It’s Time for the Astros to Trust Their Relievers

The World Series kicks off tonight with a battle of elite left-handed starters, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel. The game will also feature the two best offenses in MLB this year. And yet, for all the talent on the field to begin the game, the series may very well hinge on whether A.J. Hinch is willing to once again trust his bullpen.

During the regular season, the Astros’ relief corps was better than their reputation suggests. As a group, they posted the second-highest strikeout rate of any bullpen, and while their 101 ERA- was a bit below average, their 84 xFIP- was second only to the Indians.

And while the results didn’t match the peripherals, most of the guys who drove those differences —James Hoyt (4.38 ERA, 3.11 xFIP), Michael Feliz (5.63 ERA, 3.58 xFIP), Francis Martes (6.63 ERA, 4.59 xFIP), and Tony Sipp (5.79 ERA, 4.34 xFIP) — aren’t on the World Series roster. The seven relievers the team is carrying were mostly excellent, by both results and peripheral stats.

Using the active roster filter on our leaderboards, which includes just players currently eligible to play in tonight’s game, the regular season data doesn’t show a significant difference in bullpens in this match-up.

The World Series Bullpens
Astros 8.3 % 29.0 % 20.7 % 1.1 0.269 81.4 % 70 79 80
Dodgers 6.4 % 27.5 % 21.1 % 1.2 0.275 80.8 % 76 83 81

Of course, the groups have not performed similarly in the postseason, with the Dodgers bullpen absolutely dominating so far, while the Astros relievers have mostly struggled when allowed on the mound. And because of those struggles, A.J. Hinch has done whatever he can to avoid using them.

Between the ALDS and ALCS, the Astros have played 11 games so far this postseason. Here are the number of batters the regular relievers — not counting starters who have pitched out of the bullpen — have faced in those 11 games.

Astros Playoff Bullpen Usage
Pitcher Batters Faced Outs Pitches
Ken Giles 29 18 123
Chris Devenski 16 9 62
Collin McHugh 13 12 53
Will Harris 11 6 54
Joe Musgrove 11 8 44
Luke Gregerson 10 8 46
Brad Peacock 10 7 40
Francisco Liriano 8 5 30

There are no sugar coating most of those numbers; the Astros regular relievers have been ineffective in the postseason so far. Take away McHugh’s good outing in his one appearance, a low-leverage outing at that, and you’re looking at the trio of Giles, Devenski, and Harris only retiring 33 batters of 54 faced. That’s a .389 OBP allowed, and it’s not all bad luck; they’ve struggled to throw strikes and have gotten hit hard when their opponents made contact.

But while the results have been undeniably poor, the obvious reality is that we’re talking about the smallest of samples here. And the Astros have already benefited from giving early-playoff-strugglers a second chance this postseason.

In his one division series outing in relief, Lance McCullers allowed a .385 OBP to the 13 batters he faced, and the Astros are probably pretty happy they didn’t stop trusting him after that outing. In his first two postseason starts, Charlie Morton faced 39 batters and allowed a .382/.462/.618 batting line, but the Astros believed in his stuff and track record, and in his Game 7 start, he retired 15 of the 18 batters he faced over five shutout innings.

Just as Morton and McCullers were allowed to redeem themselves, Hinch should once again give his best relievers a chance to show that they can still get outs too. Because the Astros path to the World Series title looks pretty difficult if they have to rely solely on their starters for high-leverage innings.

For one, the Dodgers look like a tough matchup for Dallas Keuchel. As Jeff noted yesterday, the Dodgers hitters don’t chase balls out of the zone, and no starter throws fewer strikes than Dallas Keuchel. The Dodgers offense is geared to taking advantage of guys who don’t throw strikes, and Keuchel against a patient line-up of guys who won’t chase his sinker could be a problem for the Astros.

The Dodgers also don’t hit many grounders, which is Keuchel’s bread and butter, but have swings designed to elevate low pitches. So, while Keuchel could certainly adjust and pitch differently than he has all year, the Astros probably can’t go into this series expect him to give them two deep outings.

If Keuchel is more likely to be a five inning pitcher in his starts, then Verlander is probably the only hope the Astros have of getting a lot of innings from their rotation. Neither Morton nor McCullers are going to eat innings in their starts, and the Astros will probably want to make sure McHugh and Peacock are mostly fresh for games three and four, when they might want to try the tandem-starter thing again. But while Peacock could probably pitch tonight and still be ready to go for an extended outing on Saturday, the reality is that the Astros will probably need to get some good innings from their traditional relievers today.

Giles, Devenski, and Harris have been among the game’s best relievers for years now. Their stuff is good, they mostly throw strikes, and they shouldn’t be cast aside just because they had a few poor outings earlier in the postseason. If Hinch continues to avoid all of his regular relievers, he’s going to get to the end of the series with worn down, burned out starters.

While the idea of Justin Verlander single-handedly carrying the Astros to a World Series title is a nice story, it’s also an unrealistic expectation. To beat the best team the National League has to offer, the Astros will need contributions from more than just a few trusted pitchers. The Astros are carrying 11 pitchers for a reason, and Hinch needs to be willing to deploy more than five or six of them over the next seven games.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

I think a big part of the issue with faith in bullpens is that we just don’t know the health and fatigue status the way the manager does.

With an offensive team like Houston we expected them to bounce back and still be good after their anemic first 5 ALCS games. We would expect the same from the Houston bullpen IF they are in the same condition they were all year. And we have no way of knowing if AJ Hinch is being biased to recent results or knows his bullpen is fatigued, hurt or compromised and aren’t the same guys. We can see with Alex Wood that he’s just not the guy right now his season line suggests and we can identify it in his lost velocity. When the injury or fatigue manifests as lack of command or location it’s harder to diagnose with our tools.

The Astros bullpen may not be what it was in the regular season for real and we have no real way to know what guys are playing through.