Astros Early Season Report: Bullpen and Baker Limiting Explosive 'Stros

This is an article I wrote for the Fangraphs community research page. Please note that I wrote this article before our abysmal showing against the Angels last night, so the stats are ever so slightly out of date. Also, this is my first article of this sort so constructive feedback is welcome. Hope you are all enjoying the season so far.

The Astros are in a good spot right now. They can definitely win the AL West and be a top contender, but a few things really need to go their way. First of all, let's talk about what's working: The offense. The club has been putting up stellar numbers at the plate this year. They're top 5 MLB-wide in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB, wRC+ & R/G. The production is certainly there. Another notable statistic is their SO% of 19.0%, which is a full 2.7% ahead of the 2nd place Padres. However, they lead the league in double plays grounded into, which is... not ideal. I'm not too concerned, though, as the team has had a tendency to ground into double plays in years past. Add all that to Kyle Tucker's dismantling of the Blue Jays on Sunday, highlighting the unluckiness of the 77 point difference between his avg. and XBA as well as an astoundingly low .180 BABIP, plus the recent offensive resurgence of Martin Maldonado, and the hitting seems to be a place of security.

Starting pitching is there as well. With the exception of Greinke, all 5 starters have an ERA South of 4. This is slightly undermined by all 4 of them having a >.4 FIP-ERA difference, but even below league average pitching is plenty for their offense to offset. In addition, all members of the starting rotation are averaging somewhere between 5 and 6 IP/Start, with the exception of Luis Garcia just below at 4.9. While it would be nice to have a guy or two who can consistently get you 6+ [which was formerly had in Greinke before his recent stretch of short starts], this is by no means alarming.

Alright. Let's address the elephant in the room. The Astros bullpen is seriously underwhelming. Joe Smith is washed, Brooks Raley looks like a minor leaguer, and the rest of the pen is largely unproved. Fortunately, Ryan Pressly has been solid with a 1.80 ERA which is actually inflated from his 1.43 FIP, and is 6/6 in save opportunities. Ryne Stanek is second best with a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 IP, although the massive gap between that and his 3.17 FIP is something to keep a close eye on. Andre Scrubb has been rock solid thus far, though 5.2 IP is such a small sample size. Another X factor is Bryan Abreu, who's 4.00 ERA/4.21 FIP is not exactly head-turning. He's been trending in the right direction as of late, allowing only one earned run in his last 7 appearances, as well as throwing at least 1 inning in all 6 of his scoreless appearances within that span. Kent Emmanuel was electric in his first "relief" appearance, throwing 8.2 innings of 2 run ball after Jake Odorizzi's injury. Past that, he simply hasn't thrown enough to get a good read. For what it's worth he's been solid, but similar to Scrubb, time will tell.

Aaaaand that's about it as far as not-terrible pitching goes. Braindon Bielak has been passable in his limited appearances, though averaging 1 or 2 earned runs in 2-3 innings during garbage time isn't exactly impressing me. Joe Smith has been simply atrocious, with an ERA of 7.84 and a WHIP just North of 2 to go along with 2.6 HR/9. Across the board his stats look like a dumpster fire and I can't help but think the 37 year old Righty might just be washed. Last and certainly least is Brooks Raley, who can't get much worse. His 9.24 ERA over 12.2 IP really says it all. All this to say, the Astros bullpen has a solid closer [Pressly], a solid setup man [Stanek], 3 unproven middle-relief guys [Abreu, Scrubb, Emmanuel], and a couple of trash heaps [Smith & Raley]. This is certainly not ideal, especially for a team playing in the hitter friendly Minute Maid Park. There is hope, however, as Enoli Paredes looks to return sometime in May, and Framber Valdez is set to see Major League action sometime in June. Both will provide a much needed boon to the bullpen, as Enoli Paredes was a great setup man before injury and Valdez will allow Luis Garcia to transition back into a multi-inning relief man. Verlander could make a return in time for the playoffs and pitch out of the pen, which could be just what the team needs in October.

The bullpen woes are exacerbated by Dusty Baker's befuddling management. His continual use of Raley in close games where he has proven his inability to pitch effectively, combined with under-utilization of pitchers who have shown promise such as Emmanuel and Scrubb, have made the bullpen far less effective than it otherwise could be. Poor bullpen management has also inflated these guys' numbers, as they frequently have to come into high-leverage situations and surrender inherited runners. Baker has also made some questionable lineup cards, such as putting Myles Straw, who is slashing .204/.296/.250, in the lead off spot, or Aledmys Diaz [who has been decent at the plate in his limited use as a utility player a-la Marwin Gonzales] hitting second over guys like Bregman and Gurriel. On a more comedic note, Dusty Baker expressed his disappointment at Yankee Stadium for refusing to celebrate Jose Altuve's birthday, saying he thought they had a "friendly rivalry."