September is a fantastic and frustrating month for baseball. It is fantastic if you’ve got a team marching strongly into the playoffs, or if your team is out of playoff contention altogether (because the season is coming to an end). It is frustrating if you’ve got a team in the mix of the playoff push, where each and every team controls its own destiny. Astros fans this year get a mix of both. Our team is in contention again, after a 10 year drought. However, our team is falling fast in September, and our playoff hopes are slowly slipping away.
The Astros started September 1st place in the American League West. With a record of 73-60, a 96% postseason probability, a 3 game lead in the AL West, all we really had to do was keep cruising on, and finish above a .500 for September and we’d break through to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. The worry about this was the long road stretch to start the month, and the road stretch to finish the season. The Astros, lately, have not been able to get much done on the road, but a 9-day home stretch placed right in the middle of this harrowing road schedule made this a direct possibility.
Then September baseball got underway, and by mid-month, the Astros had lost all but 2 games on the road, the AL West Lead, and was hovering just above the Minnesota Twins in the 2nd Wildcard spot. Crash and burn would be appropriate to describe September for the team thus far. To add insult to injury, the home series stretch has added a measly 3 more wins, and an even split, with one series win and one series loss. And now the team faces the Rangers in their last home series of the season, and this series will likely cement not only the AL West leader, but the chances for a playoff run for the Astros as well.
So what went wrong? Was in inexperience? I wouldn’t say as much, since our rookies and younger players have been outperforming our vets this month. Are we not bringing runs in? We’ve had a big problem with stranded runners and RISPs this month, but we’ve also had the highest average for runs per game in September. Unfortunately, we’ve also allowed for the highest number of runs scored by opposing teams in this month, as well. Opposing teams are hitting against us, more than they have all season, and we have no answer to it.
How bad is it? Well, let’s look at a few charts that measure the earned runs average (ERA) for the full bullpen.
Houston Astros Pitching Rotation v Bullpen ERA by Month
This tells you what you need to know, more or less. We’ve had some pitching struggles that started at the end of August, and haven’t improved. In fact, our Bullpen/relief pitching has, for lack of a better word, completely tanked in September. The starters have found some struggles as well, especially in a few hallmark games (one notable game being the Keuchel appearance in the 3rd Rangers game), but everyone is going to have a bad game. Unfortunately, most of our starters had a bad game in the same road stretch, and that set the Astros on a tailspin.
However, the current starting pitching rotation is pretty balanced and even. Performance has slacked some, but there is some consistency coming into September, as shown here:
Houston Astros Pitching Rotation ERA by Month
The rookie, Lance McCullers, after a disastrous half an inning right before being sent back to the Minor Leagues in August (a move that was determined prior to the game with McCullers being notified), has improved notably since being lassoed back to the MLB, and has done an outstanding job in September. Everyone else – pretty consistent. We haven’t had some of the strongest starts (all of our starters have had a shaky game in September), but the range is something to be expected at the end of the year. So, let’s take a look at the numbers for the bullpen:
Houston Astros Bullpen ERA by Month
Now I think we see the problem. And, this isn’t meant to point fingers at any particular player, although there are some issues with a few guys in our bullpen, but to take a more distinctive look at what is killing our game in the final stretch. Now, I understand the ERA isn’t the tell-all in showcasing a pitcher’s total game, but it is certainly indicative of the main problem we’re facing: opponents outscoring us consistently throughout the month of September. This chart, also, doesn’t point out bad pitchers, either, but it does point out some managerial issues within the club.
If we want to get a better picture, overall, let’s take our current bullpen and look at playing time and damage for the month of September (the ERA measures are enough to give an overall consensus of what’s happening in the season, overall).Here are some basic stats, ranked by playtime, that can give a clearer image of what’s going on in the bullpen:
Velasquez: 9 innings played, 10 hits, 9 runs, 6 walks ERA: 9.00 (season ERA: 4.47)
Harris: 8.2 innings played, 10 hits, 5 runs, 4 walks, ERA: 5.19 (season ERA: 1.89)
Fields: 7 innings played, 13 hits, 10 runs, 3 walks ERA: 12.86 (season ERA 3.75)
Qualls: 6.2 innings played, 9 hits, 3 runs, 0 walks, ERA: 4.05 (season ERA 4.07)
Feliz: 6 innings played, 6 hits, 5 runs, 3 walks, ERA: 7.50 (season ERA 6.43)
Neshek: 6 innings played, 11 hits, 7 runs, 3 walks, ERA: 7.50 (season ERA: 3.54)
Gregerson: 5.2 innings played, 3 hits, 2 runs, 0 walks, ERA: 3.18 (season ERA: 2.86)
Perez: 3.1 innings played 2 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk, ERA- 5.40 (season ERA- 4.10)
Sipp:3 innings played, 4 hits, 1 run, 0 walks, ERA: 2.45, (season ERA: 2.16)
Thatcher: 1 inning played, 1 hit, no runs, 1 walk, ERA: 0.00 (season ERA: 3.60, but last played in July with a 21.6 ERA)
Overall, the earned runs for almost every relief pitcher has almost doubled, if not tripled. We’ve got some guys that aren’t getting a lot of playtime (as opposed to season play) in September that could be pulling us out of tight spots. The numbers here are not indicative of the talent we have in our deep bullpen – the same deep bullpen that is largely responsible for getting us to September #1 in the AL West and in playoff contention. So how are we mismanaging this?
Our worst performers; Fields, Velasquez, and Neshek, are still consistently being used even though they’re clearly struggling. These three guys have either doubled or are projected to double their walks,hits, and runs and they’re still being thrown to the lions. Then we’ve got Sipp, who’s barely been utilized, Gregerson, who’s performed well in September but sparingly, and – I really hate to say it – Qualls, who’s been the most consistent overall but isn’t even being used for an entire inning. The scrutiny of matching pitchers to batters has been massively overthought, and it’s showing in our numbers.
Also – we really need to move beyond that horseshit chess game that was pulled in the first loss to the Angels in this past series, especially if our normal bullpen rotation is bottoming out. Leave that game to the experts, Hinch, because you’re clearly not there yet. Concentrate a little more on properly managing the bullpen rotation where it currently stands now, which is one foot off the gutter.
I’m not going to blame the poor performance on the bullpen. They’ve gotten us this far, and clearly have the talent. From here on out, it’s mental, and it’s also strategy that comes from Management that knows more about baseball than stats. Maybe they’ll get around to reviewing individual performance, and make some adjustments instead of kicking their bullpen further and further to the curb with every passing game. Or, maybe next year…