We saw general manager James Click add four relievers to the mix by acquiring Kendall Graveman, Rafael Montero, Phil Maton, and Yimi Garcia in late July. While Montero is out due to injury, the trio of Graveman, Maton, and Garcia have altered the landscape of the bullpen to some measure. Has it been better or worse than it was prior to the trade deadline?

Prior to 7/30: 4.14 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 25.1% K, 10.5% BB, 71.8% LOB

Since 7/30: 3.92 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 26,7% K, 10.2% BB, 73.3% LOB

The results have clearly improved with the bullpen moderately righting the ship in the season’s second half. Strikeouts have ticked up while their fortunes with runners on base have gradually improved. Walks remain problematic, however, with only the Red Sox at 10.7 percent issuing more free passes than the Astros since July 30 out of the five postseason clubs. The relief corps, in a nutshell, can either pitch itself out of trouble with timely strikeouts or right into it with inopportune walks. The latter is perhaps the more pressing concern as it pertains to the bullpen in this postseason. Of the top relievers currently on staff, only Ryan Pressly, Brooks Raley, and Yimi Garcia have a walk rate than less than 6.3 percent from July 30 onwards.

One of the defining features about the postseason run of 2017 – other than the painfully obvious – was Houston’s reliance on starters providing crucial in relief. Lance McCullers Jr., the starter for Game 1, was on the mound when the team clinched the AL Pennant against the Yankees. Charlie Morton, now with the Braves, got the final out of the World Series to help secure the title. Heck, the Nationals used this formula to great – or painful – success in 2019. The plan for the Astros again is to perhaps use starters in critical situations out of the bullpen and this time around it appears as if Jake Odorizzi and Zack Greinke are the favorites to assume the role. If they can steady the ship known as Houston’s “Occasionally Sinking Bullpen,” then that would be a success. It might also mean the difference between bowing out in the ALDS or holding another downtown parade. Personally, I would love to see the latter.