Bullpen Breakdown: Could it have been avoided?


Bo Porter‘s decision Saturday to bring in Jerome Williams to protect a 1-run lead in the ninth inning was met with plenty of criticism from Astros fans. But an extra-inning game the night before coupled with Jake Buchanan‘s demotion to AAA left Porter with fewer options than usual. What could have been done differently? Let’s take a look back at the events of the previous seven days to get a better idea.

First of all — managing a Major League bullpen is no small task. It’s probably the most difficult thing a manager has to do. There are tons of outside factors — many of which the manager has little to no control over — such as injuries and roster moves.  Although Porter is far from being the master of bullpen management, he’s still better equipped than 99.99% of the rest of us. That being said, let’s rehash Porter’s bullpen moves for the past week.

Porter’s attempt to get his relievers some much needed rest began last Saturday. With an off day coming on Monday, Bo successfully used the weekend to get  his entire bullpen (with the exception of Jerome Williams) a 3-day respite. Porter made Williams the sacrificial lamb in last Saturday’s 8-0 loss in Tampa, leaving him in for the final 3 & 2/3 innings while the rest of the relievers got a break. That break was extended when Porter let Sunday’s starter, Dallas Keuchel, go the distance in another loss to the Rays.

Porter and the Astros entered the week with a fully rested ‘pen. But with 16 straight games before the next off day, the challenge was just beginning.

Josh Zeid, Tony Sipp, and Chad Qualls saw action in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Braves — a game in which the Astros trailed from the third inning on. Those three hurlers are generally used in situations where there is a lead to protect, but, given their rested status, I can almost understand Porter’s logic here. Almost.

Wednesday’s 4-0 loss featured appearances by Kyle Farnsworth, Darin Downs, and Williams. Jerome’s ten pitches were the most thrown by any of the three, meaning everyone should be available for Thursday. So far, so good.

A 7-inning effort by starter Jarred Cosart helped ease the bullpen workload again on Thursday. Prior to the game Farnsworth was outrighted off the roster and Jose Veras was brought up to take his place. Zeid made his second appearance of the week, throwing eight pitches to get two outs in the eighth inning. Tony Sipp got the final out of the inning and was extended a bit as he came back out for the ninth. Sipp left the game after throwing 17 pitches and Veras was brought in to get the final out.

Making his first start in over a week, Brad Peacock gave his manager a quality effort covering 6 & 2/3 innings on Friday. Darin Downs needed only two pitches to finish off the seventh — presumably making him available for Saturday. An error by Jonathan Villar in the eighth allowed the Braves to tie the game and extended Jose Veras to 26 pitches. Chad Qualls needed only nine pitches to complete a perfect ninth and Sipp threw 16 in a scoreless tenth. Jake Buchanan cruised through the eleventh on five pitches and picked up the win.

With Dallas Keuchel unable to make Saturday’s start due to an inflamed wrist, the Astros were forced to make a roster decision. Buchanan wasn’t going to be able to come back and start on 12 hours of rest — so he was optioned to AAA and Brett Oberholtzer was recalled. That left Porter one reliever short before the game even started. And, one would have to assume that both Veras and Sipp were unavailable due to their heavy workloads over the past two days.

Oberholtzer responded with an outstanding effort, throwing 6 & 1/3 innings before departing with a 2-1 lead. Zeid needed 19 pitches to get out of a jam in the seventh with the help of a diving catch by L.J. Hoes. Chad Qualls needed only 12 pitches to get through the heart of Detroit’s lineup in the eighth. That left Williams, Downs, and possibly Qualls as options to start the ninth.

Qualls has worked more than one inning only once this season and had already pitched in back-to-back games. Porter never considered bringing him back for the ninth.

But why not Downs? I know Darin is used primarily against lefties, but he has not fared that badly against righties this year. Right-handed hitters have a .267/.353/.333 line against Downs this year. The numbers for Williams are actually much worse (.313/.363/.500 after yesterday’s debacle).

Bo Porter may have been the only person in the ballpark that thought bringing Williams in was a good idea. The skipper backed up his decision in his post-game press conference saying given the same set of circumstances he would do it again. After giving it plenty of thought and weighing all of the data, I still can’t say I’m in agreement with him.