Cracks in the bullpen and slider problems

Houston Astros Jeremy Pena, right, swings for a foul ball in front of Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt, left, during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) (Michael Wyke, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Hey guys, it’s Ari Alexander and the Astros are cruising along with a massive lead in the AL West, so not to sound overly negative but this newsletter is going to be all about nitpicking.

We nitpick because baseball is won and lost in the thinnest of margins, and the Astros have lost in back-to-back World Series, despite having absolute juggernaut teams for one reason or another (Nationals starters playing up in 2019, Braves lefty relievers neutralizing Astros bats in 2021). So we’re going to find the tiny faults the Astros have 6-7 weeks to fix before stuff gets real.


Quality as in Quality Starts -- 20 in a row now for Framber Valdez after his seven-inning, two-run effort against the White Sox Wednesday night. Valdez was a well-deserved All-Star this season (and got the win in the All-Star game) as he’s become one of the most effective sinkerballers in all of baseball. Valdez leads MLB in Quality Start percentage (20/22, 90.9%) beating out guys like teammate Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Twenty ties a team record set by Mike Scott in 1986.


Quantity of playoff starters, that is. Now that Lance McCullers made his return this past Saturday to rousing success (six scoreless innings), the Astros will have by far the best 1-2-3 pitching setup in the American league, and can make an argument for the best in baseball against the New York Mets’ trio of Jacob deGrom-Max Scherzer-Chris Bassitt.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. works to Oakland Athletics' Ramon Laureano during the fourth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

While you can’t expect McCullers to have a 0.00 ERA, his first start was a great sign that he’s fully healthy and ready to be one of the top pitchers in the league. Combine that with McCullers largely having success in the playoffs, and Houston’s rotation is deadly.


Michael Brantley is out for the year after having shoulder surgery and super utility man Aledmys Diaz has a soft tissue injury. Now that the Astros have made some trades at the deadline, their depth is much-improved, but Diaz’s return will be paramount for playoff success.


The Astros have the best bullpen in the American League. They have the second-best bullpen in baseball by ERA (3.03), just behind the Dodgers. At one point this year, Ryne Stanek had an insane scoreless streak and Ryan Pressly had an insane streak of not letting guys even get on base. Every Astros bullpen stat is phenomenal...except *very recently.*

If you take Houston’s last 28 games, dating back to the All-Star break, their ERA only goes up slightly to 3.21. That drops them from 2nd to 4th in that span. Now let’s do August, which is the past 16 games - 3.00, and second. Even better. How about the last 10 games? 3.48, still not bad, but that drops the Astros to 13th.

Rafael Montero and Will Smith’s struggles lately are worth watching. Montero has given up runs in three consecutive appearances, ballooning his ERA from 1.55 to 2.64. Will Smith is still getting adjusted and has a 4.76 ERA (yes, yes, small sample size) so far with Houston. The “bullpen’s last __ games” stat is worth monitoring as the playoffs close in.


If you watch Sports Sunday regularly, you know I am thee biggest Jeremy Pena guy. After seeing him hit three bombs in Sugar Land I predicted he would be an impact player for the Astros this year, and for the first few months of the season he looked like he was in a tight battle with Julio Rodriguez for AL Rookie of the Year.

Then came the dreaded rookie wall. Pena is still largely valuable for his defense, but since the All-Star break in 25 games, he’s been miserable at the plate, hitting just .202 with two home runs. Both of those home runs came in back-to-back games in late July and it’s now been three-and-a-half weeks since he’s hit a bomb.

Pena’s biggest issue is that the league has figured out that he chases sliders. Pena has now been thrown more sliders (396) than four-seam fastballs (388) this season, which makes perfect sense because he murders four-seam fastballs.

Pena is hitting .319 and slugging .626 against fastballs. He sort of struggles against sinkers (.200 batting average but .285 xBA, meaning he’s somewhat unlucky and there may be some shift effect), but where pitchers hurt him is with off-speed stuff. Pena hits just .231 with an xBA of .198 vs. sliders. His strikeout rate vs. fastballs is about 16%. versus sliders it’s 35%. His chase rate is 12th percentile in MLB, his whiff rate is 18th percentile, his walk rate is 6th percentile. These numbers show massive plate discipline issues vs. (mostly) breaking stuff.

The good news is that Pena is talented, works extremely hard and is a 24-year-old rookie. The bad news is there’s such a large discrepancy with these rates, it may take a more than the six to seven weeks left in the season for Pena to make a significant adjustment, and now that opponents know to pound him with sliders low in the zone (his weakest zones), his offensive upside may be limited come playoff time as he faces the best pitchers.

About the Author:

Murrow and Emmy award-winning sports anchor & reporter. Avid traveler, mediocre golfer. Loves good food, good friends and southern rap.