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Pitching Carried The Astros In 2010

In 2009, the Astros pitching staff was a disaster.  They had the fourth-worst earned run average in the NL, at 4.54, running out such luminaries as Russ Ortiz and Brian Moehler every five days, not because of injury, but because they simply didn't have anybody better.  The ace of the staff, Roy Oswalt, had the worst season of his career, and the first in which he posted an earned run average over 4.00.

Performing better than that low benchmark is not impressive, and should have been expected from the Astros this season.  What is impressive is just how much better the Astros' pitching staff was in 2010.  The team's 4.09 earned run average doesn't stand out as more than solid at first glance, but when you look at advanced metrics, it becomes clear that the Astros went from one of the worst pitching staffs in the National League to one of the best.

Even better, the team can expect much of this success to continue into next season.  Let's review the key figures on the 2010 pitching staff and try to predict (for those still with the team) how they will perform next season.

Roy Oswalt

The Wizard.  The staff ace.  One of the best pitchers in franchise history.  Traded away while having one of the best seasons of his career.  Every Astros fan knows about Oswalt's stuff and the story of his 2010 season, so I'll be brief here.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: As expected.  Roy O has been overachieving since joining the Phillies, but his 3.42 ERA with the Astros was right around where you would expect it to be based upon advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP.  In other words, he wasn't lucky or unlucky--his performance was exactly what you would expect it to be.

2011 Outlook: N/A.  Roy Oswalt will spend 2011 with the Philadelphia Phillies.


Wandy Rodriguez

With arguably the best left-handed curveball in baseball, Wandy performed like an ace in 2009, but struggled to start 2010.  He eventually righted the ship and wound up close to where we expected coming into the year.  His home/road splits, as usual, heavily favored Minute Maid Park.  When Wandy is on--which happens most frequently at home--he is spectacular.  But his formula for success is fragile, relying on command of just two pitches, and one small problem can tip the balance.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: As expected.  The Magic Wandy's 3.60 ERA was a little above his FIP and a little below his xFIP.  Early on, he was underperforming both metrics, but later his ERA regressed back toward both numbers.

2011 Outlook: Rosy.  Another season as a strong no. 2 starter, probably in the mid-3 ERA range, seems likely.  Wandy is an ace at home, but merely a decent pitcher on the road.  His overall numbers have been consistent since 2008, so any doubts about which is "the real Wandy" should be dispelled.


Brett Myers

Probably the best free agent pickup in Ed Wade's tenure as general manager of the Astros, Myers signed for a relatively small amount and went on to become the staff ace after Roy Oswalt was traded away in July.  He made every start this season, going at least six innings in every one of them up until his last, in which he got bombed and was forced from the game an out before making it the full 33.  He signed an extension mid-year and will be pitching for the Astros for at least two more seasons, barring injury.  Myers mixes in a pair of very good breaking balls with an average fastball he can throw for strikes at will.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: Overachieved.  Myers' 3.14 ERA was a little better than you would expect, going both by his FIP and xFIP.  Interestingly, his peripheral numbers don't make it easy to pin down any one area he got particularly lucky in; he left a few more runners on base and allowed a couple fewer home runs than you would expect, but it wasn't too significant, and how much skill plays into those is something argued about among sabermetricians.

Outlook for 2011: Probably rosy.  2010 was such an aberration for Myers compared to the past few seasons before it that it's hard to project Myers to be this good again, but it still carries a lot of weight, and suggests that he should still be a good pitcher next year.  That said, there is a degree of uncertainty which makes him difficult to predict for next season.


Bud Norris

Studly Budly, the Cardinal-killer, has great stuff, and there's no denying it.  His fastball sits in the mid 90s, touching 97mph on a good day, and he has one of the best sliders in the league; that combination results in a lot of strikeouts.  His struggles to find consistency with his command and his changeup leave his future in doubt; is he a starting pitcher, or a future closer?  His 2010 season was decent, and moreso when you look at his peripheral numbers, but nothing to write home about.  Still, he has a ton of potential, and will compete for a rotation spot next year.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: Underachieved.  Bud's ERA was almost a full run higher than you would expect going by his FIP and xFIP.  Most of this was due to a high batting average on balls in play, and some of it was due to a low left-on-base percentage.  How much of this is due to luck and how much is due to skill is open for debate, but most sabermetricians would look at those numbers and expect him to perform better next season.

