Astros’ relievers: Morphing from oxymoron to reality

In looking at the Houston Astros’ bullpen – I decided to pull up the definition of the word “reliever”.

Reliever: a person or thing that relieves…..well that is not too helpful. How about the definition of “relieves”.

Relieve: to free from anxiety, pain, fear, etc. OK now we are getting somewhere.

So…….A reliever is a person or thing who frees one from anxiety, fear and pain. Based on that definition the 2013 Astros bullpen had only a couple relievers, but they did have a whole lot of pitchers who intensified all the fans’ anxiety, fear and pain.

Looking Back at 2013

 Woody Allen tells a joke in the movie “Annie Hall” about a couple of Jewish matrons at a Catskill resort doing what they do best – complaining.

One says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

The 2013 Houston Astros’ bullpen was kind of the reverse of this. They were terrible and (bless Bo Porter’s doomed heart) due to an ineffective starting rotation there was a need to pitch them in “such large portions”. The stats on the bullpen confirmed what our eyes told us – this was a daily train wreck waiting to happen.

  • ERA – The Astros bullpen ERA (4.92) was the worst in the majors – Seattle at 4.58 was next worst. It was worse than the Astros bad starters ERA (4.72), double the Braves’ bullpen(2.46) and almost double the Royals’ (2.55).
  • Innings Pitched – It did not matter that the well was poisoned – Porter dipped into it for 534 innings on the season – 5th most in mlb and 3rd most in the AL.
  • The Astros’ pen was last in the majors with 14 wins, 40 losses, 252 walks and a 52 % save percentage.
  • They were tied for worst in the majors in blown saves (29), saves (32) and were worst in the AL in strike-outs (418) – not facing pitchers kept them out of the mlb lead in Ks.
  • For OPS against ( which is on base percentage + slugging percentage) and a good stat for overall effectiveness of an offensive player – they put up a staggering .816 OPS – Colorado’s bullpen was an extremely distant second giving up a .741 OPS for the opposing batters. To give you some perspective – Prince Fielder with 25 HRs and 100+ RBIs put up a nearly identical .819 OPS in 2013. So basically, the Astros bullpen let the average batter torch them with Prince Fielder type numbers. Insane!

So what happened? The two effective relievers in the bullpen – Jose Veras and Wesley Wright were both traded before the deadline. No other veteran stepped up to pitch well and the bullpen was basically left in the hands of eight guys making their major league debuts – Josh Fields, Paul Clemens, Jose Cisnero, Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, Chia-Jen Lo, David Martinez and Jorge DeLeon.

The kids tried hard, but did what young, inexperienced bullpens do – melted down early and often. Chapman pitched well, Cisnero had his moments and Fields – after posting a 7.59 ERA in his first 25 appearances, settled down and had a 1.62 ERA in his last 16 games.

Looking at 2014

 After the “Hell” that was the 2013 season – almost anything would be an improvement. Jeff Luhnow concentrated hard on this area – undoubtedly thinking that if he could bring the bullpen just up to mediocre he might change that 14-40 record up to something more palatable like 27-27. Thirteen games right there. OK – it is not that easy, since often the problem is that the offense would just forget to score for 5 -6 innings at a time. But improving the bullpen is also about investing in hope. Nothing knocks down the morale of a team quicker than blown saves. It just so often leads to a hangover of losses and has the starters looking over their shoulders and the manager doubting his every move.

So a big chunk of the bullpen improvement is hanging on the performance of the veteran troika of Matt Albers, Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain The most interesting thing will be seeing what role they fill in the back of the bullpen. Albers has no career saves, Crain has four and Qualls has 50+ – but has not had a save since 2010.

Albers, 31 is a local kid (Clements HS, San Jac JC) traded away with 4 others for Miguel Tejada in 2007. He had struggled for a number of years – but has pitched very well the last two seasons with Boston, Arizona and Cleveland with a cumulative 2.77 ERA over 123 IP out of their pens. While not likely to be picked as closer – he should show to be a solid 7th or 8th inning option.

Crain, 32 also has local connections after playing at U of H. Like Albers – he struggled for awhile, but he has improved the last 4 years with the Twins and White Sox – putting up especially gaudy K/9 IP numbers and excellent ERAs until being sidetracked with an injury in 2013.  Crain would seem to have closer type stuff – but really has never been used that way.

