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Getting to know the Astros bullpen

If there is a weakness on this Houston roster, it’s here.

Division Series - Chicago White Sox v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Strengths and weaknesses are all relative, and it’s tough to get to this point in the season with a straight-up bad bullpen. There are valid quibbles to be had with Boston’s relief corps, as an example, but calling them straight-up bad would be an exaggeration. Similarly, Houston’s bullpen isn’t bad. It’s just not as good as their rotation, and certainly not as good as their lineup, and so relatively speaking it is the weakness of the roster. That said, there is some real talent here of which we can be wary.

Ryan Pressly, RHP

Pressly is actually a former Red Sox draft pick who was lost in the Rule 5 Draft back in 2012. Since then, he has thrived and somewhat quietly turned into one of the most consistent relievers in all of baseball. He doesn’t have the upside of some of the more well-known relievers, i.e. the Kimbrels and Chapmans and Haders, but he’s just consistently solid. He strikes out about 30 percent of his opponents and carries a better-than-average walk rate while inducing a ton of ground balls. Aside from the shortened 2020 season, he’s been more than 40 percent better than league-average every year going back to 2018 in both park-adjusted ERA and FIP, and in 2020 he wasn’t too far off from that with a 79 ERA- and 63 FIP-. His fastball is solid, but it’s the slider and curveball that really put his stuff over the top. If Houston has a late lead, he’ll be a tough guy to force into a blown save.

Kendall Graveman, RHP

Acquired from division rival Seattle at the deadline, Graveman gives Houston a very good one-two punch in the late innings, with any relative weakness in the bullpen coming after these two. Graveman’s performance did fall off a bit after the trade, but with Seattle he was carrying a sub-1.00 ERA, so that was to be expected. He still had a 3.13 ERA after joining the Astros, though he did start walking hitters at a much higher rate, at 12 percent compared to 6.6 percent. Working counts is going to be the best strategy against the righty, because he misses a good number of bats and when contact is made it is typically on the ground, which means it’s hard to do damage with just one swing. He’ll throw his sinker almost two-thirds of the time.

Division Series - Chicago White Sox v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Ryne Stanek, RHP

The strategy against Stanek should be similar to that against Graveman, which really is a theme in this bullpen. Control is an issue here, so the Red Sox need to make sure they don’t press too much if they do find themselves in a late and close game and keep their ability to stay in the zone and draw walks. Stanek racks up strikeouts at nearly a 30 percent clip, but he also walks opponents at a 13 percent clip. He’s also someone that lefties has been able to handle well this year, so this could be a matchup to hunt for Travis Shaw coming off the bench.

Cristian Javier, RHP

Javier is akin to what Tanner Houck brings to the Red Sox bullpen, i.e. a guy who has a starter’s background but is sort of a tweener in the long-term perspective. In the short-term, that means he can go multiple innings and bring nasty stuff. If the Red Sox are successful in knocking out a Houston pitcher early, expect to see Javier come in for the Astros. The key against him is going to be not falling behind early in the count. If you let him, Javier will issue a good number of walks and also leave some hittable pitches in the zone to be hit over the fence for home runs. But once he gets ahead, he can turn to the secondaries and start racking up the strikeouts.

Yimi García, RHP

García is something of a rarity in this Houston bullpen as he does not issue a ton of walks, so the Red Sox should be hunting pitches early in counts here and looking specifically for the fastball. The righty, who was a potential Red Sox target at the deadline, has a couple of breaking balls which are both tough to square up, and he will go to them if he’s able to get ahead in counts. He does allow a lot of fly balls, though, and in Houston any ball in the air has the potential to leave the yard.

Brooks Raley, LHP

Raley was the only southpaw carried by Houston on their ALDS roster, though the Red Sox lineup and injuries on Houston’s staff could change that for this round. Either way, he’ll be the top southpaw to face guys like Kyle Schwarber and Rafael Devers. His season ERA was nearly 5.00, but that’s a bit misleading as his 3.27 FIP tells a vastly different story. The truth is likely somewhere in between as he does allow a good amount of hard contact, which is going to lead to that kind of difference. He’s not the kind of pitcher who is going to be featuring big velocity, but everything he throws has movement which helps him strike out so many batters. He held lefties to a .224 wOBA this year, so look for him to be a matchup kind of play.

Phil Maton, RHP

Maton was another deadline acquisition, coming over from Cleveland via trade, but he’s struggled since coming to Houston. The righty is always going to issue a lot of walks, but we know that relievers can work around those issues if they miss enough bats. In the first half he certainly did that, but his strikeout rate is down to 20 percent since joining the Astros. He’s mostly on mop up duty at this point, similar to what we’d expect from Matt Barnes if he does make the Red Sox roster.