Outlook for 2011: Decent.  Norris still has a lot of work to do on his command.  Fortunately, he usually misses down, but he needs to throw more strikes, especially early in the count.  If he can improve in this area--as pitchers tend to do with age and experience--he could be poised to break out next year.  On the flip side, there are certainly injury concerns with Norris, as he missed significant time in 2010 and throws a lot of sliders, a pitch notoriously hard on the elbow.


J.A. Happ

The crown jewel in the Roy Oswalt trade, Happ was never considered to have top of the rotation upside, but he outperformed expectations with the Phillies in 2009 and did it again in injury-shortened playing time this year.  He's difficult to read, because he doesn't have great command or objectively great stuff, and advanced metrics don't do him any favors.  Yet he keeps getting results, and hitters often take ugly swings at his 89-91mph fastball.  What is Happ's true talent level, and how much upside does he have?  Personally, I have no idea.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: Overachieved significantly.  FIP and xFIP think Happ got lucky in 2010, similar to his performance the year before.  The main culprit is a low (.269) batting average on balls in play, but his left-on-base percentage was a little high as well, and he allowed very few home runs relative to the number of fly balls he gave up.  If he improves his walk rate, which was far too high, he could offset some regression in these areas by giving out fewer free passes; his strikeout rate was solid.

Outlook in 2011: Murky.  Happ's fastball seems to fool hitters much more than you would expect, perhaps due to deception, and he flashes good command sometimes.  He's also shown some pretty good secondary pitches--not plus pitches by any means, but his curve and his changeup have potential to improve in consistency and become good weapons for him.  As a tall lefty, he might have more upside than you would expect a pitcher in his late twenties to possess.  Sometimes pitchers with that profile are late bloomers.  He always outperformed his peripherals in the minors, too.  But it's hard to ignore the scouting reports and sabermetric analysis, which are both saying the same thing: Happ is not as good as he's been so far in his short MLB career.  Next season should tell us a lot about what to expect from him in the long term, but it's hard to know what to expect in the immediate future.


Felipe Paulino

Throw out any cliche you like about young power pitchers, and it's probably been used to describe Paulino.  "He's not a pitcher, he's a thrower" is popular.  From any perspective, though, he has great stuff.  A fastball which touches 99mph, a great slider, and a curveball which is, on its best days, even better.  He even has an infrequently-used changeup for that fourth look.  What's the problem, then?  A scout would tell you command and pitchability.  A sabermetrician would say he's been unlucky.  Regardless, his results have been subpar at the major league level; combine that with some injury struggles, and he's by no means a lock for a rotation spot in 2011.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: Underachieved.  ERA, FIP, and xFIP are schizophrenic when it comes to Paulino.  His 5.11 earned run average was heavily inflated by a couple of disastrous bullpen appearances returning from injury in September; his FIP was far lower, suggesting he should have an earned run average in the mid-3 range.  xFIP, on the other hand, was somewhere in between the two, but closer to his ERA.  What gives?  To figure it out, you have to look at his peripherals.  His batting average on balls in play was very high, and his left-on-base percentage was unusually low, suggesting very poor luck.  On the other hand, he gave up very few home runs on fly balls, which is why his xFIP is so much higher than his FIP--it assumes every pitcher will give up an average number of home runs per fly ball.

Outlook for 2011: Murky.  Paulino will probably be given a chance to compete for a spot in the starting rotation in spring training, and much will depend on his performance there, because there will be plenty of candidates for the role.  His injury problems cloud the issue just as much as his underachievement, as does his poor performance anytime he has pitched in relief (can he even pitch out of the bullpen if he doesn't start?).  That said, he has fantastic upside, and that--on top of some flashes of brilliance in 2010--will get him another chance.


