Thursday, September 13, 2018

The High Wire Bullpen of September 2018

On this past road trip, the Astros played six games--four were one-run games, one was a two-run affair, and the "blowout" of the road trip was a three-run game. In short, every game was close and every late inning situation was a high leverage one. This string of close games required AJ Hinch to use his best relievers with great frequency. Without a laugher of a game game to ease pressure on the back end of the bullpen, Hinch had to get creative in his bullpen usage.

The great news for Astros fans is that the bullpen was excellent on this most recent East Coast jaunt.  Astros relievers game up 16 hits, 5 runs, and 6 walks, while striking out 26 in 20 and 2/3 innings on the mounds of Fenway and Comerica Parks. That translates to a 2.18 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, and a 11.32 K/9 rate. These are all excellent numbers. The pen recorded 2 wins (and 1 loss), 10 individual holds, and a save in all five of the team's victories on the trip.

In August, boosted by two deadline trades for relief pitchers, Hinch changed and defined the roles for a number of members of his bullpen. Roberto Osuna took over the closer role. Osuna recorded his first save for the Astros on August 22, and since then, Osuna has pitched the 9th inning in 11 of his 12 appearances, notching 8 saves. Hector Rondon moved to eighth inning duties when there was a close lead to protect, and Ryan Pressly took over in the 7th inning. Collin McHugh also was given high leverage assignments, and he has recorded half of the 10 holds on the season since August 17. Tony Sipp has finally earned some level of trust from Hinch, and has been given more high leverage appearances recently, almost always against LHB.

On Friday night in Boston, Hinch followed this usual pattern. With the Astros having taken a one-run lead in the top of the seventh, Collin McHugh was sent out for the top of the 7th. When he walked a batter, Ryan Pressly was summoned, and he finished the inning (allowing an inherited runner to score).  Hector Rondon worked around 2 hits in the eighth, and Robert Osuna pitched an easy ninth to seal the victory.

On Saturday, AJ started changing his pattern. AJ brought in Josh James to relieve Charlie Morton to start the 6th, and stuck with James for an entire trip through the Red Sox batting order. James responded, retiring eight of nine batters and striking out four. Pressly, not Rondon, recorded the final out in the eighth, and Osuna got the save in the 9th. On Sunday, in a tie game, AJ needed to go to some of his relievers who had not gotten work in the previous two days. Joe Smith took the seventh, and Tony Sipp cleaned up a jam of Collin McHugh's making by striking out two batters in the eighth. Rondon, who had not gone two days in a row like Osuna and Pressly, had the ninth.

In Detroit, AJ went back to Pressly and Osuna on Monday to hold the lead the Justin Verlander earned through seven strong innings. The bullpen played an essential role on Tuesday. Five relievers each went an inning each--Harris, Smith, Rondon, McHugh, and Osuna. Rondon was pushed back to the seventh, and McHugh got the eighth. Rondon was wobbly in Boston and got moved down the pecking order, while McHugh, who was equally wobbly in Boston, got moved up. Pressly, who had gone three of the previous four games, was rested.

On Wednesday, the Astros pen was taxed, but Gerrit Cole was only able to go five innings. Josh James again took the ball for a long stint, going three innings, and staying in for the eighth, despite giving up a two run homer to Nick Castellanos in the seventh.  The need for rest among the Astros top relievers, and his 100 MPH stuff, compelled Hinch to rely heavily on James, who was only in his 3rd big league appearance. Ryan Pressly, who was not used on Tuesday, had the ninth, and recorded his second major league save.

What does the bullpen usage on this road trip tell us?  I think a couple of things:
  • The Astros bullpen is very good, and its excellent pitching on this trip in high leverage situations bodes well for October, and in the race to hold off the As down the stretch. 
  • Roberto Osuna is definitely the closer at this point, and is used primarily in save situations.
  • Ryan Pressly may be passing Hector Rondon on the the bullpen depth chart, and may soon be called upon to pitch in the eighth inning when the Astros have a lead.
  • The deadline deals for Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly have certainly strengthened the bullpen. Let's keep our fingers crossed that this continues into the playoffs. 
  • Four relievers were not used on the trip. Dean Deetz and Cionel Perez were not used because as rookies, they are probably going to be limited to mop-up duty. Brad Peacock was not used, but that is most likely because he is sick with hand, foot, and mouth disease. But Chris Devenski was not used. Devinski has only pitched twice since returning from the disabled list. He gave a run in both appearances. These datapoints indicate that Devenski may not yet be fully recovered from his hamstring injury, and/or that he has gotten passed on the Astros reliever depth chart by what Hinch sees as better options. 
  • AJ Hinch trusts Josh James much more than James's minor league numbers say. AJ has let James pitch in high leverage situation, and has shown a slow hook on James. He might make the playoff roster, despite his lack of experience. 
With the Astros odds of making the playoffs near 100% and of winning the divison near 90%, attention has turned to the question of who will make the postseason roster. At the Athletic, Jake Kaplan wrote a piece headlined "Bullpen is the area the Astros face the toughest decisions for playoff roster." AJ's creative use of the bullpen this series, necessitated by the frequent use of what the team perceives as its best relievers, worked wonders, helping the Astros to stave off the charging As. We will need to continue to watch how AJ employs his relievers over the next few weeks.