The 2019 Houston Astros bullpen may not have had the household names that their counterparts in the Astros rotation did, but the late-inning section of the team’s pitching staff certainly held their own when it came to ranking near the top of several major statistical categories last season. They ranked first in xFIP, second in ERA, and fifth in K/9. The most notable departure from last year’s group is Will Harris, who primarily served as the 7th inning setup man. They also have yet to re-sign Collin McHugh or Hector Rendon. Additionally, changes to the Astros rotation, most notably the loss of Gerrit Cole, could have downstream impacts on the bullpen, including shifting some of their bullpen arms into rotation/swing roles, but overall the bulk of the 2019 Astros’ reliever corps remains unchanged going into 2020.
Closer – Roberto Osuna
The back end of the Astros bullpen is led by Osuna, who was one of the top closers in the league last year, finishing second in saves with 38. 2019 was Osuna’s first full season in Houston, having come over in a controversial trade with Toronto in July of 2018 while serving an 80-game suspension for domestic violence. In 2019, he pitched to a 2.63 ERA, 3.21 FIP, and 3.60 xFIP, while having a SwStr% of 16.9% (which was good for 12th among all qualified relievers). Osuna increased his slider usage in 2019 (18.4%, compared to 13.4% in 2018), while still possessing an above-average fastball that averages 96.7 MPH (46.1% usage). However, his cutter actually graded out as his best pitch with a 5.36 pVAL according to Fangraphs, despite decreasing the usage of the pitch from 21.5% in 2018 to 13.9% in 2019. Osuna is all but assured to be the closer heading into the 2020 season, and should continue to rack up the saves on a team that will be competing for another division title.
Setup – Ryan Pressly
Like Osuna, Ryan Pressly completed his first full season in Houston following a mid-season 2018 trade, and subsequently had the best season of his career. Pressly posted career bests in ERA, BB%, K/BB, and led all major league relievers in O-Swing% with an impressive 43.2% (3.5 points higher than second place). He accomplished all this while following the Astros formula of increasing the usage of his secondary pitches. Pressly used his fastball a career-low 35.7% of the time, while throwing his curveball a career-high 34.9% of the time. The reasons for that increase in curveball usage were evident, as this pitch generated a wOBA of only .194, far better when compared to his other pitches (.325 against his fastball and .263 against his slider, which was his third pitch). That curveball also generated an impressive 43.2% whiff rate and had the fifth-best curveball among relievers, according to weighted pitch value; all of this while ranking in the 100th percentile of curve spin, according to Baseball Savant. Remember that league-leading O-Swing percentage? Consider that his excellent curveball allowed only a .173 wOBA, while generating a 59.7% whiff percentage outside of the zone. Pressly also excelled at suppressing contact, as his 65.5% contact% was 11th among all relievers. Expect Pressly to continue relying heavily on his secondary pitches while becoming the primary setup man for the Astros. He’s worth rostering in Save+Holds leagues and likely would be the first one called upon for the 9th inning should anything happen to Osuna.
Setup – Josh James
Josh James saw his first complete season of major league action in 2019 after a September call-up in 2018 (followed by some action in that season’s ALCS). While James spent most of his time in the minors as a starting pitcher, the bulk of his work in the majors up until this point has been as a reliever. He did “start” one game in 2019 – well, technically, he was the opener as he only pitched one inning in that appearance, so it’s safe to say he spent his entire 2019 season as part of the Astros bullpen. The results from his first full season were a mixed bag at best, he pitched to a 4.70 ERA, 3.98 FIP, and 3.77 xFIP with a 3.33 SIERA. He generated a healthy amount of strikeouts (37.6 K%), but he also gave up plenty of walks (13.2 BB%), which led to a ho-hum 2.83 K/BB. James uses a four-pitch mix of fastballs (63.5% — the highest fastball usage among Astros relievers with at least 10 IP), sliders (20.5%), changeups (14.4%) and curveballs (1.6%).
While his fastball is high-octane, averaging 97.2 mph and ranking in the 97th percentile of fastball velocity, it allowed an above-average wOBA of .342 and an average exit velocity of 91.1. His go-to secondary pitches (slider and change) fared better with a .263 and .237 wOBA, respectively. The issue with James all comes down to control: His fastball only had a zone rate of 56.7. The problem is that the other 43.3% outside of the zone, because the pitch allowed a .434 wOBA when it missed. Command struggles are certainly nothing new for young pitchers, so if James can improve — especially his fastball — he might be someone to watch out for in 2020. There is even an outside chance that James could work his way into the Houston rotation by the end of the season.
