How far can revamped bullpen lead the Astros?

Writing about the Astros’ terrible bullpen of 2013 in a previous post inspired me to do a little research on how historically bad the pen was. Before long this morphed into this post based on a couple of recent examples, about how far back can an improved Astros’ bullpen lead this young team?

A quicky review – the 2013 Astros bullpen was last in the majors in ERA (4.92), wins (14), losses (40), walks (252) save % (52%), and OPS against (.816).  They were tied for the worst in saves (32) and blown saves (29). They have invested in 3 solid veterans, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain to lead a bullpen Renaissance in 2014. But does a bullpen matter that much?

In researching recent bad bullpens – I discovered that there were some really bad bullpens in the last 15 seasons – but found the examples of a couple of them to be very interesting, because two of them turned around in a hurry….and so did their teams.

2010 -11 Arizona Diamondacks

The 2010 D’Backs’ bullpen was every bit as putrid as the 2013 Astros’ pen.

  • Their pen was 30th and last in the majors in ERA (5.74), losses (32), and OPS against.
  • They were 28th in wins (16), 23rd in saves (35), 29th in save % (59%) and 28th in blown saves (24).
  • The team ended up 65-97 – last in their division and 28th in all of baseball.

During the 2010 season, the D’Backs traded one of their vets from the bullpen at the deadline , Chad Qualls (yes, that Chad Qualls) who was having a horrendous season. After the season they waived a couple other of the offending relievers and started rebuilding the bullpen.  The 2011 bullpen was built with smart trades – David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler, veteran FA pickups – JJ Putz and Micah Owings, a Rule V pickup – Joe Paterson and a rookie Bryan Shaw.

The 2011 D’Backs had a resurgence led by the bullpen.

  • Their ERA improved by 2 runs to 3.71
  • They were suddenly 3rd in save % (82%) and 1st in saves (58)
  • The bullpen improved from 16W – 32L to a 23-14 record and….
  • The 2011 team finished 94-68, first in the division.

The D’Backs also improved their starting pitching (about 0.5 run improvement in ERA), but their offense was basically a wash (17 more runs scored for the season).  I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the bullpen with the huge improvement in runs allowed and saves held was responsible for about 2/3 of that 29 game improvement.

2007 – 08 Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays

Yes, they were the Devil Rays in 2007 and the Rays in 2008. And they were an awful team in 2007 with the sports’ worst bullpen and a great team in 2008.

I’ll quickly summarize the improvement for the Rays:

  • They went from a mlb worst 66-96 to a 3rd best record of 97-65 and an appearance in the World Series.
  • The bullpen went from a 6.16 ERA!!! to a 3.55 ERA, improved an unbelievably bad .875 OPS against to a fine .661, and went from converting 57% saves to converting 78% saves.
  • The offense was almost exactly the same – they scored 8 less runs in 2008 than 2007.
  • The starting pitching showed dramatic improvement also. They lowered their ERA from 5.20 to 3.95 and dropped the OPS against from .798 to .737 in one season.

I would judge that the bullpen improvement accounted for about 1/2 of the 31 game improvement with the Rays.

Looking closer – I find something interesting in examining the bullpen’s improvement. Some of it was addition by subtraction as they rid themselves of some of the worst offenders. They also brought in two veterans Troy Percival and two-time Astro Trever Miller, who were decent but not spectacular with 4+ ERAs. The biggest difference was the improvement for 3 pitchers who were horrendous in 2007 and the core of the pen in 2008 – JP Howell (ERA improved from 7.59 to 2.22), former Astro Dan Wheeler (ERA from 5.30 to 3.12), and Grant Balfour (ERA from 6.14 to 1.54).

So what happened? My theory involves the pitching coach. The Rays had 6 pitching coaches in 9 seasons. In 2007 they hired Jim Hickey (yes, the guy who was probably the Astros greatest pitching coach ever). He rode out the horrible 2007 season, but when 2008 rolled around – his way of teaching took hold on the Rays starters and bullpen and the staff gave up 1.7 less runs / game.

So the question is this: am I crazy to think the Astros could have a 20 game or more turn around based on improved bullpen personnel plus the addition of new pitching coach Brent Strom?


33 comments on “How far can revamped bullpen lead the Astros?

