In late July, I wrote here about how another late-inning implosion from the bullpen highlighted that unit’s limitations. When the relief plan was Ryan Pressly or bust, you’d probably have a fair number of the latter during a 162-game season. The hope earlier in the summer was that some combination of Pedro Báez, Ryne Stanek, and Cristian Javier, among others, would become sufficient in the second half.
Well, life doesn’t always work out, and plans can go awry. The Astros had found out about that little truth numerous times this summer when it came to the bullpen. Báez, the club’s key relief acquisition last winter, had only thrown 4 1⁄3 innings this season due to injuries with noticeably decreased velocity when he was activated. Stanek has had good and not-so-good stretches. Javier has the potential, but the results are sometimes inconsistent. Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor, the two main lefties, have had their moments, both good and bad. Enoli Paredes, last season’s breakout reliever, has been hampered by injuries and overall ineffectiveness. This list can go on for a while if I desired, but you get the point now.
This bullpen was probably among the worst out of all contending teams by fWAR (1.3) and roughly average when viewed against the remaining 29 teams through the end of July before the trade deadline. They walked 10.5 percent of all batters faced despite a relatively decent strikeout rate of 25.1 percent. While the overall numbers weren’t outright terrible (4.14 ERA, 4.41 FIP), it didn’t have the feel of a staff (-1.19 WPA) to thrive in high-leverage situations in October.
The trade deadline, though, has altered the trajectory of this bullpen for the Astros. By acquiring Kendall Graveman, Yimi García, Phil Maton, and Rafael Montero, general manager James Click has beefed up what was once considered a weakness into — do I dare say? — a strength. Since Graveman’s first game with the club on July 30, the Astros rank seventh in fWAR (1.5), 11th in ERA (3.50), and second in strikeout rate (29.5 percent). They’ve also cut down on walks by a noticeable margin with a 7.4 percent rate since Graveman’s first appearance. While there isn’t enough of a sample to properly gauge the results, the results have been nothing but encouraging. Hiccups and blown leads will occasionally come, yes, but this is finally a staff that isn’t dragging down the main product.
The key for the Astros, as we enter September, is for the bullpen to hold on to its gains in August. Recent additions —mainly Graveman — have played a large role in that reversal, but already existing members dating back to April have also contributed. Stanek and Javier, two pitchers mentioned earlier, each has a sub-3.00 ERA in recent weeks. Believe it or not, Raley finally has an ERA (1.70) lower than his FIP (2.73). Pressly has been fantastic, as usual. So, it isn’t all about the newcomers. For example, Montero is unfortunately out with injury, while García and Maton have had an up-and-down experience thus far. But their arrival has revitalized a bullpen that needed a boost. It also put these pitchers more into roles that they are familiar with. Good stuff all around in August as the Astros look to make one more push into the postseason.