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Looking ahead to Astros’ 2015: The bullpen can only get better


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.

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About BrianT

Brian Todd is a freelance writer working and living in Rochester, Minn.

39 comments on “Looking ahead to Astros’ 2015: The bullpen can only get better

  1. Steeeve
    February 10, 2015

    Excellent analysis, thanks for that. My favorite winter moves are signing Gregerson and Neshek. Would love to see Josh Fields nail down the closer spot as that would mean even more bullpen depth. Prefer our 6th starter be in Fresno, as it is certain he will enter the rotation at some point. Beyond the Big 3 I’ll take Fields, Sipp, Veras and the top spring training performer. Veras – yes, absolutely.

    Like

    • BrianT
      February 10, 2015

      Steeeve,

      At this point I think Veras would be that last piece of depth that has this bullpen shooting for way better than middle of the pack. Give him a year with a team option and call it done. Heck, by my count Luhnow’s got about $5 million left. That’s more than enough.

      Like

  2. SargeH
    February 10, 2015

    The Astros’ bullpen…. what was, at one time, a dominate staff, year after year, has regressed over the past decade into a laughing stock. Gone are the days of Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner, Dave Smith, Joe Sambito, and Fred Gladding. The also-rans are gone as well, Octavio Dotel, Mitch Williams, Doug Jones. What is so confounding, when looking at the minors and trying to determine who the next “star” closer is going to be, Astros’ history shows that there has not been a closer groomed from draft to the big club. Each of the great closers that I mentioned above began their professional careers as starters. So, who is going to be the next closer for the club? Look at the starters in the minors for that.

    Answers for the questions of the day…

    1. Who is the Astros closer: Neshek, Gregerson or Qualls … or Fields?

    I hope to see the best reliever stand up and be counted. I suppose Qualls will begin the season as the closer, except against the A’s team. I hope Fields can harness his emotions and gain a gunslinger attitude and grab the closer’s role.

    2. Last year, the Astros used a lot of scrap-heap pitchers. Does the depth this year look better to you? What arm from Corpus or Fresno would you like to see up in Houston eventually?

    I am happy to see that the team does have better depth this year in the bullpen. In the past few seasons, I was like, “who is this again?” I do not want to see these players as closers but, I feel that is where they are going to end up; Lance McCullers and Josh Hader.

    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?

    If the loser of this battle is slated to continue as a starter then send him to Fresno to remain stretched out. On the other hand, the best pitcher to put an Astros’ uniform on (IMHO) Roy Oswalt, was brought up to be a long reliever and worked his way into the rotation and the rest is history. So, I will go with the idea to send that person down but I can understand the thinking if he stays.

    4. One indicator of relief success can be how many innings the starters go. How will the rotation depth make this a better bullpen?

    This is a double-edged sword. Starters that go deep into the game lessen the amount of innings the relievers must throw. If the roles get determined, such as a 7th, 8th, and closer role, then if the starters consistently go seven or eight innings, the roles are diminished and cloudy. That will make a better bullpen concerning the closing role. On the other hand, if the starters are routinely removed after 6 innings, then the relievers’ role are defined clearly and satisfaction is established. But, this would lead to overuse of these players and tired arms will begin to show in the later stages of the season.

    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?

    Fields, Sipp, Veras, and Buchanan as the long reliever.

    6. Jose Veras, yes or no?

    See previous answer.

    7. Tony Sipp, situational lefty or defensive replacement in left field? … Just kidding.

    Hah.

    In all seriousness, I do not see the club having a top-notch closer until we get into a playoff chase. With the behemoths in the same division, the Astros will not be in the playoffs until the others began to come back to the pack. Let us hope it is sooner rather than later…

    Like

    • Steven
      February 10, 2015

      Sarge – Most of the best closers were starters in the minors. That includes Wagner and Lidge, as well as guys like Mariano Rivera.

      I think what really happens is either one they have durability issues or two – they show up with one REALLY dominant pitch, so dominant that it doesn’t require mixing pitches to keep people off balance. Some people call Rivera’s cutter the most dominant pitch from a righty in baseball history.