  1. I don’t think its off the wall at all to see that kind of improvement but I would stop short of expecting it. I would also like to see what you all think about a theory I have about Lucas Harrell. Unless he has an incredible ST I don’t see any way he cracks the starting rotation and I can’t see him being a positive presence as a long reliever/spot starter. But what if he was given a shot to be the closer? Might stroke his ego and competitive fire and if he regains his control and ground ball ability he could be the next iteration of the Myers experiment which actually turned out pretty well.


  2. drbill –
    A couple things:
    1) I’m hoping the Astros are going to have a little boost by just having a bit better luck this year. It has been pointed out before by others that per baseball-reference – the Astros Pythagorean record in 2013 should have been 57-105 or 6 games better than they ended up. So just having average luck would help them show some improvement.
    2) I struggle to see Lucas Harrell as the next Brett Myers. Myers had moxie – mental toughness that I am not seeing in Harrell. Harrell seemed to be bothered by Porter’s use of defensive shifts and then when he was sent to the bullpen – he pitched even worse than when he was starting.
    Sorry I just don’t see the mental makeup it takes to finish a game.


  3. This is a well-timed, well-thought out post. I I can see the similarities to the other two teams and I think the Astros can have an average bullpen this season. I hope they can use some of the youth they found last year combined with the veteran arms they have acquired. Average will be a huge improvement.


    • 1 ldpro – that is all I am hoping for. My feeling is that an average bullpen will help directly with more games saved and more games won. Indirectly, there will be less psychological let-downs. When a bullpen blows saves 1/2 the time it affects the starting pitchers, the batters, the fielders and even the non-closers. Everyone feels it and presses to make up for it – which never works.


  4. I fully expect at least a 20 game improvement with the relief pitchers, starters should be as good, if not better, and improved defense in the outfield (if Carter is DH), Lets not forget that Wallace at first did not help the infielders. Just wish I could see it on my TV.


    • Astro45 – I am hoping for an improvement in hitting also – especially if Springer is in the lineup. I mean a 20 game improvement is a big step but only gets the team to 71-91.


  5. Gladly, after reviewing last year’s bullpen individual stats, some of the worst pitchers are gone: Blackley, Ambriz, Cedeno, But some of the most terrible are still here: Harrell and Cisneros, Clemens. Also sadly, the best relief pitcher we had Veras, is gone, and we wouldn’t pay him the money he wanted to come back, which wasn’t that much!


    • 1oldpro –
      1) Cisnero with a 4.12 ERA was OK.
      2) I don’t see Harrell making this bullpen and Clemens may end up in OKC.
      3) I’m thinking the bullpen will consist of :
      Qualls 2.61 ERA last season
      Albers 3.14 ERA
      Crain 0.74 ERA (but injured)
      Fields 4.97 ERA (but much better down the stretch)
      Chapman 1.77 ERA

      And then a dog fight for the last two spots between Zeid, Cisnero, Clemens, Bass, Lo, Keuchel and maybe Harrell.
      There is never any guarantee that past performance will get you future quality….


      • And I should say here that there is a good chance that Crain is not ready by the start of the season, which would open up a spot in the pen at least temporarily.


      • But era is not a huge consideration for a reliever. Cisneros had a very high WHIP and what he was come in to some jams and give up the other pitcher’s runs. In the stats, Keuchel, Ambriz, Harrell, Cruz and Cisneros were the relievers with significant innings and terrible at giving up hits and walks and significant runs in that order. Their whips ranged from 1.88 for Keuchel down to 1.63 for Cisneros.


  6. Well – looking at Cisnero’s game logs he had been pitching pretty well for the vast majority of those appearances, but when he was bad he was very bad.
    I have a problem coming down too hard on a lot of these guys in their first taste of the major leagues. I’m willing to think that they can improve too.


    • He made 28 appearances and in 11 of those appearances he inherited runners and 5 of those times he allowed runners to score.
      The other 17 times he did not inherit runners he allowed runs in 5 of those situations.


  7. I’ve told this story before: I attended two Astros games at Target Field in 2013. Both times, the Astros had a lead and my lovely wife, Michelle, said, “Hey, they might win one for you.” I just rolled my eyes. “Wait until our bullpen come out,”

    Houston lost both (in fact, all three games) that weekend.

    A bullpen that can consistently hold leads will, by itself, be a 15-20 game improvement for Houston. And your research above, Dan, proves it.

    Excellent job by the way.


