Patrick Creighton: Hinch must define bullpen roles for consistency
There’s no doubt the Astros are loaded with talent, even if they haven’t hit their stride yet. No one should feel like the bats won’t come around. The rotation is the best in baseball. The pen was fortified in the offseason, but has been the bane of the team’s existence too often during a 14 game stretch where the team lost nine games.
There have been some spectacular bullpen failures during that 5-9 run that have directly led to losses.
Joe Smith has been a top reliever in baseball for 10 years, but has shown none of that thus far for Houston. While 10.2 IP is a small sample size, Smith was brought in specifically for his late inning prowess and ability to close games if necessary. However, Smith was the culprit back on April 24 when he allowed four runs vs. the Angels in the top of the 7th, right after the Astros had rallied for 2 runs in both the 5th and 6th to take a 5-4 lead.
On May 1st, Ken Giles suffered a meltdown vs the Yankees. Entering in the 9th of a 0-0 game in which Justin Verlander was absolutely dominant, Giles, who had put down the previous 19 straight batters to face him over 7 appearances, allowed 4 of 5 batters to reach base while giving up 4 runs in the 9th, and needing Will Harris to get out of the inning. The Astros would lose 4-0. Oddly enough, despite no injury being disclosed by the team, Giles has not pitched since.
Two days later the Astros bullpen would fail again. This time, the Astros held a 5-3 lead going into the 9th. For whatever reason, Hinch did not go to his closer, Ken Giles. He went to Will Harris. Harris could not record a single out, allowing two hits and a walk before being lifted for Brad Peacock, who allowed all three inherited runners to score, and the Yankees stung the Astros with a 6-5 come from behind victory.
While Harris had not pitched poorly to that point, if Ken Giles is the closer, Giles should have been given the opportunity to get back on the horse and close out the game. A closer must have a very short memory. Not giving him the ball in that situation could not have been a strong message to send to him, made worse by the fact his replacement failed miserably.
On May 5th in Arizona, it was Chris Devenski’s turn to fail in the 9th. In a tie game, Devo would allow a hit and two walks while only recording two outs before being lifted for Peacock, who again could not stop the bleeding. Peacock allowed a hit to let an inherited runner score and the Astros lost 4-3.
While the Astros may have some interchangeable parts in the bullpen, Hinch must still give them order. Ask any bullpen pitcher and they will tell you, guys pitch better when they have defined roles.
Maybe it shouldn’t matter but it does. Having defined roles in the pen allows guys to better prepare mentally. It gives them a sense of hierarchy that they need, and history shows us they pitch better as a result.
The Astros have three pitchers with saves and four pitchers with blown saves. Seven of the team’s 15 losses have been attributed to relievers. While Hinch may have been looking to see how the pieces fit early on, it’s time for him to make some decisions.
The Astros already carry an unusually high number of relievers because they cannot send Peacock or Collin McHugh to the minors without their consent (not happening) and Tony Sipp’s $6M piece tag is keeping him in town. With 13 pitchers, finding regular work for everyone isn’t really possible. He will have to deal with some unhappy campers.
It's time to treat Ken Giles like a closer. His one bad game vs. Yankees can’t get him banished to the bench for a week if he is to be the man at the back of the pen. A good closer has a short memory, and puts failures behind him instantly to succeed the next time on the hill. Giles still hasn’t been granted that next time. This is a failure on Hinch.
Hinch still hasn’t figured out how to utilize Joe Smith. Giles has the fewest appearances of all the regular relievers not named Tony Sipp.
Hinch needs to create a hierarchy, and give guys defined roles. Start with Giles at the back end, and work his way forward. Giles should get literally every save opportunity unless he’s pitched three straight days.
Make Rondon, Smith and Harris your setup guys (once Smith escapes his funk – he will have to pitch some lesser leverage spots to regain his confidence). These are the roles they are most familiar with and have the most success with in their careers.
Collin McHugh ultimately isn’t going to enjoy being the long man, because he’s a very good ML caliber pitcher who is caught in a numbers game, and at least one person in that pen has to remain fully stretched out in case a start needs to be made outside the rotation. There may be opportunities to utilize him in a tandem role similar to how Astros used starters in the postseason, with one following another, and going 3-4 innings.
They will have to figure out how to use Devo and Peacock. They are both guys who can give length, and in situations that don’t require a traditional setup guy, should get the opportunity to go multiple innings, can set up when another pitcher is unavailable, etc. They are the two most flexible guys in the pen, and these are the two Hinch can really work with.
Sipp can pitch when the team is up or down 4+ runs.
It was OK to experiment in April. Now it’s time to have a plan and execute. Once the bullpen knows the plan, it should pitch better and more consistently.