      Generally closers aren’t developed from drafting and developing. There have been some exceptions – like Gregg Olson – but mostly they fit the aforementioned critieria.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BrianT
        February 10, 2015

        Ooo, a reference to Gregg Olson. This makes me happy.

        Like

    • SargeH
      February 11, 2015

      Well, with Veras signing with the Braves, I have to change my prediction to reflect him not with the Astros and instead, Chapman will break camp with the Astros.

      Like

  3. BrianT
    February 10, 2015

    Sarge,

    Thanks for laughing at my Tony Sipp joke. We had just done the outfield spots when I wrote this, so the idea of who all might play left field was stuck in my head. Then Sipp’s name popped up.

    I think the more innings the starters go, two benefits occur. First, less wear and tear. Second, that’s fewer times we have to rely on the second tier of the bullpen, meaning the innings pitched are by our best arms. Honestly, I see a possible bullpen ERA of about 3.40. That would be amazing. Combine that with (hopefully) more runs scored and I think .500 is not only possible but probable.

    Like

  4. Devin_
    February 10, 2015

    What’s the situation on options for each of those guys listed?
    1. I think the A’s will be quite different on offense this year. I lean towards giving Qualls the chance to keep the closer’s role. If he’s getting too many innings in save oops, work in Fields at closer to spot him. This lets Neshek and Gregerson hold down a large workload of consistent innings 7 and 8.
    2. Folty! Wait, what? Let’s see how it all shakes out. If no injuries occur we won’t have room until Luhnow spins some deals.
    3. Fresno…unless they are using a tandem. We want a 6th starter who can be counted on for more than 4 innings when summoned.
    4. I think we are looking at more starts that last into the sixth inning this year. The fewer outs you have to bring a bullpen arm into the game before the 7th the better. This assumes our late inning guys hold up, and let’s be honest…they aren’t scary like to the KC bp was.
    5. Punt
    6. Yes…if he is willing to accept a non-glamorous role.
    7. Both. If Gattis ends up with in LF, I think we’ll see some late inning defensive substition with frequency. If Sipp is as good as in 2014, try this out until it burns you.

    Like

  5. 1oldpro
    February 10, 2015

    I’m going to go with Gregerson, Neshek, Qualls, Sipp, Fields, Harris, and Deduno as the long reliever. I can’t go with Veras because he is not on our roster.
    My bullpen makes me nervous because of only 1 lefty but Chapman is not a long reliever, so I choose to go with experience and an innings eater in Deduno.
    I still think Buchanan and Wojo will be spot starters on this team in 2015, but they really need to show some domination this year in Fresno or their starting pitcher window with Houston will be closing quickly, because of their age and because of who is moving up behind them.
    This is a critical year for Luis Cruz in Fresno, too. It is his second year on the 40-man and in AAA and he needs to show more promise than he has recently.

    Like

    • Steven
      February 10, 2015

      I like Cruz if he can stay on the field. I don’t know what the Astros plans are for him but it would appear they want him starting. I would concur if that is the plan.

      I do like the fact that he can maintain a K per inning while for the most part keeping his BB/9 below 3 – a rare combo. You are correct in that it will be a telling year for him that will probably decide his future given his age, options, and the 40 man roster spot he is occupying.

      Like

    • tcuyler
      February 10, 2015

      This is exactly the bullpen I would go with, but if they sign another reliever then Deduno is the odd man out.

      Like

  6. 1oldpro
    February 10, 2015

    1. I go with Qualls as the closer for now, with Fields as my backup closer.
    2. I like this bullpen tons better than what we had the first half of last season. the arm I look forward to seeing in Houston, in regards to the bullpen is Brady Rodgers.
    3. I would rather see the loser of the #5 starter starting in Fresno, because Peacock is the heir to that job once he’s healthy, unless Straily is awesome.
    4. The key to keeping a bullpen fresh is the #4 and #5 starters going six innings or more most of the time. Ober, Straily and Peacock are vital to the arms in this bullpen.
    5. See post above
    6. I don’t see them signing Veras unless he will sign for a million or less. If they sign him it will be a battle between him and Josh for power righty in bullpen. Does Fields still have options left?
    7. I see Sipp as a Loogy and a late innings defensive replacement for Gattis in LF, say, the thirtyteenth inning and beyond.

