The Astros’ bullpen may have some depth issues heading into the ALCS

Devenski (Elsa/Getty Images)
Devenski (Elsa/Getty Images)

During the 2017 season, the Houston Astros’ bullpen developed a strong reputation.

They posted the most fWAR in the first half of the season (4.9). For the whole season, they struck out a shade under 11 batters per nine innings and boasted five relievers who threw at least 40 innings and struck out at least 10 per nine. Ken Giles bounced back to his 2014-15 form and Chris Devenski emerged along with his signature changeup.

But when you look below the surface, the bullpen isn’t nearly as intimidating as they seemed early in the year.

In the second half, the Astros produced a 4.49 bullpen ERA with an elevated home run rate and the 20th highest fWAR. Granted, they acquired Tyler Clippard in August, so that could explain some of it, but it was also about their top relievers letting them down.

Giles was just as dominant, perhaps more so, down the stretch, so he should be exempted from this conversation. But batters seemed to adjust to Devenski somewhat as his K/9 fell by more than four Ks and his walks rose. He still held batters to a .198 average (38 points higher than the first half), but his ISO against rose from .134 to .232. Yikes.

But their reliable back-end of the bullpen from 2015 is no longer quite so usable. Luke Gregerson still strikes out a batter an inning, but he allowed 13 home runs, more than all but one MLB reliever this season. Devenski gave up 11 yet threw nearly 20 more innings than Gregerson. His walk rate is nearly a career-worst and was only used in the eighth inning of blowouts during the ALDS.

Will Harris has similarly been relegated to a lesser role despite having a solid season. He still sports a K-BB rate of over 25 percent and a 2.98 ERA. Yet A.J. Hinch refused to use him in big situations against the Red Sox in the ALDS. He got the eighth inning of Game 1 with a six-run lead and couldn’t even finish the inning after giving up back-to-back singles. He could have been part of the bridge to Giles in Game 4, but Hinch eschewed Harris for Justin Verlander.

Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)
Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)

Beyond those four, the Astros used just two other relievers beyond the Brad Peacock-Lance McCullers Jr. piggyback start in Game 3 and that was Joe Musgrove and Francisco Liriano. Liriano is just a matchup lefty for them and Musgrove is mostly a long man.

Hinch will simply have to go to Harris or others in key situations against the Yankees or keep his starters in, perhaps past their breaking points. He can’t use Verlander or Keuchel in relief until a winner-take-all situation in a seven-game series. Perhaps the Astros can out-hit the Yankees to the point where there aren’t too many high leverage innings for their middle relievers. However, I’d bet that we’ll see Hinch have to go to a reliever he doesn’t quite trust with a game on the line.

And that’s before you dissect the ALDS performance of the two relievers he does trust. Devenski and Giles combined for 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on seven hits. They struck out five and walked none. The latter part is encouraging yet they didn’t shut the door.

Terry Francona relied upon more relievers than Hinch and he was still stretched thin at times by the Yankees’ offense. As evidenced by Todd Frazier and Brett Gardner in the ninth on Wednesday, the Bombers will take every pitch and wait out mistakes. They were able to get the Indians’ starters out after an average of 12 outs. The Astros won’t have the luxury of going to a deep bullpen for long innings and will need their rotation to go long, thus emphasizing the importance of the Yankees’ long at-bats against the starters.

A key to look for: Devenski’s reverse split. Thanks to his changeup, he holds lefties to a .110/.178/.236 line compared to righties batting .238/.314/.448 against him. If he comes in against a lefty/switch-hitter heavy part of the lineup, he’s more likely to excel. If he’s asked to face one or two of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and co., he could be in for trouble.

If the Yankees can’t hit Keuchel, Verlander and the other Astros starters, the potentially soft underbelly of the Houston bullpen won’t matter. But if this series goes anything like the Indians series, this series might come down to a few at-bats from relievers who haven’t seen high leverage outings recently … and for good reason.

2014 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Wednesday

2014 Winter Meetings-002Aside from losing David Robertson to the White Sox, the first two days of the Winter Meetings have been rather quiet for the Yankees. Brian Cashman confirmed he did have talks with the Athletics about Jeff Samardzija before the right-hander was traded to the White Sox, but the two sides were unable to find a match. With Jon Lester finally off the board — he signed with the Cubs late last night, in case you missed it — the pitching market should soon take off.

All we learned on Monday and Tuesday was that the Yankees are willing to go four years for Chase Headley as long as the annual salary comes down. That’s really about it. They’re not in on Max Scherzer, they don’t know if Hiroki Kuroda is retiring, and they’ve spoken to a handful of clubs (Braves, Marlins, Royals) about bullpen help. Exciting times. We’ll again keep track of all the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so make sure you check back often. All timestamps are ET.

  • 2:37pm: Stephen Drew is much more popular this offseason than last despite his awful 2014 season, likely because he isn’t attached to draft pick compensation and will come pretty cheap. The Yankees are one of many teams with some level of interest, presumably so he could play second base. [Jon Heyman]
  • 2:33pm: Any talks between the Yankees and Sergio Romo have been limited so far. There’s interest but nothing is imminent. [Marly Rivera]
  • 2:25pm: Given the way the team’s budget is constructed at the moment, the Yankees would have to bottom feed for rotation help if they sign Chase Headley to a four-year contract. They may spend on pitching and go with Martin Prado at third and kids at second base instead. Of course, this could all be posturing. [Joel Sherman]
  • 12:56pm: The Yankees are more than just “monitoring” Sergio Romo — they have legitimate interest in signing him. Romo was off the charts good from 2010-13 but took a step back in 2014. He’s still a capable late-inning reliever. (Jerry Crasnick)
  • 11:10am: Two unidentified owners flew to the Winter Meetings in San Diego to meet with Scott Boras about Max Scherzer. I’m not saying Yankees ownership is one of them, but they do have a history of dealing with Boras directly, namely with Rafael Soriano a few years ago. [Jon Heyman]
  • 10:28am: Brandon McCarthy is seeking a four-year deal at $48M while teams are stopping at three years and $36M. The Yankees are also “monitoring” relievers like Jason Grilli, Rafael Soriano, and Sergio Romo. [George King]
  • 9:44am: Well, forget about Luke Gregerson. He just agreed to a three-year, $18.5M deal with the Astros. That’s the second biggest contract ever given to a non-closer reliever, just ahead of Jeremy Affeldt’s three-year, $18M deal with the Giants and way behind the contract the Yankees just gave Andrew Miller. [Bob Nightengale]
  • 9:30am: The Yankees are among the teams with interest in Luke Gregerson. He’s no David Robertson, but Gregerson is a damn fine high-leverage reliever who would be a big boost to New York’s bullpen. (Shi Davidi)
  • The Yankees continue to have interest in retaining Brandon McCarthy. Francisco Liriano’s three-year, $39M contract with the Pirates could be a reference point in talks. (Jack Curry)