Monday, July 6, 2015

Bullpen struggling, visions of night sweats return

The bane of Astros fans for the last five years has been the Bullpen, or the Goatpen as we not-terribly-affectionately called them.

The 2014 Astros bullpen posted an even 0.0 WAR, 4th-worst in baseball. The 2013 Goatpen posted an unbelievable -5.6 WAR, worst in baseball by...yeah, 5.6 WAR. Cumulatively from 2010-2014, the Astros' bullpen was "worth" -3.6 WAR, worst in baseball by 8.0 WAR and the only bullpen to be worth below replacement value.

So when the Astros brought in Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, we fans expected some improvement. I don't know that we expected this much improvement, however. The Astros' bullpen - even after yesterday - ranks 11th in bullpen WAR, 5th in the AL. They're stranding 80.2% of runners - 4th in MLB - and are tied with the Royals' bullpen for the lowest BABIP in baseball, at .238. But they're due for some regression. Their 2.71 ERA is belied by a 3.42 FIP and a 3.37 xFIP.

Still, this series with the Red Sox was the first one I can think of this season where shades of the Goatpen reared its demonic, walk-happy head.

Astros bullpen vs. Red Sox, July 3-5:
*11IP, 12H/9R (7ER), 6K:8BB, 61.3% of pitches thrown for strikes

Astros pitchers (starters and relievers) walked 17 batters in the three-game series (with one intentional walk) - uncharacteristic for a team with a 2.77 BB/9 rate. The problem for the Astros this weekend was six of those 16 unintentional walks crossed the plate, including four runs following walks on Friday (the lone Astros win of the series) and one on Sunday - Sipp walking Ortiz before Hanley's two-run birdie over the Green Monster.

*Since returning from a personal break on June 13, Luke Gregerson has only pitched in eight games. But in those eight appearances (8.1IP), he has allowed 2H/0ER, 5K:0BB.
*After having issued exactly zero walks in the first two months of the season, Pat Neshek has walked five of the 52 batters he has faced since June 1.
*Since giving up a walk-off homer at Detroit on May 21, Tony Sipp has thrown 13.1IP allowing 16H/10ER, with 15K:4BB and five home runs. That's good enough for a 6.75 ERA/1.50 WHIP, and a .969 OPS-against.
*In his last 18 appearances (9.2IP), Joe Thatcher has allowed 6H/1ER, 10K:4BB and no extra-base hits.
*In the last month (well, June 4-yesterday), Josh Fields has thrown 13IP, allowing 10H/6ER, 15K:7BB for a 4.15 ERA on a .281 BABIP.

One simply can't expect the Astros bullpen to be lights out with no downturn or mini-slump over the course of a 162-game season. And you can't just run Harris-Neshek-Gregerson out every single game.    Maybe for now Sipp and Fields need some low-leverage work, though. One rough series does not a Goatpen make, but the relievers need to keep what happened this weekend to a minimum if they want to be playing something other than golf in October.