The Astros Prove There’s No Right Way To Assemble A Bullpen

So obviously I’ve been thinking about bullpens a lot, because that’s all anyone is thinking about. (Other than whether Joc Pederson is “benched” or not, which isn’t going to go away due to the Reds throwing lefties John Lamb and David Holmberg today and tomorrow.)

It’s been painful to watch for a while, and there’s no shortage of reasons why. Kenley Jansen is great, but Don Mattingly doesn’t use him enough. There were real actual reasons to like the acquisitions of Chris Hatcher & Joel Peralta; neither has worked out so far. Pedro Baez & Yimi Garcia have shown great promise, but like any young pitcher, there’s been bumps in the road. The less said about Jim Johnson, the better. Juan Nicasio has at least been an effective pickup, and J.P. Howell has had all kinds of luck on his side, with signs of collapse coming.

So what makes a good bullpen? Everyone likes to scream about not paying for Andrew Miller last winter, but if the 2014 Dodgers proved anything, it’s that simply throwing money at relievers doesn’t always work. Ken Rosenthal looked at how the soft-tossing Astros are doing it, and I thought it was interesting.

Astros relievers had boasted the second-lowest walk rate and fifth-best strikeout rate in the majors. And while their opponents’ batting average on balls in play was a major-league low .255, that number wasn’t simply the product of luck; the hard-hit percentage against them was the second-lowest in the majors.

So let’s compare. The Dodgers have the second-highest strikeout percentage and the 10th-best walk percentage, though their 7.9% is barely behind Houston’s 7.3%. The BABIP is a huge difference; Houston’s (now) .251 is baseball’s lowest, while the Dodgers’ .319 is tied with Philadelphia for second-highest. Rosenthal is correct that it’s not all luck, but yeah, that’s at least a little about luck. I don’t love hard-hit percentage, but the Dodgers are tied for third-worst.

But what about only the active roster? That is, does it really matter now what Sergio Santos or Matt West or Chin-hui Tsao did weeks or months ago? Probably not, right? When you sort it that way, the Dodger BABIP drops to .306; hard-hit rate drops to 12th-highest, or essentially league average.

Let’s move on to how the bullpen is deployed, and there’s one theory about what’s ailing the Dodgers, even beyond just relievers:

Whether or not that’s true (it doesn’t feel like there’s too many platoons in the lineup, unless you really want Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford facing lefties), the issue of “roles” doesn’t seem to be affecting the Astros ‘pen…

Hinch said the relievers have “general” roles — when the Astros lead, he mostly goes Harris-Neshek-Gregerson in the final three innings, mixing and matching with Qualls and his lefties, Sipp and Perez. But because none of the relievers is an established late-inning monster — this, for example, is Gregerson’s first year closing — Hinch said the roles are “in pencil.” In other words, he can manage however he wants, and the relievers are comfortable with it.

…so I’m not sure that’s an issue, especially since one complaint is that Jansen’s role is too rigid.

What’s interesting about that Houston bullpen — and they tried and failed for Miller last winter and Craig Kimbrel & Aroldis Chapman this summer, as Rosenthal notes — is just where it all came together from. Will Harris was a waiver claim from Arizona. Josh Fields was a Rule 5 pick in 2012. Tony Sipp was plucked from San Diego’s Triple-A team last summer, where he’d been pitching because he was unable to land a major league job after walking 5.26/9 with Arizona in 2013. Chad Qualls turned 37 last week and has been with 8 teams since 2010. Pat Neshek is 34 and on his fourth team in five years. Luke Gregerson is on his third team in three years and got $18.5m over three years.

That’s a thrown-together crew if I’ve ever seen one, and I guarantee you’d have all hated it if that’s what the Dodgers had done. And yet it’s worked, very well. The Astros don’t have a Jansen, and they do have a pretty random mix of tossed-aside relievers.

The lesson, as always: Bullpen construction is just the worst thing in the world. Volatility doesn’t even begin to describe it. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you really, really don’t. Baseball!

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello
Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.