Astros Position Review: Relief Pitcher
As we continue our series on the Astros’ 2016 Position Reviews, we now shift our focus to relief pitching.
Last year’s blockbuster move had Jeff Luhnow acquiring Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz for five players, including former number one overall pick, Mark Appel, and hard throwing Vincent Velasquez. Especially after the meltdown against the Royals in the previous preseason, it was well known that Luhnow wanted to get a reliever who could throw gas. Luhnow got his man in Giles, who this past season threw an average fastball of 97.2, according to Fangraphs. Many expected Ken Giles to be anointed the Astros’ closer to start the season, but in surprising fashion, A.J. Hinch stuck with incumbent closer Luke Gregerson to start the season. Whether it was a lack of confidence or struggles in mechanics, Ken Giles did not get off to a good start for the Astros. Coupled with the fact that Velasquez was pitching well for the Phillies early on, many Astros fans had buyer’s remorse. Despite some ups and downs, Ken Giles was much stronger as the season progressed and heads into the season as the Astros’ likely closer.
2016 stats: 2-5, 15 saves, 4.11 ERA (2.86 FIP), .234 BAA, 1.29 WHIP, 65.2 IP, 60 H, 25 BB, 102 K, 14.0 K/9
As previously mentioned, Gregerson started off the season as the Astros’ closer. While he pitched well initially, Gregerson dealt with some injuries (most notably with his left oblique) throughout the season which opened up opportunities for both Giles and Will Harris opportunities to close. Although Gregerson is unique as a closer in that he doesn’t throw very hard (average fastball is 89.7 according to Fangraphs), he has definitely been effective over the last couple seasons. While I don’t anticipate him closing in 2017, he will still likely be an important part of the Astros’ bullpen.
2016 stats: 4-3, 15 saves, 3.28 ERA, .183 BAA, 0.97 WHIP, 57.2 IP, 38 H, 18 BB, 67 K
Harris has predominantly been an eighth inning specialist for the Astros, but with Gregerson on the shelf and Giles’ early struggles last year, Harris also had a crack at the closer’s role. Will Harris ended the season with twelve saves in fifteen chances, but it was evident at times that he was better suited for the setup role as opposed to that of closer. In the setup role he had 28 holds last season. Harris will continue to try to lock down the eighth inning for the Astros in 2017 as A.J. Hinch feels very comfortable with him in high leverage situations.
2016 stats: 1-2, 12 saves, 2.25 ERA, .220 BAA, 1.05 WHIP, 64 IP, 52 H, 15 BB, 69 K
Neshek, the now former Astro, pitched in 47 innings over 60 games and pitched alright on the surface, finishing with 18 holds. The biggest issue, though, was that he was pounded by lefties, who hit .250/.321/.646 against him. While he was pretty good against righties, the Astros felt he was expendable and dealt him the Phillies in November.
2016 stats: 2-2, 3.06 ERA, .194 AVG against, 0.94 WHIP, 43 K, 11 BB
After signing a 3 year, $18 million extension, Tony Sipp did not deliver the impact that the Astros had anticipated last year. Being the only lefty in the pen for much of the season, Sipp was expected to be a specialist who A.J. Hinch could count on. Instead, Sipp delivered a 4.95 ERA in 43.2 innings, including an awful .297 batting average against. Compare this to 2015, when he had a 1.99 ERA and you can see why the first year of the contract was largely disappointing. While the offseason is still going, as of right now Sipp may still be the only lefty and, while a return to the monster numbers of 2015 may not be expected, it would be nice for him to be more dependable than last year.
2016 stats: 1-2, 1 save, 4.95 ERA, .297 AVG against, 1.60 WHIP, 40 K, 18 BB
From the time Chris Devenski got the call up in early April until the end of the season, he certainly did not disappoint. Devenski pitched to the tune of a 1.61 ERA in 83.2 innings in relief. His numbers across the board were just ridiculous, especially for a rookie, and it will be interesting to see how he is used next season. Early reports suggest that he will likely be stretched out, but as of right now, there is not a clear path to being a starter. While that may be disappointing for Devenski, he would make an already really solid bullpen even more deep with his presence.
2016 stats: 4-4, 2.16 ERA, 108.1 IP, 79 H, 20 BB, 104 K, 2.8 WAR, .205 BAA
Much like Devenski, Feliz finds himself in a spot where he could be stretched out to start or could be another really solid piece in a very deep bullpen. In 2016, Feliz mostly served as a long reliever, but also started to earn some trust, and thus more opportunities, in higher leverage situations. While he will not be replacing Giles, Harris or Gregerson, he can be another important piece for the 2017 Astros. In 2016, he had a ridiculous 13.15 K/9 innings, second only to Ken Giles (13.98) for relievers with more than 10 innings.
2016 stats: 8-1, 4.43 ERA (3.24 FIP), .224 BAA, 1.18 WHIP, 65 IP, 55 H, 22 BB, 95 K
In 2016, the Astros had 19 total players who pitched in relief. While I have spotlighted some of the main ones above, others with double digit innings included:
Scott Feldman: 4-1, 2.41 ERA, .246 BAA, 0.99 WHIP, 27 K, 2 BB
Jandel Gustave: 1-0, 3.52 ERA, .232 BAA, 1.11 WHIP, 15.1 IP, 4 BB, 16 K
James Hoyt: 1-1, 4.50 ERA, .203 BAA, 1.14 WHIP, 22 IP, 9 BB, 28 K
Josh Fields: 0-0 6.89 ERA, .343 bAA, 1.66 WHIP, 20 K, 3 BB
Overall Grade: B
It is really challenging to give a grade to the Astros’ bullpen for 2016. At times they pitched lights out, but there were also rough patches as well. The biggest mark against the bullpen for me is that collectively they had 44 saves in 64 opportunities, including 12 out of 15 for Will Harris, 15 out of 21 for Luke Gregerson, and 15 out of 20 for Ken Giles. While individual statistics were solid from many of the relievers, I would like to see a little more consistency for the entire season in 2017.
For the most part the 2017 bullpen is already set. Based off of the current roster, I anticipate Ken Giles at closer, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson sharing the 7th and 8th. I also initially anticipated that Chris Devenski could have gotten opportunities; however, with him being stretched out, that may slightly change. I also anticipate Michael Feliz and Tony Sipp in the bullpen to start the season as well as either Mike Fiers or Charlie Morton (whichever does not win the 5th starters spot). That will likely leave just one spot open assuming that AJ Hinch only goes with four players on the bench again this season. That last spot may be battled out between James Hoyt, Jendal Gustave, or someone currently not on the roster. I could see Jeff Luhnow trying to bring in another lefty to give Hinch another option aside from Tony Sipp. Recently, the Astros have been linked to the Tigers’ Justin Wilson. Regardless, the bullpen should be a strength in 2017.
Previous Position Reviews:
**Photo Credit: Getty Images**