Is the Astros bullpen better than last year?


Last night the Astros “new and improved” bullpen got its first decision of the young season — a loss. Is this just the first of many? Probably. And is this bullpen really better than last year’s squad that produced historically bad results?

Astros relievers actually pitched well in last night’s 1-0 extra inning loss to the Rangers. It was especially gratifying to see Brad Peacock get out of a bases loaded, no outs jam in the tenth. Then again, Peacock is the one who walked the bases full to begin with. When it was all said and done, the Astros lack of anything resembling an offensive threat cost them the game and Peacock was hung with the “L”.

The loss was the first decision of any kind for the 2014 Astros bullpen that has gone 3 for 3 in save conversions. Starter Scott Feldman, making a bid to go to 3-0 for the year, took the rotation’s first no-decision by tossing seven shutout innings and pitching well enough to win.  Astros starters have been running hot and cold in the early going  and Feldman has been the hottest. Scott gave up only two hits to the Rangers and lowered his ERA to a miniscule 0.44.

Kevin Chapman has been less than effective thus far in 2014 (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

With so many up-and-down performances from the rest of the rotation, Astros relievers hadn’t been faced with many high leverage situations prior to last night’s pitcher’s duel. Lefty Kevin Chapman‘s struggles continued. Unable to finish the ninth inning after striking out the first two batters, Chapman has now allowed nine base runners while retiring only eight hitters.

But Chapman isn’t the only reliever with a line that has to have Bo Porter wondering if a demotion to AAA might be in order. In fact, every member of the bullpen (with the exception of Matt Albers who missed three games for the birth of his first child) has given up more than one hit per inning pitched.

With many of this year’s games being all but decided in the early innings, it has been a little more difficult to get a good feel for how the bullpen has been doing. We’ve been told repeatedly how tremendously improved the bullpen is going to be this season. But, honestly, at this point, it just hasn’t happened. Only one of the three saves was routine. The other two were actually created by ineffective relievers. Is this an improvement?

Let’s take a look at some numbers.

I know it’s early and we are dealing with an incredibly small sample size, but the early returns are not encouraging. Going into today’s action the Astros bullpen has a WHIP of 1.81 — far and away the worst in the league. The Houston ‘pen also sports a .297 BAA, also a league worst.

Just like last year, walks and homeruns seem to be a big part of the problem. Even though Astros firemen are averaging more than nine strikeouts per nine innings, they are walking more than five batters per nine. That ranks 12th in the American League, as does their 0.96 HR/9 rate. Even though those rankings are better than last season, the raw numbers are still terrible. The bullpen’s 5.97 ERA currently ranks 14th in the A.L., ahead of only the White Sox.

Bo Porter’s ability to properly manage the ‘pen also has to be a concern. Houston relievers have logged a total of 37 & 2/3 innings thus far this season — third most in the league. Conversely, Porter’s 28 trips to the mound to replace a pitcher are fifth fewest in the league. That means Porter is asking his relievers to stay in games much longer than any other manager in the league. Astros relievers are averaging 1.34 innings per appearance. Minnesota ranks second in the A.L. at 1.17.

How this strategy plays out over the length of the entire season obviously remains to be seen. But I think it could be a recipe for disaster. I know the Astros like to be innovators, but the model of using relievers primarily one inning at a time has been working pretty well for the last 25 years.

And when has the “closer by committee” strategy ever been successful? Maybe in a tournament scenario… but not for a 162 game season. I think Porter to delve into his “football mentality” and whip this bullpen into shape. Clearly define the roles of each pitcher and let them know that those who can’t get it done will be replaced. Otherwise, things could get out of control in a hurry.