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Previewing the ALCS: Meeting the Astros bullpen

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It’s an outstanding group

Divisional Round - Cleveland Indians v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Today (Saturday) is officially the day. Later on tonight, less than 12 hours from the time that publishes, the Red Sox and Astros will begin what looks like it has the potential to be a special and exhilarating ALCS. Houston is an incredibly talented team, as we’ve covered plenty. We’ve looked at their star-studded lineup as well as their rotation that features two guys in the running for the Cy Young. Now, we get to their bullpen, which actually may be the most talented group of players on this entire roster. We’ll start with the closer and work our way back.

Roberto Osuna, RHP

Osuna has become known for off-the-field issues, and specifically for assault charges that caused him to miss most of the year. Back towards the start of the regular season, he was charged with assault in Toronto and immediately placed on administrative leave. He was eventually given a suspension of 75 games, which counted the games he had already missed on his leave. Although he was still serving his suspension as the trade deadline approached, and although his case had not yet been resolved — in September it was announced he would not be tried on the charges as part of a deal with prosecutors — the Astros decided to trade for the closer. He is incredibly talented, but given the circumstances around his year and how that brought his price down, it felt like a gross decision to many, myself included.

No matter how we feel, however, what’s done is done and Osuna is the lead man in Houston’s bullpen. While with the Blue Jays, he emerged as perhaps the top young reliever in the game. He hasn’t been quite the same in 2018, though the results have still been very good. That’s particularly true of his time in Houston, as he pitched to a 1.99 ERA in 23 appearances after being reinstated from his suspension. His strongest quality is that he is always going to throw effective strikes, as he has consistently walked around one batter per nine innings and over each of the last two years he’s combined to allow only four home runs in 89 appearances.

If the Red Sox are looking for some bit of hope against Osuna, they can take solace in the fact that he hasn’t missed bats in 2018 like he had in the past. He’s always consistently struck out over a batter per inning in his Blue Jays career, but this season he has struck out fewer than eight per nine innings. There’s some small sample in there, but his swinging strike rate has taken a real hit that makes this look more sustainable. He’s also more vulnerable against left-handed pitching, so look for guys like Brock Holt, Mitch Moreland (if healthy) and Blake Swihart to get some late-inning pinch hitting appearances in games they do not start. The Red Sox faced off against Osuna three times this year, getting shut out once, scoring one run in another appearance, and plating two runs in the other.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Collin McHugh, RHP

McHugh is a former middling starter that had some good moments in the Astros rotation, but never really took that next step as a dominant force. When Houston acquired Gerrit Cole and their rotation became even more crowded, the Astros decided to make the move and turn McHugh into a full-time reliever. The conversion in its first year has gone exactly according to plan. The righty’s strikeout rate has skyrocketed in shorter stints, as his strikeout rate has shot up to almost 12 per nine innings after sitting just below nine as a starter. His control has stuck right around a solid 2.5 per nine, and he’s been able to generate a ton of weak contact. All told, he’s pitched to a 1.99 ERA over 58 appearances, though that’s a little fluky based on his still quite good 2.75 FIP and 2.70 DRA.

If the Red Sox are going to beat him, it’s going to have to be with the long ball. That hasn’t been very easy this year, but as an extreme flyball pitcher he’s a tough arm against whom to string together a bunch of singles. He also was death on right-handed hitters this year, so this is another example of a guy the Red Sox may look for matchups against late in games. Because of him and Osuna, it may be more likely they try to push Moreland a bit if it’s a borderline decision with his health. The good news is Boston scored off McHugh in two of his three appearances against them this season.

Ryan Pressly, RHP

Of all the relievers that were traded at the deadline this year, Pressly may have been the most disappointing from a Red Sox fan’s perspective. He seemed to be attainable in terms of prospect price, an important factor given Boston’s farm system. Additionally, he’s incredibly talented and went to another American League contender. So, that’s not great. He was pitching very well with Minnesota before the trade, but the righty has taken it to a new level in Houston. Over 26 appearances after getting to the Astros, he pitched to a 0.77 ERA with a 1.52 FIP and a 1.73 DRA. His strikeout rate actually dropped a bit after the trade (but was still over 12 per nine), but his walk rate fell below two per nine and he started inducing ground balls at an elite rate. Pressly is also different from the other top arms in this bullpen as he is actually tougher against lefties thanks to his incredible curveball. Boston saw Pressly three times this year, scoring in only one of them. It was a big outburst, though, as they scored three runs while recording only one out.

