Yes, the 2015 Houston Astros fielding is better. They were tied for the fourth most errors in the AL in 2014 and they are currently tied for the fourth least errors. Yes, despite terrible BA and OBP numbers, the 2015 Astros are doing a better job scoring runs. They were 14th in runs/game with 3.88 last season and are currently a middle of the road eighth at 4.31 runs/game this season. Yes, the starting pitching, even with the fifth starter hole has been decent again in 2015. Pitchers in that spot finished 2014 tied for eighth with a 3.82 ERA and are eighth again in 2015, but at a higher 4.18.
So, what is left? What is left is the group that has made the most progress from last season and has had a profound direct statistical impact on the team and frankly, an equally as big psychological impact on the team’s performance: The bullpen.
The statistics are mind blowing when considered in context:
- The bullpen’s ERA has improved from a last in the AL 4.80 to a second in the AL 2.13. Consider that only Matt Albers in his eight appearances had an ERA better than that 2.13 mark at 0.90 and that the next best ERA in the bullpen was Jose Veras at 3.03 in 2014.
- The bullpen’s WHIP was 1.39 and 13th in the league in 2014 and is now first at an unworldly 0.85. Only Tony Sipp at 0.888 was close to that WHIP number last year.
- The bullpen has an 11-2 record and is on pace for 51 wins, whereas in 2014 they ended up 20-26.
- They are 13 of 17 in save situations (76%) compared to a 55 percent save percentage last season.
- They have given up an AL best 1.88 walks/9 IP after a pedestrian 3.46 last season and their 5.08 K’s per walk is also an AL best.
Both Will Harris and Tony Sipp have given up a single earned run in 13 appearances apiece. First time closer Luke Gregerson is 8-of-9 in save situations and veteran Chad Qualls has tossed in 4 saves on top of that. Josh Fields has given up one run in the seven games he has appeared in since he returned from injury. Pat Neshek is on a run of eight scoreless appearances and has not walked a batter all season. Situational lefty Joe Thatcher has been OK in his LOOGY type role and Kevin Chapman was OK for the short time he was up. Sam Deduno has been a bit sketchy, but he has also had to sacrifice for the team, bouncing around from a long relief to a spot starter role on a dime.
In one area the relievers have been average and that is they have let a league average 34 percent of inherited runners score. A lot of that can be left at the feet of Thatcher who had a couple real bad outings early on this season. If you drop him out of the equation,the rest of the pen has allowed only 25 percent of inherited runners to score – a very good number.
Just as important as the actual improved performance by the bullpen is what the better performance by the ‘pen means to the team.
- There is nothing so crushing as giving away games that are won. On the opposite side, the team builds up a lot of confidence when it knows the bullpen is going to hold the fort, when it is almost a sure thing that a lead will be held in the late innings. (Remember the Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, Billy Wagner days or the Dan Wheeler, Qualls, Lidge days).
- It also helps the offense a bit to know that if the team is behind that they are not chasing a moving target. Last season if the team was behind a couple runs and had turned to the bullpen, the offense felt like they would have to score four or five runs just to keep up with what the bullpen was going to give up. This season a couple runs down has been overcome a number of times by the offense already. They believe they are in every game.
- It also helps the starting pitching if they have confidence in the bullpen. They are not as likely to press or to perhaps lie about how they are feeling when they know there are professional arms behind them ready to help out.
- How is the bullpen performing vs. your expectations?
- Can it keep this up?
- Where do you see the bullpen ending the season as far as ERA, save percentage, and wins go?
- Will Luke Gregerson hold onto the closer role?
- Do you think they might deal away someone from the ‘pen in a package for a starter? If so, who?