In recent days, the Astros’ bullpen has become prone to springing leaks — which threaten to grow into gushing breaches. The bullpen’s failures were difficult to ignore in the Dodgers’ series. In consecutive games, Bryan Abreu and Rafael Montero blew three-run Astros’ leads. Thankfully, the Astros came back to salvage the latter game.
In some ways, this falls in the category of “learning how the other half lives.” The Astros’ bullpen in 2022 was superb. It was so remarkable that some regression this year was to be expected. As jarring as the bullpen’s recent performance has been, most other teams experience this kind of inconsistency with frequency.
Despite the recent difficulties, the Astros’ bullpen continues to rank well. The Astros’ relievers rank 6th and 9th in WAR and ERA, respectively. Even better, the Astros’ relievers rank 1st in both Stuff+ and Pitching+, which suggests that the results should be better.
The bullpen mess came to the surface in June, with reliever meltdowns spoiling well-pitched games by the starters. The win probability stats identify shutdown (SD) innings and meltdown (MD) innings. The reliever results for June 1 - June 26 are shown below.
SHUTDOWNS AND MELTDOWNS (JUNE)
Pressly 10 Games 3 MD 3 SD 30% MD 30% SD
Montero 10 Games 3 MD 1 SD 30% MD 10% SD
Maton 12 Games 5 MD 2 SD 42% MD 17% SD
Abreu 11 Games 2 MD 3 SD 18% MD 27% SD
Stanek 7 Games 2 MD 1 SD 29% MD 14% SD
Martinez 6 Games 2 MD 1 SD 33% MD 17% SD
Neris 11 Games 1 MD 4 SD 9% MD 36% SD
18 meltdowns over 24 days seem rather extreme and out of character for the bullpen. Phil Maton, in particular, had a very rough go of it in June, with 5 meltdowns in 12 games. Montero and Pressly both had a 30% rate of meltdowns during this period. The only difference between Montero and Pressly is that Pressly was more likely to pitch a shutdown inning than Rafael. Neris was the only relief pitcher who had a good June, with only one meltdown in 11 games. Four relievers had a meltdown rate of 30% - 42%, which is not the kind of odds you want for bringing a reliever into the game.
The BABIP for some of the relief pitchers in June suggests a fair amount of bad luck. Examples of the June BABIP: Abreu .370, Stanek .500, Maton .364, and Montero .407. Over the last two weeks, Montero’s BABIP is over .600, which is unsustainable in a spectacular way. Typically we assume that pitcher BABIP will regress to around .300. Even position players who are forced to pitch have an average BABIP close to .300. The unsustainable BABIP results in June for these four pitchers are likely to regress.
What should the Astros do?
I assume that the Astros will perform their due diligence to make sure none of the relievers are injured. Beyond that, some shifting of bullpen roles could be considered.
Rafael Montero receives a lot of fan anger, which is what you expect for a pitcher with a 7+ ERA. The June BABIP for Montero and Stanek elevated horrendously with runners in scoring position, which leads one to question their proficiency in pitching from the stretch. Despite the poor results, Montero is No. 2 in Stuff+ and Pitching+. Even during the terrible June, Montero’s Stuff+ continued to be well above average for the fastball, sinker, and slider (105, 111, 110). However, his changeup was very poor during that period (49), and perhaps he should re-evaluate throwing that pitch.
It might be reasonable to consider temporarily moving Montero’s role to the 6th inning so that he can pitch with less pressure. Maton’s June was as bad or worse than Montero’s, and he also should be used in the 6th inning rather than later high-leverage innings. Maton’s problem is partly regression after an incredibly good April/May. However, I think it’s also possible that he has been overworked and perhaps can improve his results with a few less appearances.
But if Montero is removed from the high-leverage innings, who replaces him? There really aren’t any good answers. Some commenters have suggested Seth Martinez could take Montero’s role in the 7th or 8th inning. That’s plausible. He is a very useful relief pitcher. But don’t raise expectations too high. He is a reliever with a 91 mph fastball whose ERA was 5.71 during June. Even Pressly, Stanek, and Abreu exposed some warts in June that make any relief pitcher sequencing in high-leverage situations uncomfortable.
It seems likely that GM Dana Brown will search for relief pitcher additions before the Aug. 1 trade deadline. The type of pitchers he targets probably depends on how the bullpen performs between now and then.
Just for fun, I reviewed the Kansas City Royals relief pitchers since we know that team is not contending for the playoffs this year. I identified three potential relievers who may spur interest from contending teams. Obviously, I don’t know if the Astros have interest in these three relievers, but they are fascinating targets. Two of the three relievers are high velocity pitchers similar to Bryan Abreu and Ryne Stanek. Each of the three relievers would be close to the top of Stuff+ ranking in the Astros bullpen.
LHP Aroldis Chapman.
Famous for his 100+ mph fastball, the former Yankees’ closer had a down year in 2022 and took a cheap contract with the Royals to restore his pitching credentials. (138 Stuff+) He still walks batters, but it’s hard to argue with 16.9 K/9. His experience taking the Cubs to the 2016 World Series could be helpful in the playoffs.
RHP Carlos Hernandez.
Unlike Chapman, Hernandez is not a rental and is under team control through 2027. Hernandez averages 99 on his fastball but has yet to establish himself as a top reliever. (Stuff+ 128) His K/9 (10.86) and BB/9 (2.93) are a good combination.
RHP Scott Barlow.
Barlow throws a more conventional 93 mph fastball, with a slider and curveball as his best pitches, which produce a K/9 of 12.46. (Stuff+ 110) Barlow is arb eligible and has one more year of team control.
I’m not sure what the prospect cost would be for one of these pitchers. That’s a topic for another day.
What are your thoughts?