Qualls, 35, was part of the Astros last relevant teams 2004 – 2007 and with Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler helped close out many a game that the starters carried through 6 IP. Since turning 30 – he has been highly inconsistent, but claimed he went back to his old delivery in 2013 when he was extremely effective (2.61 ERA / 1.228 WHIP) for the Marlins.  Since Crain is coming off an injury – I think Qualls may be the pick for the closer spot at least starting in 2014.

So, assuming the Astros keep 12 pitchers – that leaves 4 more reliever spots and no leftys so far. So, Kevin Chapman, ye of the 1.77 ERA in 25 games last season – step on up. Based on performance last season, I would think that Josh Fields and Jose Cisnero have good shots at two more of the spots. And if he is not starting – Dallas Keuchel may nab the last spot as a swing man, long reliever and lefty.

The Future

While guys like Pat Urckfitz and Jason Stoffel have been leading the high minors bullpens for the Astros, there is a good chance that their future closer may be a current starter. Perhaps a Cosart will end up a closer or maybe Asher Wojciechowski.

Anyways – that is about as far as I want to take this discussion. Your turn to pick it up and run with it…I guess that is more a football term – but you get the basic idea.


47 comments on “Astros’ relievers: Morphing from oxymoron to reality

  1. Shouldn’t you have mentioned the guys in the BP who were awful and they got rid of?
    The rookies who were bad and then improved toward the end are encouraging. The guys we signed are encouraging. All the guys we will have at AA and AAA are encouraging.
    I think our bullpen will improve this year to middle of the pack and will be very good in a couple of years when all the arms have arived.


    • 1oldpro – I’m rarely accused of writing too little. In 2013 – you had guys:
      – Like Phillip Humber and Lucas Harrell, who after pitching their way out of the starting rotation, brought their special brand of gasoline to the bullpen fires. This landed Humber off the team and Harrell to the cusp of being released.
      – Like Travis Blackley, who was average against leftys and way below average against rightys and released.
      – Like Edgar Gonzalez, Jorge De Leon, Wade LeBlanc, Xavier Cedeno and David Martinez, who pitched poorly – but in such small samples (11.1 IP and below) – how to judge them?


  2. The bullpen will certainly improve. Credit where credit is due.

    My prediction: Chapman and Crain are both legit relievers, and will perform well and shoulder the load. Albers and Fields should settle in and be serviceable.

    However, I get the sense that Chad Qualls will be a bust. His command has been suspect the last couple years, and revising his delivery at age 35 smacks of desperation in my view.

    Whether or not Keuchel or Jerome Whats-his-name inherits the mop up role is a meh-factor.

    With the myriad of others that are left to round out the 12 roster spots, there’s enough depth — and trimming of the fat — to sculpt a decent BP.

    Kudos to Luhnow for shoring up the BP on the cheap, Chad Qualls notwithstanding.


  3. Last year I went to two Astros games, both at Target Field in Minneapolis. In both games, the Astros had the lead, and my wife, who bought our tickets as my Fathers Day gift, said, “Wow, they might actually win one for you.”
    I just laughed. “Wait until we get to the bullpen.”
    Sure enough, meltdowns occurred and I saw two Astros loses.

    I am so encouraged about the 2014 bullpen. Dan is right, blown saves are like a cancer (my apologies to anyone who has dealt with actual cancer). Pretty soon you start expecting to lose in the late innings. We’d certainly have had more than 29 blown saves if we’d have had more save opportunities to blow.
    I like your projected bullpen. I think Bass and Downs are also in the mix, but probably on the outside looking in.

    Having grown up in Omaha, I am encouraged by the season Jonas Dufek (Omahan and Creighton alum) had in Lancaster and Corpus. He also did well in the AFL, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Houston when the inevitable injuries and demotions occur.


  4. Normally I would wonder hard about Qualls delivery changes at his age – Bo, but I’ve read a couple of the interviews with him about it and what he says makes a lot of sense. He had been a very consistent / solid reliever through 2009. He then suffered a serious knee injury. When he came back he changed his delivery to take pressure off his knee because psychologically he did not trust it. This affected the effectiveness of his pitches especially his slider which became less sharp. He pitched this way for 3 seasons 2010 – 2012 with bad results. He realized that off-season that he had to change his mechanics back or he would never have a job again.
    He successfully did that in 2013 and his results were as good or better than his pre-2010 days.
    So, I’m willing to see what happens.


