clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Astros bullpen is really great despite the blown saves

New, 7 comments

The peripherals say they're elite.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Few teams have been more disappointing this season than the Houston Astros, recent play notwithstanding. Projected to win the American League West by many and even the World Series by some (including yours truly), Houston finds themselves three games below .500 more than a third of the way into the season at the time of this writing. They sit eight games behind the division leading Rangers in a suddenly competitive AL West, and have experienced underperformance from players expected to be stars.

Houston's bullpen, particularly, has been maligned. Prized offseason acquisition Ken Giles was demoted from the closer role in April, and his replacement, Luke Gregerson, lost the very same role last weekend after blowing his fifth save of the season. Houston relievers have taken much criticism this season, although struggling ace Dallas Keuchel and the rotation at large have been perhaps the most obvious scapegoats.

How bad, though, has the Houston bullpen actually been? The answer is a complicated one. Because while some of the surface statistics have been awful -€” and a fair amount of blame for the Astros' struggles absolutely falls on its relievers -€” the bullpen has also been historically good in other facets of the game. And while the early results have been somewhat catastrophic, signs point toward Houston fielding a potentially elite bullpen for the remainder of the season.

First, the bad stuff. The Astros began the season with two proven closers having excellent high-leverage resumes on the roster, Giles and Gregerson. Just over two months into the season, they've combined for seven blown saves. Giles sports a 5.76 ERA, while Gregerson's sits at 4.28. Considering the money and resources committed to acquiring the two players (Houston gave up budding ace Vincent Velasquez, among others, for Giles), those results have to be considered unacceptable. The Astros have blown a total of nine saves, placing them second in the American League in that category. From a lead-protection standpoint, Houston has struggled mightily.

However, that might be the only area where this bullpen has struggled. The following chart displays their collective ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and where they rank in each metric:

ERA

FIP

xFIP

3.28

2.99

3.18

8th

1st

1st

At overall run prevention, Houston's pen has been above average. The underlying numbers, however, suggest a bullpen that has already been elite, with results that may not have caught up yet. Additionally, Houston's relievers have allowed hard-hit balls at the eleventh-lowest rate in baseball, suggesting that the gap between ERA and FIP is not necessarily systemic and more likely a product of bad luck.

Even more impressive than the fielding-independent metrics are the strikeout numbers. Astros' relievers sport a strikeout rate of 27.5 percent, second in the majors only to the Yankees and the three-headed monster that lives at the back of their bullpen. We all knew that this Yankees bullpen would post historic strikeout numbers, and they have. Since MLB began recording strikeouts, the 2016 Yankees have posted the highest strikeout rate of any bullpen in history. However, sitting in second are the 2016 Houston Astros and their nine blown saves.

Astros relievers are striking out more than 10 batters per 9 innings and are even doing so while minimizing walks. The Houston bullpen has a walk rate of 5.5 percent, lowest in the majors by a fairly wide margin (the second place Yankees have a walk rate just under 7%). In fact, Houston's K/BB ratio of 4.96 would be the best of any bullpen in baseball over the past 100 years.

Going forward, while Houston may not continue to pile up strikeouts and limit walks at historic rates, they should remain one of the best bullpens in baseball. Giles, despite his early struggles, has still posted a FIP of 3.64 that ranks as 14 percent better than league average. After allowing four home runs in April, he has not allowed one in his last 64 batters faced. The average velocity of his four-seam fastball has ticked up slightly each month, as has his strikeout rate. His continued return to form gives Houston back the formidable weapon that they tried to acquire this offseason.

Rookies Christopher Devenski and Michael Feliz have both posted K/BB ratios above 5.00, and newly-minted closer Will Harris currently sports an ERA of 0.33 to go along with a meager 1.38 FIP. Even Gregerson, despite his five blown saves, has a FIP of 2.97. It's been a group effort; all six Astros relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings have struck out more than a batter per inning.

So can Houston expect its bullpen to fix some of the other issues plaguing the team going forward? Perhaps. Between 2000 and 2015, eight different teams had a bullpen with a K/BB ratio of at least 3.20, presented in the table below:

Team

Year

K/BB

Wins

Toronto

2015

3.53

93

Los Angeles Dodgers

2015

3.45

92

Houston

2015

3.43

86

San Diego

2010

3.32

90

Minnesota

2006

3.28

96

Oakland

2014

3.25

88

Tampa Bay

2012

3.24

90

Texas

2012

3.20

93

Of the eight teams to post such numbers, six made the playoffs (although, interestingly, none of them won the World Series). The two that did not (San Diego and Tampa Bay) both still won 90 games. 3.20 is an admittedly arbitrary cutoff, but the message remains: While a good bullpen cannot by itself carry a team to the playoffs, an elite one can at least point them in the right direction. The Astros probably will not continue to strike out almost five times as many batters as they walk; they should, however, meet the 3.20 threshold.

Additionally, the rest of the roster seems to be rounding into form. The team has won 12 of its past 16 games, and the offense appears to be heating up. With more than half a season of baseball still to be played, Houston has plenty of time to make a push for the playoffs. That surge will likely be aided by a bullpen that has been one of the league's weirdest thus far, striking out batters at an historic rate but giving up leads at key times. While the blown saves have accumulated rather quickly, better forms of evaluation say that the Houston bullpen has been -€” and should continue to be -€” elite this season.

...

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.com and BrooksBaseball.net

Tom O'Donnell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He'll be a senior at Colby College next fall. You can follow him on Twitter @Od_tommy.

Editor's Note: New players win cash in their first league or get their entry fee refunded! Offered in partnership with FanDuel. Here's the link.