    Like

    • Steven
      February 10, 2015

      Like comment 4 – I had even suggested, when it looked like we were going to employ Folty as a possible 5 starter, that if you put him in between McHugh and Keuchel in the rotation you would get better bullpen results. Given Obies penchant for throwing strikes, you could have employed him at the 4 spot in the rotation and had that 5 inning guy throwing between Obie and Keuchel and get a similar effect.

      I really think McHugh and Keuchel have a bigger effect on the BP than most would realize.

      Like

  7. Steven
    February 10, 2015

    Bullpens are a crapshoot.

    For the most part, they are all bullpen pieces because they have limitations – either they can’t throw multiple pitches for strikes, durability, consistency, could be a million things.

    None of the guys we have out there are another Rivera, or even Lidge or Wagner, in that they don’t own a dominant pitch that is so good it doesn’t even have to be mixed. It’s very possible for a few of them to post a good season or two closing though as long as circumstances go their way.

    It would seem most of them are decent pieces, but as always, I would argue 50% of the battle for better end results from the BP is going to be affected by how deep starters can get – and we look better going into the season in that area than we have in the past – and how the manager employs them. Neshek and Sipp can be matchup nightmares for an opposing hitter, but they also have weaknesses that can have the opposite affect.

    I would guess that Gregerson and Qualls are going to battle for the closers role, but Fields is a darkhorse. First question will be can Josh stay in the zone enough without getting rattled? He managed to really improve his walk rate last year, but the BABIP jumped as a result. He has great velocity, but it might help if he changed his grip enough to take a tick or two off and get a little more movement. I’ll call him a project in progress and give him an outside shot of closing in 2016. Neshek is no closers candidate in that he can’t get lefties out with any consistency, and you can’t have a closer that is a matchup nightmare.

    I say sign Veras, he seems intent on being back here, and is probably your perfect 7th or 8th inning guy when you are down by a run or two. I don’t want him closing, but his anxiety to be back here means he is going to be here on discount.

    I would really like to see Buchanan at AAA working on his craft as a starter.

    Like

  8. Tim
    February 10, 2015

    We can cross off Jose Veras as a possibility. He has just agreed on a minor league contract with Atlanta.

    Like

    • 1oldpro
      February 10, 2015

      Tim, I just don’t think the Astros were going to pay what he wanted for another one inning RH reliever. They have guys that they can pay the league minimum to pitch if someone gets hurt. I mean they have White, Wojo, Weiland, Chapman, Stoffel and others they can call up if they need to without stretching their budget for Veras. The fact Veras accepted a minor league deal from the Braves, means that is all he was going to get. It also means no one was going to give up a 40-man spot for Jose.
      In the long run, I think that wildness is dragging him down.

      Like

      • tcuyler
        February 11, 2015

        Agreed. I really didn’t care if he returned. His control issues concerned me and I think he was due for regression with the Astros.

        Like

  9. astrocolt45
    February 10, 2015

    Agree that the bullpen is dependent upon two things. One – RP normally only work 75+/- games. So there may be 90 games they do not even appear. That means the SP needs to get into the 7th to save somebody. If we can get near 200 innings from 3 starters, the bullpen will get the rest it needs. The second thing that makes this bullpen better – it looks like none are going to be on IR all year.

    Like

  10. Steeeve
    February 10, 2015

    Apologies, off topic, but lookie here: mlb.com rates the Astros as the 10th best lineup in baseball! http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/108731352/mlb-lineups-best-in-2015-toronto-blue-jays-boston-red-sox

    Like

    • BrianT
      February 10, 2015

      That seems pretty high based on the Ks we’ll be watching. But I like his enthusiasm.