    • Thank you Brian T – it was tough to watch all season long – maybe the lack of a Comcast deal helped the 60% who did not have to watch blown leads go away all season.


  8. Well I understand the concept of “you can’t have too much pitching.” But what on earth could the Red Sox be thinking to pick up Francisco Cordero. I know he had surgery, but it would have to be from the “Man Above” to get him back to being MLB ready.


    • Well they signed him to a minor league agreement as a non-roster-invitee so there is no risk there. Their manager (Farrell) managed him in Toronto where he was awful, but he must have liked something about him to pick him up again. He had a number of surgeries, but none were on his throwing arm or shoulder.
      Hey, it does not hurt them to give it a shot.


  9. A 20-game improvement is a bit of a stretch, but certainly possible. But who cares? Is the end goal to someday return to .500?

    To make a legit run at the division title anytime soon is simply not going to happen.

    “We can dream, right?”. Sure. Dream on y’all.

    I can dream too. My dream involves Crane taking a fiscal beat-down of massive proportions. I hope he takes such a financial bath that he is forced to relocate the team. THAT IS THE BEST POSSIBLE OUTCOME.

    Then, maybe just maybe, the franchise can be returned to NL prominence.

    So I am rooting for GSpringer and Singlepuff to have strong springs. But more than anything, I am rooting for Crane to fail at getting a TV deal done. That will be the first step in crippling him financially.


    • Maybe Chip should just copy this comment and put it at the top of every comment section to save time.
      Bottom line – the team will improve and as it does more people will go to the games. There is no doubt in my mind that the minor league system they are building, especially with another #1 draft slot this season and probably a top 5 or so next season will send the type of young talent to the top that will make this team a contender in a couple years, just like happens with Tampa and Oakland and happened with the Rangers.
      There will be a TV agreement at some point – it probably will not be what any of the parties are planning on – but it will occur.
      I don’t see it as a dream – there are a lot of examples of teams successfully doing this in the modern mlb and a smart guy like Jeff Luhnow has them well on the way.

      And the reason I care about the 20 game or more improvement is that it is the first big step on the way back towards contention.


    • Every time I have to taste your stupid, I go wash it down with a big glass of koolaid. Then, I wash you off my boots and I’m good to go again.


      • I’m not a naive person – but I also know that Crane ain’t going down financially. It is not going to happen. So why drink that version of conspiracy koolaid?
        I’m going to enjoy watching the young guys develop.


  10. Dan, please forgive me. I was meaning to reply to Bopeep’s ridiculousness and put my reply on your post instead. I just couldn’t wait to reply to that ….okwhatever.


      • Best minor league system in baseball.
        Six minor league playoff teams and one champion.
        Seven top 100 prospects, none of whom were DDJ, who batted over .317 with an .873 OPS and 51 stolen bases. (I could name a dozen top 100 prospects who did not have the year DDJ did.)

        So, how will this team NOT be respectable in 2015 and competitive by 2016?

        Oh, that’s right. No TV deal will EVER get done and Crane, who took this team from Drayton “Looking For Lighning Again … And Again” McLane and decided to hire REAL baseball peor torun his team, that guy, Crane, is evil.

        Oh, and the AL, home of the Yankees (spit), Red Sox and storied franchises such as Baltimore, Cleveland and even Minnesota, that league isn’t real baseball.


  11. Brian T – Baseball America and others ranking the Astros minor league so high are koolaid drinkers – how dare they not factor Jim-belzebub Crane into their opinions.


    • Yes. Because we all know the national media is biased toward the Astros instead of teams that deserve more and more coverage like the Yankees (spit) and Angels with their under-the-radar guys like Pujols and Trout.


  12. The starters cringed everytime they left the game with Houston ahead
    (NOT that often)…….pitchers like Norris just gulped, when he had to hand a really good start over to our bullpen. These guys just lacked experience, and confidence……..something I think that will be in their rear view mirrors this year, at least that is what we all HOPE they do!
    I hope we can improve by at least 20 games this season, and I don’t think that is impossible.
    Bopert……dude, I don’t get why you bother to read these posts, if you feel that angry at Jim Crane and company. Write HIM and tell him what you think……’s getting old fast.


    • The starters had only a 50/50 chance of getting a wn when they left with the lead. And with our stellar offense if they left while trailing they had about a 95% of registering a loss.


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