added 9/28/2015 by Greg Thurston
Recently an Astros beat writer declared how it would be "presumptuous" to say the Astros bullpen was tired. Having witnessed a steady stream of late inning meltdowns throughout the month of September, I was pretty sure that fatigue was a factor. So, I decided to do some research. After all, I wouldn't want to be "presumptuous".
At first glance, the well-respected columnist appeared to be correct. For the season, Astros relievers have logged fewer innings than all but two American League bullpens. But that doesn't tell the entire story. That just means Houston's starters have been more efficient than most.
While many teams have seen constant roster turnover throughout the year and employed 20 or more relievers, we've seen the same arms in the Astros bullpen almost the entire season, with little deviation. Only 15 hurlers have made multiple relief appearances for the Astros. That's the third lowest total in the American League. And while other clubs have bolstered their 'pens with September call-ups, the Astros continue to run the same guys out to the mound night after night. Reinforcements Dan Straily and Michael Feliz have totalled a mere 7-1/3 innings since being recalled earlier this month.
Digging deeper into the stats I discovered that the Astros six busiest firemen (Harris, Gregerson, Neshek, Sipp, Fields, and Qualls) have each made 53 or more appearances and pitched at least 49 innings apiece. No other sextet of A.L. teammates has equalled either of those totals. The Angels are the closest with five players in the category -- and two of them, Huston Street and Joe Smith, will miss the rest of the season due to injuries.
In short, what A.J. Hinch likes to call his "winning bullpen pieces" have been the busiest in the league. It should also be noted that the bulk of those innings have been of the "high stress" variety. While Houston's 6-headed relief monster has been worked harder than any other, they've also been extremely efficient (until recently). Despite a 6.21 September ERA, which is more than a full run higher than that of any other team, the Astros still boast the third lowest ERA in the A.L. for the season at 3.26.
I'm not trying to say that Hinch has overworked his best relievers. He did what he had to do to win games. Managing a bullpen can be one of the most challenging tasks for even the most experienced manager. Given the parameters he's had to deal with, I think Hinch has done a commendable job. Roster restrictions, a lack of minor league options, the absence of a long-man in the 'pen, and a high number of tight games have pretty much forced his hand.
Sure, there are plenty of individuals that have appeared in more games and logged more innings than Will Harris, but Houston's busiest reliever has established career highs in both categories. That information would seem to support the fact that his worst month of the season could, at least partially, be attributed to fatigue. The other numbers I've presented would suggest that he's not the only member of the Astros bullpen that is no longer in midseason form. But, given the lengthy grind of the marathon of the Major League season, wouldn't it be presumptuous to think otherwise?