      Like

    • 1oldpro
      February 10, 2015

      I don’t think that guy is from MLB.com. And I think the guy is spot on about the Astros’ lineup. They are going to strike out a lot, but they have been doing that anyway. The difference with this lineup is that they are going to hit the ball more, too and score more runs.
      If you go from one of the worst strikeout teams who also don’t hit, to one of the worst strikeout teams who does hit, you’re better..
      If you don’t have Harrell and Williams and the other jokers we had pitching last year, you will allow less runs. If you put Springer in the with Rasmus and Marisnick, you are going to be better defensively. And I like Lowrie over Villar starting at SS as a defensive improvement and Singleton’s defense over Guzman and Kraus, so I like our defense better than last April’s.
      If you improve your offense, your defense, and your pitching, you are a better ballclub. If you add in a manager that the players aren’t rolling their eyes at every day, that could make a difference, too.

      Like

  11. uncleknuckle
    February 11, 2015

    Seems I’m the only guy that would use Neshek as the closer. Of course I base that primarily on his 2014 stats. I like his BB/K ratio especially. And I like his hits per nine. Problem with lefties? They hit .196 against him with a .541 OPS. As Steven also notes though, the pen is a real crapshoot. It’s all about guys staying healthy. Neshek is an obvious risk. Qualls is getting up there in age. He’s a risk too.

    Like

    • Steven
      February 11, 2015

      Neshek’s career against lefties is horrible though. I did notice last years success against them, which probably led to the overall success of his numbers, but it could be short sample or it could just be that his manager didn’t leave him out there to face every lefty, but lefties he could out more consistently.

      I just fall back to the nightmare matchups. You have already used Sipp in the 7th to get Hamilton out. It’s the ninth and the Angels are down by 1 and at the bottom of the order. Neshek is in there, and the Angels use 2 lefties/switch hitters in the pinch. If even one gets on base he gets back to Trout, and the numbers would suggest at least 1 will. Just not the kind of scenarios I want to see, when I believe Qualls or Greg either one won’t necessarily cause the contigency of those pinch hitters happening.

      I like Neshek, glad he is here, but of the three he is definitely in my eyes the most matchup driven one.

      Like

      • daveb
        February 11, 2015

        Steven, Neshek is ,227/.707 lifetime against lefties. Not horrible. And those 2014 numbers are almost stunning. Maybe he’s gotten some help in avoiding certain match ups. Most guys not named Rivera do. Fair point that Gregorson might be the best righthander to get those tough lefties out. Qualls should not be in the discussion though when it comes to effectiveness against lefthanded hitters. He got beaten up by them (.828 OPS) in 2014, and lifetime he’s been unremarkable against them.

        Like

      • Steven
        February 11, 2015

        Does those .227/.707 numbers include last years stellar numbers? What were they prior to 2013? He once was RELEASED, outrighted, by a team because he couldn’t get lefties out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • daveb
        February 11, 2015

        Yes Steven, I wrote lifetime. And Qualls is .277.735 lifetime against those lefties. Gregerson might well be the best option for closer. I just hope both he and Neshek can duplicate what they both accomplished in 2014. That’ll pretty much guarantee us a better pen in 2015.

        Like

  12. Mr. Bill
    February 11, 2015

    Has anybody heard how Brad Peacock is progressing in his recovery – and/or what his estimated time of readiness for a rehab assignment will be?

    Like

    • Steven
      February 11, 2015

      Will miss ST, and maybe 2 weeks of the season. I would guess he will go to extended ST and spend a week or two in AAA throwing to live batters before you see him – maybe by 1 May.

      Peacock’s FB reminds me of Norris. Good velocity, but too flat, and he either puts in the zone too hittable, or he misses the zone so much he doesn’t fool the hitter into swinging at a bad pitch. He doesn’t induce enough easy outs. His K numbers are fine because he can strike out a bad hitter, and every lineup has its Villars, but his fastball gets killed by good hitters.

      Like

    • 1oldpro
      February 11, 2015

      Peacock also went crazy getting in shape this offseason and lost 25 lbs. He is serious about his recovery!

