Astros’ Anonymous-Yet-Excellent Bullpen Helps Houston Take Game 1

If you’d been asked, before this postseason, to name as many Astros relievers as you could, how many would you have rattled off before you had to stop? Many fans could probably recall Ryan Pressly, the closer with the high-spin curveball who’s been an integral part of Houston’s bullpen the last three seasons. Maybe Josh James is a familiar face if you’d paid enough attention, a young right-hander with a powerful fastball and questionable command who’s bounced between the rotation and bullpen.

After that, though, it’s likely a lot of blank stares and silence. The relief corps that the Astros turned to throughout the 2020 season was as anonymous as it was unexceptional. Houston’s bullpen ranked 16th in the majors in WAR and ERA and 18th in strikeout rate. By Win Probability Added, they were a miserable 26th. The only stat they were near the top of the league in was walk rate — 12.4%, second-highest in the league. None of that should have come as a surprise: The Astros lost two of their better relievers from 2019 in Will Harris and Joe Smith to free agency, then they saw closer Roberto Osuna throw all of 4.1 innings this year before blowing out his elbow.

The bullpen then became a carousel, spinning constantly as new bodies jumped on seemingly every day. Twenty-two different pitchers trotted out in relief for the Astros, most of them rookies, trying their best to fill what increasingly looked like a bottomless hole. Some of the names cycled through were downright Pynchon-esque: Cy Sneed, Nivaldo Rodriguez, Humberto Castellanos. Some players were barely there for a few days before disappearing while others stuck. And although the bullpen on the whole was never anything more than average, a few of those pitchers managed to secure a spot in Dusty Baker’s circle of trust.

The surprising end result of all that churn is a bullpen that may be light on recognizability and low on experience — of the Astros’ 13 pitchers on the ALDS roster, eight are rookies — but also has quietly been aces for Houston through three games of the postseason. Monday afternoon’s Division Series opener against Oakland was the toughest test to date. With the ball flying out of Dodger Stadium on a hot October afternoon, Baker asked his bullpen to a) get 15 outs in relief of Lance McCullers Jr. while also b) not letting the A’s build on what was a 4–3 lead. That job was entrusted to Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, Cristian Javier, and Pressly. And save for an unearned run in the fifth, they accomplished their task with aplomb, holding firm as the Astros’ lineup rallied for a 10–5 win against an Oakland bullpen that came into October as one of the AL’s top relief units. So much for easy narratives.

That this series should be a battle of the bullpens feels predictable. As Jake Mailhot noted in his series preview, Houston and Oakland are well-matched offensively, and neither has a rotation that goes all that deep in games. There are no horses on either side; each manager was going to have to get comfortable picking up that bullpen phone over and over again. At least on paper, that advantage would seem to belong to Bob Melvin, whose relievers ranked fifth in WAR, first in ERA, eighth in strikeout rate, and second in WPA. Yet in Game 1, his best arms faltered, coming particularly undone in the sixth after a Marcus Semien error with two outs opened the door for a four-run Astros rally that put them ahead for good.

Monday’s success keeps the Astros’ bullpen ERA this postseason at a sparkling 0.00 in 14.2 innings to go with 14 strikeouts and six walks. Most of that good work belongs to Framber Valdez, who stymied the Twins in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series with five scoreless innings behind Zack Greinke. But his long outing has proven to be only an extreme example of how Houston is approaching relief pitching when it lacks dominant setup men. Length has been the key to the Astros’ success: Baker followed his use of Valdez in Game 1 against the Twins by turning to the 23-year-old Javier, who was excellent as a starter during the regular season, as his go-to arm in Game 2 versus Minnesota, having him throw three innings in relief of Jose Urquidy. A similar situation played out against Oakland, with Baker opting for Paredes after McCullers and letting him throw two frames before finishing up with an inning apiece from Taylor, Javier, and Pressly.

It is, in effect, a piggyback pitching structure that mirrors the way those young arms came up through Houston’s system. It’s also the sensible response to the new structure of this postseason, with its extra round of play and a lack of days off that make it borderline impossible either to lean on a small core of relievers or use them for one inning each every single game. Instead, Baker is trying to maximize the number of outs his repurposed starters and swingmen can give him and hoping their raw stuff can overcome their age. So far, so good, though that strategy will be complicated by this being a best-of-five series, which will force him to start Valdez (who will take the ball in Game 2) and keeps him from letting any of his arms go too long in relief.

None of this is to say Baker is making chicken salad out of chicken bones. Javier came into the season ranked sixth on our list of the Astros’ top prospects; Paredes checked in at No. 13; further down you’ll find Taylor (32) and fellow reliever Luis Garcia (19). Paredes marries premium velocity with a sweeping slider few hitters can touch. Javier throws just 92 mph, but his fastball has tons of vertical movement to go with — you guessed it — a sweeping slider that few hitters can touch. These kids still need more months and years of development to produce consistently above-average results, but for now, they and their impressive stuff can play in relief, helping to paper over what had been one of Houston’s bigger weaknesses all season long.

The postseason exists to shred the best-laid bullpen plans and makes teams adjust on the fly. You saw that repeatedly with the last two World Series champions, as both Boston in 2018 and Washington in 2019 came into October with a truly appalling group of relievers but managed to win it all by being creative and flexible with their personnel. That looks like the blueprint for the Astros, who have yet to lose this month and are now two wins away from the ALCS.

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Joe Joe
Joe Joe

Good article. Smith opted out instead of being lost in free agency.

I’m surprised the Astros pulled Javier after one inning. I was expecting 2-3 innings in Games 1 (if Astros lead) with 2-3 more in one of the later games. I wonder if Astros are going to use him as a setup man.