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Getting to know the Astros: The bullpen

A look at Houston’s relief corps

MLB: Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

All year we’ve been previewing each series with a large post designed to get you primed on the upcoming opponent. Well, the upcoming series against the Astros is just a tad more important than any other series played this year, so we’re going to be a bit more in-depth here. Monday, we’ll get to know the position players. Tuesday, we’ll get to know the starting pitchers. Wednesday, we’ll get to know the bullpen. And Thursday, before the series finally gets underway, we’ll take a look at how both sides matchup position-by-position. Note that the roster has not been announced at the time of this writing, so this is simply a best guess of who will be present.

Ken Giles

The Astros don’t have a closer who is on par with Craig Kimbrel, but Giles is an outstanding closer who is in that next tier down of not elite but still very good relievers. The righty has been phenomenal since coming up in 2014, and while his ERA was poor last year the peripherals did not match that fact. Like so many closers in today’s game, Giles gets by because of his elite strikeout stuff. He induces whiffs as often and as consistently as any pitcher in baseball and that helped lead him to striking out about 12 batters per nine innings this season.

Where Giles does get into trouble is with his command, though it’s not on any sort of consistent basis. He walks a few more batters than you’d like to see and that’s the biggest thing holding him back from his elite status. However, his strikeout stuff tends to help mask those issues in a significant way. When he’s really in a bad way, he’s giving up fly balls. That was what helped lead to his inflated ERA last year as he allowed more balls in the air than ever and that, as you would expect, led to more homers. So, if the Red Sox are patient and take advantage of pitches up in the zone, they can have success. That is much easier said than done, though. Giles is a two-pitch pitcher with a high-90s fastball and a wicked slider.

Chris Devenski

Devenski is a converted starter who may not be quite as talented as Giles, but he’s damn close. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he played the biggest role out of this Houston bullpen in this series. One weakness for this team, which we’ll touch on a bit later, is the lack of a shutdown left-handed reliever. Devenski throws from the right side, but he can be counted upon when tough lefties are coming up. They managed an OPS of just .414 against the righty this year thanks to a ridiculous changeup that is one of the best weapons in all of baseball. Against both righties and lefties Devenski has a great ability to get strikeouts and limit walks.

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The only think holding Devenski back from being a closer and the reason he’s not yet a household name is because he can get a little homer happy at times. This can be fairly typical of someone who relies so heavily on an offspeed pitch, as if the offering is off by just a bit it can lead to drastic mistakes. When you combine that with being a flyball pitcher in Houston’s bandbox, you get a whole lot of dingers. Along with that changeup Devenski throws a mid-90s fastball and a really solid slider.

Joe Musgrove

If you look at Musgrove’s overall numbers, they really aren’t all that impressive. Of course, that wouldn’t be doing Musgrove’s season justice. The former well-regarded prospect came up as a starter but did not do well in that role. The righty has been a complete revelation in the bullpen, though, and has totally transformed his game. Since converting to relief he has struck out about 26 percent of his opponents while allowing an OPS of just .565. Musgrove is going to be their pitcher that they will rely upon to go multiple innings as he’s generally gone two at a time in the regular season. Like the rest of this bullpen, Musgrove can get homer happy in Houston’s small ballpark. Since converting to his new role he has relied mostly on a mid-90s fastball to go along with a slider.

Will Harris

Harris is the longest-reliable reliever in this bullpen, though he hasn’t been quite the same guy in 2017. That’s not to say he hasn’t been good, as he’s just finished his third consecutive season with a sub-3.00 ERA. He’s also striking out more batters than ever and has his walk rate at an all time low. The issue has come when he’s allowed balls in play. Generally a ground ball pitcher, he’s allowing balls in the air more than half the time for the first time in three years. That has led guessed it!....more home runs. I’m guessing you’re sensing a theme here. If the Red Sox are to have success against this unit, they’ll probably need to hit a few balls over the fence. Harris leans heavily on a low-to-mid-90s cutter along with a curveball.

Lance McCullers

If there is an X-Factor in this Astros bullpen, it’s McCullers. The starter has been hurt for a good chunk of this year, but when he’s healthy the talent is undeniable. That doesn’t mean he’s always effective, because there are real consistency problems here. However, when he’s on he can miss bats as well as anyone in the league and that should only improve in shorter stints. It should be mentioned that there is a chance he will get a start in this series, though that seems doubtful at this point. What he can do is provide early insurance out of the bullpen and bridge the gap between a bad start and the late-inning relievers. The Red Sox will have to be patient against the young righties and make him throw strikes. McCullers throws a mid-90s fastball along with a curveball and a changeup.

Collin McHugh

McHugh is another starter who was hurt for much of this year and now likely finds himself in the bullpen for the postseason. Although one would expect his stuff to play up in shorter stints like McCullers, the ceiling is not nearly as high in this case. McHugh does have a higher floor, though. I’m not sure we’re looking at a huge role for him in this series, though he’s probably better suited in a long relief, particularly if they believe McCullers can be a real weapon in short stints.

Francisco Liriano

Remember when I said the Astros lack a real big-time left-handed reliever? Well, they are probably only going to carry one lefty in the bullpen and my guess would be that it’ll be Liriano. Yet another converted starter, we all know the southpaw from his All-Star caliber days around the league. Those are long behind him, though, and he’s now stuck in a specialist role in Houston. However, he does still have that swing-and-miss talent with him and can get on a roll. That being said, his command issues can get out of control and if the Red Sox are patient they should be able to work some baserunners against him. I would expect him to be the guy the Astros go to if they want to play matchups early on and save Devenski for later in the game. The latter is the primary pitcher to face lefties in this bullpen.

Tony Sipp is another competitor for Liriano’s spot, and Luke Gregerson is another contender for a bullpen spot in general. If they do end up making the roster, write-ups on them will be added.