Bad doesn’t begin to describe the Astros bullpen over the past few years. How bad?
Well, in 2014, the Astros’ bullpen posted a 4.80 ERA, and that was after finally getting it together in July. The worst bullpen ERA of a playoff team was the Tigers’ 4.29. And, honestly, as a team Detroit had a lot of other things going for it that Houston did not.
In 2013, the Astros’ 4.92 bullpen ERA was worst in the majors, and way behind the highest ERA for a playoff team (again, Detroit at 4.01), which had a lot of other positives on the team. The team’s 4.46 ERA in 2012 wasn’t much better, and was still one of the five worst in baseball.
Over that time, the Astros have averaged about 502 bullpen innings each year and an average of 262 earned runs. And those are the numbers the Astros will need to beat in 2015. Will it happen? Well, I don’t want to delve into Steamer projections or anything like that. Instead, we’ll just look at 2014 and see if the Astros’ depth chart as it currently stands would have been a better bullpen.
- Luke Gregerson, right, possible closer, 71.1 IP, 17 ER, 1.01 WHIP, 2.12 ERA
- Pat Neshek, right, probable 7th or 8th inning, 67.1 IP, 14 ER, 0.79 WHIP, 1.87 ERA
- Chad Qualls, right, closing against anyone but the A’s, 51.1 IP, 19 ER, 1.15 WHIP, 3.33 ERA
- Josh Fields, right, the Astros’ flamethrower, 54.2 IP, 27 ER, 1.23 WHIP, 4.45 ERA
- Tony Sipp, left, a lefty who can better more than one batter, 50.2, 19 ER, 0.89 WHIP, 3.38 ERA
- Jake Buchanan, right, starter or bullpen, he’ll eat innings, 26.0 IP, 10 ER, 1.42 WHIP, 3.46 ERA
- Sam Deduno, right, another who might spot start, 58.0 IP, 22 ER, 1.34 WHIP, 3.41 ERA
- Kevin Chapman, left, the Astros’ second lefty option, 21.1 IP, 11 ER, 1.42 WHIP, 4.64 ERA
- Will Harris, right, a waiver claim — Luhnow’s specialty, 29 IP, 14 ER, 1.29 WHIP, 4.34 ERA
For each, I only counted bullpen innings, and in Deduno’s case I used relief innings for both Houston and Minnesota.
In all, the Astros’ bullpen depth chart includes, from 2014, 429.2 IP and 153 ER for a combined ERA of 3.20. If Houston’s current depth chart can perform at the level it did in 2014–and I understand players like Neshek and Sipp are ripe for some regression, but Fields and perhaps Harris or Deduno might be ripe for some improvement–then it seems pretty unlikely Houston’s bullpen will be mired near the bottom again.
That said, if the Astros’ relievers simply shoot for the middle of the pack, that would mean an overall ERA of 3.61 to be tied at No. 15 in the majors. So, somewhere Luhnow and Hinch need to find 71.1 IP that does not exceed 48 ER. That would be an ERA of 6.06. Luis Cruz, Jason Stoffel, Brady Rogers, Alex White, Jordan Jankowski, Darin Downs, Tommy Shirley and whomever isn’t the fifth starter such as Dan Straily or Brad Peacock.
All that to just be a middling bullpen. But if the big three–Neshek, Qualls and Gregerson–all come close to repeating 2014 and there are improvements among people like Fields or Chapman both in performance and innings taken, then this could be an elite bullpen.
And now, time for you all to warm up and get in the game … I mean, conversation:
1. Who is the Astros’ closer: Neshek, Gregerson or Qualls … or Fields? Hinch has already indicated he likes defined roles, so don’t expect a committee approach.
2. Last year, the Astros used a lot of scrap-heap pitchers. I’m looking at you, Kyle Farnsworth! Does the depth this year look better to you? What arm from Corpus or Fresno would you like to see up in Houston eventually?
3. For those fifth starter candidates, would you rather the loser of that battle go to Fresno to start or take a spot in the Houston bullpen?
4. One indicator of relief success can be how many innings the starters go. How will the rotation depth make this a better bullpen?
5. Only seven arms make the bullpen to start the season. Barring injury (please, not again), the Big Three seem obvious choices. Who are your other four arms in the pen?
6. Jose Veras, yes or no?
7. Tony Sipp, situational lefty or defensive replacement in left field? … Just kidding.