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Houston, We Have Bullpen Problems: Astros Have Closer Crisis

Felipe Melecio examines the woeful state of Houston’s closer situation and what it could mean for your fantasy baseball teams.

Chad Qualls

We know the old, fantasy baseball adage about closers and how owners can get saves from the cheapest of sources. Let’s face it: today’s closers will be tomorrow’s scapegoats; today’s setup men will be tomorrow’s closers. It might not be a bad idea to take a sneak peek at a team’s actual bullpen situation to pounce on that next arm that will be supplying the saves on your team.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what could be the worst closing situation in fantasy baseball right now, the Houston Astros’ open competition for the closer’s role.

HOUSTON ASTROS

This is just plain awful. The Astros did some things to try to improve their bullpen, but they still have ways to go before they’re considered a decent bullpen. This is how their bullpen looks like per Roster Resource:

Qualls’ days are numbered as the team’s closer. Yes, he has 70 career saves, but he definitely lacks the connotation of a true closer as his 2014 Field Independent Pitching (FIP only takes into account a pitcher’s walks, strikeouts, and home runs) of 3.13 was right there with fellow, pitch-to-contact closer, Zach Britton. When compared to other closers, Qualls really doesn’t strike out a lot of batters as his Strikeout Rate (K%) ranked him 118th out of 171 relievers who pitched at least 40 innings last season. Also, Qualls has issues with the long balls, posting a top 25 mark in Home Runs/Fly Ball Rate (HR/FB%).

The other options at Houston are not any better, but they’re lurking. Gregerson appears to be the popular choice to be the 9th inning guy, but he’s just as underwhelming as Qualls. Last season, Gregerson ranked 109 in K% and had a higher FIP than Qualls (3.24).

Gregerson is equipped with a fastball that has averaged 88 mph the last couple of seasons, but his bread-and-butter is a slider he’s been throwing 55.8 percent of the time throughout his career. That’s good enough to keep hitters off-balanced, but hitters eventually stop swinging at those sliders.

Matter of fact, of the relievers that threw sliders more than 45 percent of the time last season and depended on it as a primary pitch (meaning they threw this pitch 20 percent more than any other pitch in their repertoire), only Sergio Romo was a full-time closer (for the San Francisco Giants) and he eventually lost his job as he struggled with keeping the ball in the park. The other five relievers, including Gregerson, combined to save a whopping seven saves last season:

But for the time being, Gregerson does a surprisingly good job at inducing swings and limiting contact. His Contact Rate of 72.2 percent is right there with other closers, such as Britton, Trevor Rosenthal and Sean Doolittle.

Which brings us to Neshek who is coming off a career year last season. His K% of 26.7 percent ranked 46th last year, but he is a fly ball pitcher, posting the second highest Fly Ball Rate (FB%) among relievers. First on that list was Sean Doolittle. Another closer, Joaquin Benoit, finished fifth. So it is possible for fly ball pitchers to be their team’s closers, albeit both Doolittle and Benoit pitch in pitcher-friendly ballparks and Neshek will be moving to a place they call “The Juice Box.”

The irony in all of this is that Neshek’s primary pitch is a sinker, a newfound pitch he threw for a career high 52.3 percent of the time he was on the hill. He complemented that pitch well with his slider, so Neshek is not a one-trick pony out there. But among the 20 relievers that threw a sinker more than 50 percent of the time, only he and Scott Baker profiled as fly ball pitchers. So this is a rarity that fits in very well with the rest of the other oddities mentioned in the Houston bullpen.

CONCLUSION

So it would appear that Pat Neshek, based on a his high K% from 2014, should be the one getting first dibs to garner saves to start the season. But it remains to be seen if his fly ball tendencies can survive in Houston.

Meanwhile, based on his stuff, Qualls might be better off doing middle relief work, but his experience at this spot before probably gives him a puncher’s chance as managers like the intangibles that a pitcher brings with experience.

Finally, Gregerson might have questionable stuff and might not produce like a top-tier closer, but you can’t argue with a guy that induces plenty of swings and limits the Contact Rates of opposing hitters. It is because of that fact that one can expect Luke Gregerson to be the Astros’ closer to start the season.

All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com.

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