In looking at the Houston Astros’ bullpen – I decided to pull up the dictionary.com 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.
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.