The Houston Astros have been aggressive in the relief market this winter. Andrew Miller actually took $4 million fewer dollars to sign with the Yankees, eschewing a 4-year/$40 million dollar offer from the Astros. Meanwhile, this piece suggests that David Robertson turned down a 5-year/$65 million dollar from Houston, opting instead for a 4-year/$46 million dollar deal from the White Sox.
With the two headliners off the board, the Astros doubled up on Wednesday and announced the signings of Luke Gregerson (3/$18.5) and Pat Neshek (2/$12.5) to bolster their pen. The Astros have had the worst bullpen ERA in each of the last two seasons with a 4.92 in 2013 and 4.80 last year. They were fifth-worst in 2012 with a 4.46 mark. Add it all up and their 4.73 bullpen ERA over the last three seasons is easily baseball’s worst (Rockies 4.51 is 29th).
Gregerson has been one of the most consistent relievers in the game since making the majors in 2009. His 2.75 ERA in 419.3 innings is ninth-best in baseball among relievers with at least 300 innings over that period and he hasn’t been above a 2.75 ERA in any single season since 2010 (3.22). He isn’t a huge strikeout guy like many dominant relievers these days, instead succeeding via the groundball. Interestingly, he used to be a strikeout stud back in 2009-10 (30% K rate), but has just a 21 percent strikeout rate in the last four years.
Neshek has had some big strikeout rates throughout his career, but he hasn’t consistently been a bat-misser, but he isn’t a huge groundball guy, either. He wins with deception and is essentially ROOGY, though he did just finish his best season ever against lefties, holding them to a .541 OPS. He also had a 26.7 percent strikeout rate last year. Are either of those changes to his game for real? It’s hard to know for sure, especially with a 34-year old reliever, but he’s enjoyed success in the past even when struggling against lefties and/or missing a modest number of bats. Both are net positives for the Astros, but Gregerson is definitely a couple ticks better than Neshek.
Pairing the additions with Chad Qualls, Josh Fields, and Tony Sipp (and maybe Mike Foltynewicz, though he may continue to start for the time being) doesn’t necessarily emulate the 2014 Kansas City Royals, but it is far more formidable than anything they’ve had during this down period. By the way, going off on a tangent for a second, let’s address the notion of “emulating the Royals”.
They did *not* create the idea of winning via the bullpen. Nor did they perfect it. I understand they did it remarkably well, getting three historic seasons from the 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guys en route to a World Series appearance, but the bullpen has long been the key to turning a team around and spurring postseason success, assuming you have a modicum of talent in the lineup and rotation, too. The Mariners had the 29th-best bullpen ERA (worsted only by the Astros, of course) in 2013 at 4.58.
They went out and acquired a solid closer who was just a year removed from one of the best relief seasons in baseball history in the form of Fernando Rodney and then pulled a 37-year old Joe Beimel off of the scrap heap to be a lefty-killer. Beimel missed 2012 to Tommy John surgery and then spent all of 2013 in Triple-A (at age 36, mind you). The two additions were paired with sharp improvements from several in-house arms and all of a sudden they wound up with the best bullpen ERA in 2014 at 2.60:
|*numbers as RP-only
Add it all up and they were 16 wins better with an 87-win season that left them just one game shy of the playoffs. Of course, it wasn’t just the bullpen turnaround. They also dropped $240 mil on some second baseman, who was worth about 5-6 of those wins, but the point stands: a revamped bullpen can turn a team around quickly. Staying in the AL West, we saw the Angels do something similar en route to a 20-win turnaround. And they did a teardown with Kevin Jepsen and Michael Kohn being the only two relievers to throw 20+ IP for them in both 2013 and 2014.
The 2013 Red Sox didn’t have a single qualifying starter (162+ IP) south of a 3.50 ERA and while both Jon Lester and John Lackey turned it up (2.08 combined ERA in 60.7 IP) in the postseason, it was a devastating foursome of Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Brandon Workman, and Craig Breslow that stifled the opposition to the tune of a 0.97 ERA in 37 innings en route to the World Series win.
These are just very recent examples. There are many more. I understand the greatness of the Herrera-Davis-Holland trio that fueled KC’s World Series run, but they didn’t create this model so Houston isn’t copycatting them with their intense bullpen focus this winter. Anyway, back to the Astros and more specifically, what these bullpen additions could do for their two best starters: Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh.
There is an adage in the fantasy game that implores you not to chase wins. The unpredictability of them is far too high and you will drive yourself mad trying to “plan” for a set number of wins from someone. That said, we do know we should expect fewer wins from starters stuck on poor teams, especially if the bullpen is the primary source of their poorness.
Keuchel had a fantastic breakout season, posting a 2.93 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 200 innings en route to just a 12-9 record. He had just one bad no-decision out of eight (5 IP/5 ER at LAA) and otherwise had at least a quality in the other seven, oftentimes pitching much better. All told he had a 3.46 ERA in 52 innings in the eight NDs, but it drops to 2.87 in 47 innings if you lift the dud against the Angels.
McHugh also enjoyed a huge season (2.73 ERA in 154.7 IP) which was more out-of-nowhere than Keuchel’s. McHugh had a 2.85 ERA in five no-decisions and had three quality starts within his nine losses, though he left with the Astros in losing in all nine so the pen can’t be blamed there.
In fact, I’m not making the case that the 2014 bullpen cost either a ton of wins, but rather that an improved bullpen should yield more wins even if they don’t repeat their sub-3.00 ERAs in 2015 which increases their fantasy value. This probably would be more obvious to everyone had they landed a Miller or Robertson, but don’t sleep on the guys they did get. And yes, the bullpen improvements should help their entire rotation, but I focused on Keuchel and McHugh because they are the only arms in their rotation who are guaranteed to be picked at the draft table in 2015.
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