Middle – Joe Smith
Smith was a free agent this winter, but the ‘Stros re-signed him to a two-year deal back in December. He spent some time on the IL last year with an Achilles injury, which limited him to only 25 innings, but was effective upon his return in mid-July, pitching to a 1.80 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and 3.72 xFIP. Smith has historically been especially effective against righties, and continued this trend in 2019 by limiting them to a .196 BAA and a .191 wOBA. Smith is an effective middle reliever and will likely continue to be such in 2020, but is not someone to look for in terms of fantasy relevance. He only had four holds in 2019, and combined with his recent injury history (he also missed about a month of action with an elbow injury in 2018), he would be difficult to depend on in fantasy leagues.
Middle – Chris Devenski
Devenski led the Astros bullpen in innings last year, as the former starter turned reliever threw 69.0 innings to the tune of a 4.83 ERA, 4.62 FIP, and 4.85 xFIP. Devenski gained some fantasy relevance a few years back when he managed a 2.38 ERA, 2.83 FIP, and 3.56 xFIP between the 2016-17 seasons, but his production has gotten progressively worse as his ERA has climbed each year since then (2019 was the highest of his career).
When looking into why Devenski’s numbers have plummeted over the past two seasons, the first thing that sticks out is that his fastball has lost its effectiveness. The pitch peaked with a 9.6 pVAL in his rookie season, but had a -4.4 last season. What’s interesting is that the average velocity of this pitch actually increased year-over-year, peaking at 94.8 in 2019. But his fastball still surrendered a .306 batting average and .398 wOBA, while only garnering a 14.8% whiff rate. Statcast shows that the release point was inconsistent last year, which could be one of the main factors in the ineffectiveness if this pitch. His other two primary pitches, a slider, and changeup, were much more effective, allowing wOBAs of .241 and .286, respectively. However, without a steady fastball, it makes it difficult to rely on these secondary pitches. His early success makes him a name to watch, but for now, Devenski can be avoided for fantasy purposes.
Middle – Brad Peacock
Peacock split time in 2019 between the rotation and the bullpen, something that he has done over the last few years. Overall, he had a 4.12 ERA, 4.42 FIP, and 4.64 xFIP, with a 9.43 K/9 and 3.04 BB/9. As a reliever he had a lower ERA (3.27 vs. 4.24), but higher FIP (5.21 FIP vs. 4.32) and xFIP (5.21 vs. 4.56).
Peacock was limited to only 91.2 innings for the season, as a shoulder injury kept him sidelined for more than two months, which is what initially kept him out of the rotation upon his return in September (not enough time to get stretched out before the end of the season). He only had 11 innings out of the bullpen last year, so those numbers are a much smaller sample size compared to the 63.1 innings he spent in relief the prior year.
While he is still a candidate to open the season in the rotation, his time as a starter likely won’t last long. The Astros seem to prefer him out of the ‘pen (or as an opener), and he would only be holding a spot down while the likes of Rogelio Armenteros or Forrest Whitley get ready to take over. His strikeout rates are decent in such a role, with an average K/9 of 12.10 over the last 3 years in relief, but there are plenty of other relief arms that could get you better results, and considering that he is not a candidate for either saves or holds, there’s not much fantasy value to look for in 2020 here.
Bryan Abreu, Framber Valdez
These are a couple of intriguing younger arms near the bottom of the Astros bullpen depth chart. Abreu made the jump from Double-A to the majors last year and in just 8.2 innings of relief he put up an impressive 1.04 ERA and 13.5 K/9. It’s unclear if his role will ultimately be in relief or as part of the Houston rotation, but he has a well-regarded curveball that makes him a pitcher to watch.
Framber Valdez spent time in the rotation, with a 4.75 SIERA and pedestrian 20.7 K% that ultimately pushed him down the reliever depth chart. He’s a sinker pitcher, who does produce a lot of ground balls (62.1 GB%), so it might lead to him remaining in the bullpen for situations where he can be relied on to produce inning-ending double plays.
Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)