      Like

  13. Dan P
    February 11, 2015

    Nice job as usual Brian
    – Who is the Astros’ closer: Neshek, Gregerson or Qualls … or Fields? The correct answer according to my Magic 8 ball is “It is decidedly so” – that is about as good as I can do. Coin flipping – Gregerson
    Arm from the farm? They change Wojo over to a reliever????

    3. Fifth starter loser? Send them to Fresno.

    4. I am worried about the rotation depth at least from an injury standpoint. If the starters only miss here and there – no problemt they will go deep enough to give the ‘pen enough rest

    5. Other 4 arms in the pen – Folty (oops!), Veras (oops again) Fields, Sipp, Chapman, Harris

    6. I would have said yes on Veras – not surprised he did not sign here – totally surprised he had to sign a minor league contract – did he only get mlb offers from cities that are Chicago-cold in the spring?

    7. Tony Sipp – man what would our pen have been like without this freebie pick up?

    Like

  14. Tim
    February 11, 2015

    I am not sure how relevant this is, but the Astros were one of the teams watching Barry Zito pitch. I am not sure how I feel about this. Thoughts?

    Like

    • Dan P
      February 11, 2015

      So Tim are they hoping to get:
      – 2007 Zito 4.53 ERA $10 mill
      – 2008 Zito 5.15 ERA $14.5 mill
      – 2009 Zito 4.03 ERA $18.5 mill
      – 2010 Zito 4.15 ERA $18.5 mill
      – 2011 Zito 5.87 ERA $18.5 mill

      – 2012 Zito 4.15 ERA $19 mill
      – 2013 Zito 5.74 ERA $20 mill
      (He did not get to stink up baseball in 2014 or collect any more ill-gotten gains)
      I might watch him if he brought his agent, Scott Boras to catch him bare handed but with how soft Zito throws – that is not a challenge.

      Like

      • Devin_
        February 11, 2015

        …but he hasn’t benefited from pitch tunneling yet…

        Like

      • daveb
        February 12, 2015

        Thomas Shirley might be a lefty that makes the climb from Fresno at some point in 2015. After a shaky start in OKC, he became very effective late.

        Like

      • Dan P
        February 12, 2015

        Love it Devin

        Like

  15. astrocolt45
    February 12, 2015

    Being lazy, when comparing teams – I like to look at Batters faced and runs allowed. Anyone have those terrible memories of going to get a sandwich, having to take the dog outside, then to bathroom (maybe only for old guys) and returning to see “They are still batting! !” Here is a quick take on the pitching staffs for the West in 2014 (and who will probably improve??) BF – SM 5,794, OA 5,971, HA 6,154, LAA 6,179 TR 6,195. Then out of those extra batters – how did the staff do concerning runs allowed – SM 554, OA 572, LAA 630, HA 723, TR 773. Now extra inning games will skew the BF – but it still takes a toll on the staff. So if the opposing team averages 37 plate appearances/game – the Astros pitchers played almost 10 more games than the Mariners pitchers.

    Like

    • BrianT
      February 12, 2015

      Never looked at it that way before. But I think I’m going to start.

      Like

    • Devin_
      February 12, 2015

      Thanks for the info. I’m lazy, or I would look into how it looks based on ballparks. Oakland and Seattle are both parks that reduce offense. Both teams also had impressive bullpens last year. Houston, Texas, and Anaheim are all more hitter friendly…and had bullpen issues either some or all of the year.

      Also, this is why so many of us hate high K guys and love high OBP guys.

      Like

      • 1oldpro
        February 12, 2015

        On the other hand, two of the guys that figure to be big bats in Houston’s lineup for years, Springer and Singleton, have been very good OBP guys throughout their minor league careers. Once they catch up to major league pitching(we do want these two to get a chance to do that, don’t we?) they project to be big power, big strikeout, big OBP, big RBI guys.
        Let’s face it, these two hardly even got their feet wet last year and I am totally convinced Singleton would have been better off in AAA all year. With everything that happened with them last year, including a managerial change in the middle of the season, I consider these guys to be rookies who now know what they will be facing. Now we find out if they are major league caliber sluggers. Whichever one turns out to be that, figures to be a high OBP slugger, too.

        Like

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