Lance McCullers, RHP

McCullers is perhaps the scariest weapon of any Astros reliever, as he’ll be the guy to bridge any potential gap if a Houston starter can’t make it relatively deep into a game. McCullers has always been a solid starter in the Astros rotation, but he made a name for himself out of the bullpen in last year’s World Series run and he’s looking to do the same this time around. Behind one of the best curveballs in all of baseball — at one point during last year’s ALCS he threw 24 consecutive curveballs, and it worked — he can rack up strikeouts and induce plenty of weak contact. He’s certainly not invincible, and the Dodgers did get to him a bit in the World Series last year, but against the Yankees he showed the top-end of his talent. McCullers ended up throwing ten innings in that series and allowed just one run, and he pitched two scoreless innings in this year’s ALDS against Cleveland. The Red Sox scored two runs in six innings against the righty back in May, though I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison between him as a starter and him as a reliever.

Divisional Round - Cleveland Indians v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Hector Rondon, RHP

Rondon was not a part of Houston’s ALDS roster, but he’s been chosen for the ALCS. That he was left off in the first round was a bit surprising to me considering he was actually their closer for a good chunk of this season, and a very effective one at that. A former closer for the Cubs, he had struggled and fallen off the map a bit in 2017, but he came back in a huge way this year. Over 63 appearances in 2018, Rondon pitched to a 3.20 ERA with a 2.82 FIP and 2.81 DRA. He can lose control a bit at times, which makes him vulnerable, but he misses bats and keeps the ball on the ground, which helps limit any damage he may create. The biggest knock against him is that he finished the season very poorly, pitching to a 9.72 ERA over ten appearances while allowing a 1.136 OPS in September. The Red Sox did score one run off him in an appearance last month, though he did toss three scoreless appearances against Boston over the course of the season.

Tony Sipp, LHP

Sipp is the lone left-handed option in Houston’s bullpen, though Pressly’s reverse splits help with that. Sipp has been around for a long time, having just finished up his tenth season in the majors. He’s mostly been solid over his career, though in 2017 it looked like the wheels may have been falling off. Instead, he has come back in a big way this season with a huge bounce-back season. Over 54 appearances (most of which were less than an inning), he pitched to a 1.86 ERA with a 2.44 FIP and a 2.69 DRA. Sipp was actually effective against both righties and lefties this year, but expect him to be a true LOOGY in this series. Over three scoreless appearances against the Red Sox this year, Sipp tossed three scoreless innings with five strikeouts, no walks and no hits. Not great!

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Joe Smith, RHP

It was a little surprising to see Joe Smith on this roster. Although the righty has been around for a long time, he wasn’t overly effective this season. He did make 56 appearances for the Astros in the regular season, pitching to a 3.74 ERA with 4.09 FIP and a 4.49 DRA. The right struck out just about a batter per inning, which is fine but no longer a great rate for a reliever. Where Smith really struggled was with home runs, though, as he allowed 1.4 dingers per nine innings. He did toss 1 23 scoreless innings against the Red Sox this year, but I wouldn’t expect to see him in any high-leverage spots in this series unless one of the games goes deep into extra innings.

Josh James, RHP

James started this season in Double-A, but he’s emerged as a key member of this Astros pitching staff. He doesn’t have a ton of experience in the majors, tossing only 23 innings this year, but he impressed in that short amount of time. He struck out 29 batters in those 23 innings while walking only seven. Before that, he struck out about 13 batters per nine innings over 93 innings at Triple-A. The righty did allow a few homers in his short major-league stint, though that wasn’t much of an issue for him in the minors despite spending Triple-A in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. James has some experience against the Red Sox, tossing 2 23 scoreless innings against Boston in September with four strikeouts. He’ll probably be in a similar long relief role for this series.