The Astros Bullpen Will Still Be Bad

I’ve seen it said that bullpens win championships, but I think it’s probably just the last piece of the puzzle for a contending team. That’d be hard to tease out in the numbers, but it certainly doesn’t make sense for a team like the Astros to spend resources on their bullpen. They’ve taken it to the extreme in some cases, by trading any and every reliever that had any interest on the market.

That’s how you get an Astros bullpen that was by far the worst in the league last year. By a large margin. At 5.09, their FIP was almost a full run worse than second-worst (Cubs, 4.23). And they ‘accrued’ -5.4 wins. The other four teams with below-replacement pens lost .2 wins or less to their relievers as a group. So, yeah, it was a really bad bullpen.

Two thoughts come to mind about a bad bullpen. The first is that there’s always opportunity in situations like those. Bad teams make for sleepers, since the traditional media focuses on better teams and those players get more name recognition. So don’t ignore the team. But! Bad teams — especially those that don’t score a lot of runs and have bad bullpens around the closer — bad teams do not provide a lot of save opportunities.

So whomever you own in this bullpen, be it for saves or holds, will probably not give you a lot of saves or holds. And the bullpen is very bad, so they probably won’t be that good to your strikeout rates or your team ratios. Do not spend much money here. That said, there might be some worthy players to roster.

Chad Qualls
Qualls is the closer in my mind. If arbitration overvalues saves and makes young relievers expensive quickly, it probably makes sense for a team like the Astros to keep a free agent in the role. Cost certainty plus keeping the under-control guys cheaper longer. On top of that, Qualls is probably the best pitcher in the bullpen.

Of course, those that are thinking of the 2010-2012 Chad Qualls are snarfing their milk right now. But that’s a little unfair. In 2009, he had a bad knee injury. Apparently he changed his mechanics to relieve stress on that knee. It was only in 2013 that he went back to his old delivery, to great results. Take a look at some of his per-pitch stats in 2010-2012 and then last season:

Category Frequency Velocity Whiff% GB%
Years 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013
Sinker 65% 62% 92.5 94 6% 7% 63% 71%
Slider 34% 38% 87 87 14% 19% 39% 55%
Change 1% 0% 84 4% 75%

In terms of movement, he gained an inch of horizontal movement on the sinker, and his slider got tighter. Both pitches gained velocity, and both pitches were much more effective in 2013. This echoes what Qualls says in the piece above, too. Despite being a sinker/slider guy, Qualls also didn’t show a big platoon split on his pitches. Against lefties last year, his slider got *more* whiffs (22%) even as it lost the grounders (36%). The sinker still did its thing (66% grounders v LHB).

Old-school Qualls wasn’t anything to write home about — he will cede almost three strikeouts per nine innings to your average closer — but with a ton of grounders, good control, and just enough strikeouts to avoid Brandon League territory, he could be a decent option. You know he won’t cost much.

Josh Fields
Fields is the guy that was supposed to take this job and run with it, the guy that was drafted as a Closer of the Future and all that. But there isn’t a lot to get excited about when you drill into his pitches. His 92 mph fastball velocity is not special in the pen, his changeup is terrible for whiffs (2%), but gets some grounders, his curve is okay (10% whiffs, 11% average, 63% ground balls) and his cutter (his favorite offspeed pitch) is decent for whiffs (13.5%) but not grounders (32%). And though his cutter doesn’t get called a ball a ton, all of his other pitches do. Maybe between the cutter and the curve, he has enough promise to matter. If he improves the command, he could turn into a decent setup man with the possibility of filling in for saves. There isn’t enough here to anoint him a future Closer, though, not with a capital C. Not without significant improvement.

Josh Zeid
Zeid has more gas (not flatulence, he throws the ball 94 mph). His changeup (26%) and slider (19%) get plenty of whiffs. The grounder rates aren’t bad either. He closed in the minor leagues, and at least showed the (inconsistent) ability to show better command than he did last year, when he walked almost four batters per nine. In 2012 and 2013 in Triple-A, he struck out more than a quarter of the batters he saw (double-digit strikeouts per nine). There’s something here, and the projection systems may not be getting all of it. Sure, he had some bad homer years in the minors, but those date back to 2011 and beyond. If he can put together one of his better control years, he absolutely has the velocity and breaking stuff to be a late-game reliever.

With Wesley Wright gone, we don’t know who it’ll be. And maybe the LOOGY will be irrelevant in most leagues. But those in holds leagues, especially those with innings limits, know that a good LOOGY gets great ratios and holds on a per-inning basis. Unfortunately, it’s not clear who will take the role. If it’s Kevin Chapman, you may want to stay away. In only one 22-inning stretch of his career has he managed to walk fewer than four per nine, and his career walk rate is worse than one for every two innings. Sure, limit him to work versus lefties only, and he improves, but a 8.4 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9, on a team that won’t have a ton of hold opportunities — that’s probably a pass. Raul Valdes is old (gah, he’s 36), but the waiver claimee has faced 225 batters with a 11.8 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9. If the Astros ever get on a good stretch and put him in the lefty role, he might actually be interesting.

Late addition: Jesse Crain!
Somehow, this little signing flew under my radar. If he’s healthy, he’ll absolutely figure into the high-leverage innings. Of course, that’s a big deal. Surgery for the biceps and shoulder issues, as well as the one-year deal — these things are all significant risk markers. But with a four-pitch mix and no platoon problems to speak of, he does probably slide ahead of Qualls for the closer’s role except for one last thing worth mentioning — he’s on a one-year deal while Qualls will be under contract in 2015 as well.

Thanks to BrooksBaseball for some of the per-pitch numbers.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here or at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

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Doesn’t Jesse Crain deserve mention?