    • Qualls’ K/9 BB/9 and K/BB numbers, collectively, show that his stuff and command is probably not good enough to succeed as a closer. He hasn’t registered a single save in the Big Leagues since 2010.

      Thus, I just don’t think Qualls will win the job outright.

      Maybe Crain will take the job by brute force.

      But, I smell a more likely scenario: closer-by-committee.


      • If Crain was not coming off an injury – I would think he would be the choice even without save experience due to his high K/9 numbers. Assuming Crain is not quite ready coming out of ST – I am just guessing it would be Qualls. Another choice would be Fields who turned things around at the end of the season pitching well from mid-August to October.


  5. Dan, we’ve already touched on Keuchel a bit. If he wants to keep a job, (assuming he’s not traded for other parts), then he might have to go to work in the pen. As Chip pointed out to me yesterday, we’ve got seven lefties on the 40 man. But which of those guys do we have any real confidence in?

    I’d like to see Keuchel get one more chance at being a starter, but it looks less and less likely. Wandy didn’t begin to get untracked until he was 28.

    Now as for Wojoski, I’d hate to see him working out of the pen after being groomed as a starter. I’d stay the course with him, and I think he’ll at least make it tough on Luhnow to send him back to OKC after ST.

    We’re going to need to have a couple of surprise guys step up in the pen. Crain, Qualls and Albers provide some veteran presence, but will these guys be effective and remain healthy? Chance are that all three won’t.


  6. A quick look at the 7 leftys on the 40 man:
    – Chapman – looked good last season and I have him pencilled in the bullpen
    – Oberholtzer – Should be in the rotation
    – Rudy Owens – Pitched 4 games last season at AAA before getting injured for the season – not a likely bullpen candidate out of ST
    – Luis Cruz – pitched most of last season at A+ before being promoted for 4 games at AA. Not likely to make the big club out of ST
    – Keuchel – Folks have pointed out his good metrics that did not bring great results last season – but you have to wonder who Williams bumps out of the rotation.
    – Raul Valdes / Darin Downs – Two guys picked up off waivers after rotten (7.46 ERA for Valdes / poor (4.84 ERA for Downs) 2013’s. One of these guys might get waived to make room for Williams on the roster. One interesting thing – both of them had good stats against leftys – so they may look at one of them as a situational lefty. Downs has Valdes beat on age (28 vs. 35) and was bad, but not terrible against rightys.


    • Darin Downs is a sleeper. He can & has pitched better than his MLB numbers suggest. He pitched really good at the beginning of last season until he had some tendinitis or inflamation in his rotator cuff (I can’t remember) but his numbers around June & July were bloated because of it. I watched this dude get nailed in the head by a comebacker in the minors back in 2010 I think. The ball did fracture his skull, and he missed some time, but he recovered and made it to the big leagues. I’m a huge fan of Wesley Wright, but I think DD will be a better situational lefty in Houston than WW was. Don’t count him out.


  7. Just for grins on the Chad Qualls potential closer question.
    In 2013 – Jim Johnson (who?) led the AL with 50 saves for the Orioles.
    Johnson 2.94 ERA 1.280 WHIP 7.2 K / 9 IP 2.3 BB / 9 IP
    Qualls 2.61 ERA 1.226 WHIP 7.1 K / 9 IP 2.8 BB / 9 IP

    Just sayin’…..


  8. Calling Wesley Wright effective is a pretty big stretch. I’d say he wasn’t terrible in most games. He was very good in 2012 though.

    I’m all for a closer by committee. The only catch is Porter needs to communicate clearly what his expected roles for each pitcher will be each game. I’m not sure he can do that. It’s interesting that we enter 2013 without the thought that our “closer” will be trade bait in July.


  9. Curt Schilling revealed today that not only did he have a heart attack three years ago, he is also battling cancer. Thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family


    • And I heard that his wife is a cancer survivor.
      Schilling a former Astro – sent here in the Glenn Davis trade with Finley and Harnisch – left here in the trade for Mitch Wild Thing Williams.
      Only pitched in relief for Houston.
      Has had only bad things since retiring – lost millions in investments too.


      • Thanks Billy C – the memory is not always right.
        And good Ed Wood reference – though Ed – who made some of the cheapest and worst movies ever would have fit right on with the last 3 yrs of baseball.


