Thursday, September 24, 2015

No, seriously, what is happening with the bullpen?

On August 27 the Astros were coming off a series in which they took two of three from the Yankees in New York, including a 15-1 win where Carlos Gomez finally remembered how to hit the ball. FanGraphs' simulations gave the Astros a 97% chance of making the postseason. As of this morning, that number is down to 68.5% (have you ever felt so terrible about being projected to make the postseason two out of three times?)

But still, yesterday was another day, another loss thanks to an inability to hold a lead turned over to the bullpen. What is happening? Why, all of a sudden, is the bullpen - a staple of the Astros' success from April to August, suddenly faltering?

Let's take a look at some of the key members of the bullpen from Opening Day to August 27:

Bullpen: .202/.266/.326

Tony Sipp: 46.1IP, 34H/11ER, 50K:13BB, 2.14 ERA/1.01 WHIP, .595 OPS against
Josh Fields: 41IP, 24H/10ER, 54K:15BB, 2.20 ERA/0.95 WHIP, .516 OPS against
Will Harris: 56IP, 31H/9ER, 55K:17BB, 1.45 ERA/0.86 WHIP, .486 OPS against
Chad Qualls: 40.2IP, 32H/17ER, 37K:8BB, 3.76 ERA/0.98 WHIP, .608 OPS against
Pat Neshek: 46.1IP, 32H/16ER, 46K:8BB, 3.11 ERA/0.87 WHIP, .602 OPS against
Luke Gregerson: 50IP, 40H/16ER, 45K:10BB, 2.88 ERA/1.00 WHIP, .591 OPS against

There is literally nothing to be mad about right there. Bullpen is solid top to bottom, and is certainly one of the main reasons the Astros were able to build a significant lead heading into late August.

And then this...this...mess happened.

Now from August 28 through yesterday:

Bullpen: .293/.355/.502

Fields: 7IP, 13H/10ER, 9K:3BB, 12.86 ERA/2.29 WHIP, 1.002 OPS against
Harris: 10.2IP, 10H/5ER, 9K:4BB, 4.22 ERA/1.31 WHIP, .761 OPS against
Velasquez: 10IP, 10H/9ER, 10K:6BB, 8.10 ERA/1.60 WHIP, .927 OPS against
Qualls: 8IP, 11H/5ER, 8K:1BB, 5.62 ERA/1.50 WHIP, .853 OPS against
Neshek: 7IP, 13H/5ER, 4K:3BB, 6.43 ERA/2.29 WHIP, 1.128 OPS against
Gregerson: 6.2IP, 3H/2ER, 7K:0BB, 2.70 ERA/0.45 WHIP, .384 OPS against

Gregerson has been the only reliever worth anything over the past month, but it doesn't matter because somebody else - or a combination of pitchers - has combined to blow the game by then.

1st inning OPS-against: .860
2nd inning OPS-against: .758
3rd inning OPS-against: .595
4th inning OPS-against: .690
5th inning OPS-against: .800
6th inning OPS-against: .686
7th inning OPS-against: .828
8th inning OPS-against: .868
9th inning OPS-against: .762

Maybe for some the issue is overuse. Will Harris faced 120 batters in 2014, and has faced 260 batters in 2015, throwing 1060 pitches so far this season compared to 479 in 2014 (though he did pitch more in 2013 than 2014).

For others, I don't think that excuse works. Chad Qualls will end up throwing more innings this year, but not by an unreasonable amount. He's thrown 16 more pitches this season already than last season, but last year's 697 pitches were the fewest he had thrown since his rookie season with the Astros in 2004.

Pat Neshek - who pitched into the postseason with the Cardinals - has thrown fewer innings. You want to talk about leverage? In 2014 Neshek had 107 plate appearances in what Baseball-Reference considered High Leverage situations (and had a .581 OPS-against in those PAs). He has faced 67 batters in High Leverage situations in 2015. He has thrown 164 fewer pitches from 2014 to 2015.

Of course, it's an older bullpen, as well. Qualls is 36, Neshek is 34, Sipp is 31, Gregerson is 31, Harris is 30. Qualls is a veteran. Neshek and Gregerson were in the playoffs last year. The guys supposed to be carrying the young guys through this stretch are the ones nutting the season away.

I could cherry-pick stats all day to show that the Astros bullpen has been pretty terrible at the worst possible time. Had they started out the season like this instead of waiting until September, I don't think we would be as livid as we are now.