The Indians had Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen. The Yankees had Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances. The Red Sox could trot out Addison Reed, Craig Kimbrel, and even David Price. The Dodgers featured Kenley Jansen, Kenta Maeda, and what was presumably a cybernetically enhanced Brandon Morrow. The Astros had ... anxiety about their relievers, every minute of every day.
The Astros ended up being World Series champions, anyway. The blueprint to follow, ever since the Royals decided shortening the game to make up for their league-average (or worse) starting pitchers was the way to go, was to get as many nigh-unhittable strikeout machines as you could, and then deploy them all one inning at a time until your opponents were weeping while whiffing on pitches they had no chance against.
The Astros looked at this blueprint briefly, pulled the ultimate dad move in deciding they would be able to figure out how to assemble a winner without looking at the instructions, and set about making it up as they went along until everything fit where it needed to.
There were a few moments where A.J. Hinch had to guess about where these parts he was given were supposed to go, but after a little ingenuity and a lot of f-bombs, everything was as it was meant to be. Just, you know, with everyone aged a little bit more by the process than they probably needed to be.
It’s not that the Astros’ bullpen was always bad, but it certainly was never good. In the regular season, Houston’s pen was below-average. The league-average ERA for relievers was 4.15 — the Astros allowed a 4.27 mark. They failed to add Zach Britton to the roster at the trade deadline thanks to some typical Orioles’ weirdness, and Francisco Liriano didn’t thrive in his conversion from starting to relief after Houston acquired him.
You would think the bullpen would have improved by excising the worst parts of it for the postseason, but things didn’t work out like that: even the Astros’ better relievers during the regular season had obvious flaws like high walk rates or an alarming number of homers allowed, and those were magnified in October. Then you had Ken Giles, the Astros’ closer who actually seemed to have it together all season long, but completely fell apart in the postseason: Giles’ best series this October was the one where he allowed just two runs in three innings of work. By the end of the World Series, he wasn’t even an option for Hinch.
That’s how Joe Musgrove, who had a 4.77 ERA in the regular season, ended up pitching in multiple key spots in the postseason. It’s also why the Astros kept going to Chris Devenski even though he seemed like a completely different pitcher than the one who had setup for them in the regular season: who else was there?
It turns out there were other options, but they just weren’t the Astros’ regular relievers. Instead, it was the Astros’ starting pitchers on their off days that saved Houston’s season time and time again, and also managed to close out World Series Game 7.
Lance McCullers threw three innings of relief in Game 3 of the ALDS when the Red Sox chased Brad Peacock after 2-2/3 innings. He allowed two runs in the process, but in a game where Boston ended up scoring 10, he did his job of trying to keep things close. McCullers would also close out the ALCS against the Yankees in Game 7 with a four-inning scoreless save, the first of the young starter’s career.
McCullers wouldn’t relieve again in the postseason, because the Astros needed him to start, but that opened up the door for Brad Peacock to take on the role of starter-turned-reliever in his stead. Peacock didn’t make another start following that debacle against the Red Sox, but he pitched a whole bunch: he ended up with 9-2/3 innings of relief over six games, in which he produced a 3.72 ERA.
That might not sound dominant, but consider that the Astros’ closer managed to appear in just 7-2/3 innings in a postseason in which the Astros played in 18 games and won 11 of them ... and also that Giles’ ERA for said postseason was 11.74. Yes, Peacock’s ERA in relief was more than eight runs lower than what the Astros got out of their closer.
Collin McHugh, whose 12 appearances in the regular season were all starts, threw four scoreless innings against the Yankees in a blowout loss. Taking one for the team matters, and it’s not McHugh’s fault he was pitching in an 8-1 defeat instead of a 2-1 game where his job was to keep things close. His second relief appearance didn’t go quite as well, but the Astros won that game, so... there’s that.
Then there is Charlie Morton, who threw 76 pitches in Game 4, and was possibly pulled too early in a game the Astros would eventually lose. That ended up not mattering, in large part due to the performance Morton was able to put on when called upon in Game 7. Morton entered the decisive final game of the postseason in the sixth inning, with the Astros up 5-0. He would finish the game still on the mound, with the Astros up 5-1, and pick up the win he was denied in his stellar Game 4 start.
The Astros are World Series champions because Hinch didn’t adhere to the standard bullpen roles, in the hopes that this time, Ken Giles would have it figured out, or this time, Chris Devenski could be trusted facing off against the heart of the Dodgers’ order in a close game. He was willing to adapt during a time where there just isn’t a moment to go over mechanics or video and adjust like you could in the regular season.
Giles was broken, and needed to be replaced until he could be repaired. Devenski and Harris had their worst characteristics on display too often, so Hinch found reasons to use them less often. Pitchers like Liriano only received opportunities to pitch when it was time to wave a white flag or the matchup was somehow in Liriano’s favor, even amid his struggles.
It was never pretty, but it was still a masterwork of bullpen management, and it won the Astros a World Series.