Updated: Apr 11
Multiple times we wrote about the challenge the Astros had in their bullpen. As early as 8/31/21, I pointed to the issue- I called it their Achilles Heel- from that point forward it cost them several games and put Dusty Baker in no win situations several times- platoon splits of almost every Astros relief pitcher.
Let's review the Astros 2021 Bullpen after the entire season and ask how it can still get better.
For the discussion we will focus on wOBA and xwOBA vs. RHH and LHH. Go here for a more detailed discussion of wOBA.
What became clear to me in 2021 was that the Astros tended to make game decisions that aligned with xwOBA. We will align this analysis to be consistent with that.
xwOBA is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.
The stats here are for only the 2021 Astros bullpen pitchers as a RP (excludes SP data) and are from https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/.
I labeled the RP performance by these buckets. Relief Pitcher performance is highly variable and it may be more accurate to project in these sort of buckets of expectations.
As discussed previously, every pitcher in the bullpen was average or worse in xwOBA vs. one side of the hitting platoon except Pressly. This was the Achilles heel.
All three of the free agent RP- Yimi Garcia, Kendall Graveman, and Brooks Raley- were bad against their platoon and all were allowed to leave.
THIS is why I lobbied for the Astros to invest in RP that was at least good by the scale shown vs. both RHH and LHH.
Some of the current Astros relief pitchers had limited time in the majors in 2021 due to performance or injuries. For THESE players I have included the 2019-2021 season stats also.
So what RP moves have the Astros made so far?
They signed LHRP Zac Rosscup to a minor league deal
They signed LHRP Adam Morgan to a minor league deal
In general, I believe Click follows a strategy to address weaknesses with multiple options none of which would be a sure thing answer.
This is what the 2022 bullpen projects now. On the Fangraphs.com site the Astros are still projected to have the 11th best bullpen overall. One could argue the 2022 Astros are headed for similar challenges as the 2021 Astros in the bullpen. I have assigned the roles I believe they are most likely to perform for the 2022 Astros.
Pressly is the star of this bullpen and is excellent.
Beyond Pressly, this is a competitive bullpen. There are many pitchers at a similar good but not great level. Stanek and Neris are the most likely setup duo although Stanek will need to improve vs. LHH. Hector Neris is at least average vs. LHH while being excellent vs. RHH in terms of xwOBA. He could be a strong candidate to pair with Stanek to work matchups to the extent that is possible.
Maton may assume the 6th and 7th inning duties with if he performs to match his expected stats. Taylor will continue as a LHRP specialist primarily to be deployed vs. LHH. With the three batter rule it is difficult to use some of these pitchers properly.
Looking at this table one might conclude that a healthy Pedro Baez and Josh James will solve all of the Astros relief pitching issues. To those counting on Baez, I would suggest they look at this graph.
Baez's velocity accelerated its descent downward in 2021. I do not expect Baez to be effective in 2022 at age 34. I would love to be wrong. The projection systems predict he will pitch to a 4.10 to 5.07 ERA. That is a pretty wide spread for the projection systems.
Josh James may be a more intriguing possible breakout candidate at age 29. The projection systems have him pegged for a 3.84 to 4.30 ERA. He could be a valuable middle relief possibility. James is considered to have good stuff and maybe it is his time. Can Josh James step into this space and provide stability or even take on a higher leverage situation? This is a key item to be monitored in Spring Training and in the early season.
I have excluded Javier from most of this discussion about splits due to the fact that I believe ran out of gas in September when used exclusively as a RP (14.1 IP of 7.53 ERA out of 52.2 IP of 3.93 ERA as a RP). Yes, he has a career performance split with LHH. Javier as a RP is likely to be deployed in a long relief and also likely to be a low leverage situation.
I also added the players remaining options. This is an important consideration that Jake Kaplan did a great job of detailing in an article for the Athletic recently.
Morgan and Rosscup have no options available and are on minor league league deals. They are available as injury projection and given their split profiles, both are likely to pose the same issues and Raley and Taylor. Maybe worse. Expect them to be in AAA.
Bielak and Paredes still have options and unless they blow people away, neither is likely to start in the MLB.
Bryan Abreu and Rafael Montero sit on the bubble for this relief staff. Both have platoon splits (Abreu actually has a reverse split.). Neither should be deployed in high leverage situations. Neither of them has options. Both of them could be replaced by a better pitcher. If not, one is likely to be with the Astros and the other will be DFA'd.
So what would and upgrade to Abreu and Mothero look like?
I would target a LHP
They need to have "good" splits vs. LHH AND RHH- at least average
I will pause to say here that I seem far more focused on adding this one last piece to improve the bullpen than it seems the Astros are. I believe one more LHP in the bullpen provides a strategic need. The Astros do not seem to be as interested because it would result in DFAing Montero (I have assumed Abreu will already be DFAd.)
How I would improve the Astros Bullpen
I have three recommendations for improvement.
Santiago is PED suspended currently, but appears the best performance option per xwOBA. He has 21 more games of suspension to serve. its a huge risk but may be worth a minor league deal. I wrote more about Santiago here.
Detwiler started 5 games (7.2 IP- openers?) and had a 15.28 ERA, He relieved in 48 games (44.2 IP) and had a 2.82 ERA. Is he just better as a RP? His xwOBA woud be a definite upgrade vs. Montero and if sustainable, Detwiler would be an LHRP asset in the bullpen.
ClintTheScout gave me some quick thoughts on Detwiler:
Stats wise - I'd say he should lean into the following combos:
LHH - throw curveball and cutter more often. I'd be pounding cutters away, and mixing the curveball east and west against LHHs.
RHH - point cutter, slider and fastball. My strategy would be cutters in on RHH only, use it with the fastball in to create the velocity and movement differential.
He gave up only 10 home runs in 2021. His hard hit rate dropped 9.3% from 2020 to 2021.
The changeup is really a non-factor to me if he's in the bullpen- this is an example of WHY Detwiler could be an more effective RP than he is a SP.
As I look at the pitch numbers I'd say the Astros could work with hime more on his slider, This is a pitch he could throw more to both RHH and LHH.
I think Detwiler could be developed into an effective LHRP even at age 36.
The last option is one I have considered before for the Astros- Mike Minor. Minor has not pitched more than once in relief in a season since 2017, but at age 34 a move to the bullpen may allow Minor a few more years in the MLB. A few key items to support this idea:
Reds are selling
Minor can be both a SP and a RP
Only $9M AVV (CLUB option of $13M for 2023)
Low trade value cost - 1.9 according to baseballtradevalues.com
I think someone WILL trade for Minor. Why not the Astros?
I think you could go to the Reds and say pick two of the following
As shown, I would get a LHP similar to one of the three I listed. I believe having the extra LHRP would help this team GREATLY. There is no reason to say the 11th best RPs. I say do it now and don't wait.
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