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Re-thinking the bullpen problem: maybe it’s two problems?

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MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Let me begin with an obvious statement: the Astros bullpen is a problem. My colleague Cody recently outlined how, now that we’re spilling into July, time is running out for it to fix itself, and external solutions may need to be sought. I’d like to suggest that the problem is really two problems.

The first problem has to do with the most basic challenge facing every competitive team (sorry, Yankees fans, you can stop reading now)—does the team have what it takes, over the long slog of 162 games, to be one of five teams in each league to make the playoffs? I usually enter the season asking that question this way: will this team win 90 games? If you win 90, you usually make it since the advent of the double wildcard.

A lot of commenters on this blog had doubts about whether this team could win 90. Those doubts trickled into May. Baseball can always baseball, but there’s really no doubt in my mind. As of today, the team would need to play .500 ball, would need to go 38-39 to be precise, to get to 90 wins. The other teams vying for the 2nd wild card—Cleveland, Seattle, and Toronto— are all about 7 games back of Houston. Let me put this last sentence in shorthand: more than just the bullpen would have to implode for Houston to miss the playoffs.

Granted, it would be nice not to be the wild card, and not to have to nail bite our way to AL West crown. Those pesky A’s! The bullpen has saved 19 of 32 opportunities. The Giants, by comparison, have saved 24 of 31. Granted, the Save / Save Opportunity stat isn’t the most telling, but any observant fan knows that wins have been left on the table, and bad bullpen losses can leave a hangover. Things are getting better (one-third of our yearly total of Fangraphs’ bullpen WAR has been accumulated in July), but a blip is not a trend.

A healthy team needs 7-8 bullpen arms, and the logic of getting “a guy” (think of the Ty Clippard or F Liriano acquisitions of 2017 or Joe Biagini in 2019) is that such a pitcher knocks everyone down a peg in terms of leverage. Clippard wasn’t going to close, but he’d do a better job keeping a game close in the 6th inning than Reyman Guduan did. One or two of “those guys” would likely lower the odds of the dumpster fires that have tainted this otherwise glorious season.

We may need one or two of “those guys” to get through the dog days and slay the A’s. The problem is that we have about seven of them rehabbing or toiling in the minors. The most promising, Pedro Báez, has been pretty good his whole career. Josh James has elite stuff. And the Joe Smith from 2017-2019 is better than most of what comes in the package of a Clippard or a Biagini. And 2019 Bryan Abreu was just filthy in 8.2 glorious innings.

That only solves one problem, and does little or nothing for the second—winning the whole dang thing! The kind of reliever acquired to help nudge a team into the playoffs isn’t really needed, mainly because there’s almost no way this team misses the playoffs. Only the Dodgers have a higher playoff probability, and only the White Sox have a higher probability to win their division, per Fangraphs.

Except for one glorious Game 7 out by Liriano, none of those bullpen acquisitions made an impact in the playoffs. Here’s a brief review of bullpen usage from 2017-19. In 2019, the team played 18 playoff games. six non-starters threw more than 3 IP, one of whom had been a hybrid starter during the regular season (Peacock). In 2018, the team played 8 playoff games. Five non-starters threw more than 1.1 IP. Two of them were starters in relief (James, McCullers). In 2017, 18 games, 7 non-starters threw more than 3 IP. 3 (Musgrove, Peacock, McHugh) were starters-in-relief. Only about 4 relievers from the regular season make an impact in the playoffs, unless you’re the Rays and the bullpen is your strength.

The Astros real bullpen problem isn’t “getting a couple of guys” to save us from a Bielak blow-up. The problem is that the Astros need more high-leverage relievers. Javier, Garcia, and possibly McCullers will be thrust into higher leverage situations in the playoffs, where their bullpen stuff will play up. In short, they need a deal like the Ryan Pressly deal.

To make such a deal and stay under the luxury tax, Click will need to be very creative. Rather than “get a guy” to say they did something, I’d rather they roll the dice on someone who can be elite and record crucial outs to preserve a lead against the very best offenses in the playoffs. That’s the problem I’m worried about.