      • Its not my fault I confused two Philadelphia pitchers who we traded good assets for and did next to nothing for us.
        Grimsley never played a game for the big club – threw badly at AAA Tucson for us in 1992 and then he was released.
        We traded Doug Jones and Jeff Juden for Wild Thing and he gave us 20 innings of 7.65 ERA ball before we released him.
        Shrewd trades.


  10. No one has mentioned Peter Moylan as an option out of the BP. If he is healthy this could be a very nice add by Luhnow. Before he was injured he pitched very well for the Braves. Keep an eye on him as well.


    • Moylan is kind of a dark horse, Tim thanks for mentioning him. He is a FA non-roster-invitee who has pitched less than 30 IP at the major league level in the last 3 seasons and about 75 IP at the minor league level. I guess he takes Travis Blackley’s spot as our resident Aussie. Did pitch well for the Braves but it has been awhile since the 35 year old was good and healthy.


  11. Not a fan of committee anything. It seems that teams are more successful when roles are defined. Notice how LaRussa always had a name on his closer, even when he had to put three different names on it (like his last season as manager) because of injuries, he always had that guy that knew what his role was and everyone else knew it was their role to get it to that guy.

    I would think the Astros signed Crain to be that guy.


    • Steven – I think Crain best fits that role based on great K numbers – there is just the question of when he will be ready to pitch after his injury last season.
      I’m not much of a committee guy as far as closer goes. It is like the old football saying – if you have two starting QBs you have no starting QBs.


  12. Nobody’s mentioned Chi Jen Lo either. He pitched perfect innings sometimes and not so good other times. He has less innings in MILB than any pitcher on the roster, so he was still an infant as a rookie, but he has real good stuff.


    • He is an interesting case, 1oldpro – at one time he was considered one of the top young guns in the minors – a possible future closer. Injuries derailed that ship – as you pointed out he has 5 seasons in the minors and only 128 IP under his belt.
      He pitched OK in his time up last season – hard to judge on such a small sample. One interesting thing – as a right hander he was death to left handed hitters – leftys had a micorscopic .128 BA / .482 OPS – so they might look to bring him in against leftys if he can keep that effectiveness up.
      Josh Zeid is someone else who pitched OK in a small sample last year. Let’s face it – with this bullpen – nothing is a sure thing.


      • Dan, one thing that encourages me about Lo was that he walked way more batters in the majors than in the minors, and that is the sign of an unconfident rookie.
        With a new pitching coach, and being surrounded by more confident peers(Cosart, Ober, Fields, etc) Lo may find that confidence and trust his stuff and come into a game late and stick a dagger where it needs to be. The guy appeared to be shaking in his boots last year.


      • 1 oldpro – I think that is an excellent point that can be applied to a lot of players in 2014. So many had no or minimum experience coming in – Grossman, Hoes, Villar,Dominguez, Cosart, Oberholtzer, Keuchel, and so many of the relievers…. you have to think that for some having that little bit of experience under their belt will put them in a place where nerves no longer play a part.


      • But then looking deeper – the babip (batting average for balls in play) against Lo was .128 for leftys and .381 for rightys, so there is some luck in play here and both those numbers should trend back towards the middle a bit.


  13. *29* blown saves………just think what might have been….BUT, Luhnow
    wouldn’t be in a position to draft Rodon!! Chi Jen Lo is an interesting pitcher, if he would trust his stuff………he could become a pretty good closer one day. LORD…..I can’t wait until Spring training!


    • A 70% save rate which is middle of the road-ish would have yielded 13 more wins, a 64 – 98 record and the 3rd pick in the draft.
      The Astros have so many pitchers on the 40 man and the non-roster-invitees list they may have to get quite inventive in ST to get everyone enough innings to know anything….


  14. Just read where Ralph Kiner died at 91. Was the 3rd oldest living Hall of Famer behind Bobby Doerr and Monty Irvin. Was the Mets announcer from their inception until now. Was a great slugger back when it meant something.


    • Daveb –
      Did something change at 1B to cause you to write that it are you just revisiting that thought in general. Or did the death of 1B Ralph Kiner cause you to bring this up. Ralph could have beat out Carlos Pena even at 91 haha.
      I was interested in Castro at 1B but not everyone was with me.


    • I’m really open to Castro going to 1st. Yes he has better value as a Catcher – but not if he is missing big chunks of the season with leg injuries. And his OPS last season was very good – I don’t care what position he was at.


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