Nelson Figueroa

Another good bargain pitching pickup by Ed Wade, Figueroa came to the Astros on a waiver claim from--you guessed it, the Phillies--mid-season.  A season-ending injury to Brian Moehler opened up a rotation spot, and Figgy seized the opportunity to prove his value.  He's an older player, so his upside is limited and he shouldn't be thought of as an important part of the Astros' long-term plans, but he still seems like a valuable bullpen arm/swing starter for next year.  He has good movement on all of his pitches, and his command is sometimes good and sometimes not.  He doesn't have much in the way of velocity, but as the cliche goes, "he knows how to pitch".

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: Overachieved.  Figgy got a little lucky leaving runners on base and on balls in play, and it would be very unrealistic to expect in ERA in the low-3 range next season, but advanced metrics still think he's solid.

Outlook for 2011: Rosy, for a fifth starter/long reliever.  Most teams would be thrilled to get production like Figgy gave the Astros from a swing starter.  He even demonstrated the ability to switch from short relief to starting like flipping a switch.  He won't be this good again, but he's worth keeping on the team, and I fully expect the Astros to do so.


Brian Moehler

With a handful of appearances in relief and a short stint as a starter before getting injured, Moehler was handy to have around up until the Astros acquired Nelson Figueroa, somewhat justifying the contract he received in the offseason.  It's not that he was good, it's more that he was inexpensive and could be counted on to eat some innings and probably not get chased out of the game in the first inning like a rookie might.  A groin injury ended his season, and likely his tenure with the Astros.

ERA vs. Advanced Metrics: As expected.  Moehler slightly underperformed his xFIP and slightly overperformed his FIP.  From any perspective, though, his actual performance wasn't good--he was just an innings-eating warm body.

Outlook for 2011: Probably not an Astro.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Moehler hang it up in the offseason, and I very much doubt the Astros will bring him back, with the younger, superior Nelson Figueroa filling the same role.  Perhaps, as clack suggested, they will offer him a coaching position somewhere in the organization.


NOTE: From this point on, we're discussing relief pitchers, so I'll leave out the statistical discussion in favor of a scouting perspective.  The sample sizes are too small to be reliable for relief pitchers, and there are other issues (like inherited baserunners) fogging up statistical analysis.


Brandon Lyon

Insert Ed Wade/reliever jokes here.  Lyon was one of the most-panned signings of the offseason, by any team.  Yet he appeared to be worth his relatively large contract; he pitched in high leverage situations all year, and was solid in the role, demonstrating good command and solid breaking pitches.  He doesn't feature a typical closer's power repertoire, with more of a starting pitcher's approach; inside and out, up and down, mixing several different pitches.  He seems good at it, but there is still doubt in my mind whether a pitcher with Lyon's profile can succeed in the long-term as a closer.


Matt Lindstrom

The polar opposite of Lyon, Matt Lindstrom started the season as the closer for the Astros, featuring more traditional closer stuff; a high-90s fastball and a sharp-breaking slider.  His command is not nearly as refined as Lyon's, and injury problems also affected his availability and performance later in the season, causing him to be removed from the role in favor of Brandon Lyon.  I judge him to still be a valuable relief pitcher, but I'm more skeptical now that he can hold down the closer's role with his inconsistency and health issues.  Still, his groundball/strikeout ways are tantalizing, and if Lyon struggles at any point next season, he may find himself back in the hot seat.


Wilton Lopez

Lopez emerged this season as one of the few stalwarts in the bullpen, and he demonstrated himself to be very, very good at two things: Throwing strikes, and getting groundballs.  He's kind of like an enhanced version of Chris Sampson; he relies on an excellent sinking fastball which touches the mid-90s, mixing in a solid changeup and a fringy slider occasionally for a different look.  Unlike Sampson, he isn't strikeout-averse.  His movement and velocity allow him to miss some bats, though his bread and butter is still getting guys to pound the ball in the dirt.  His workload was heavy in the latter half of the season, but if healthy, he should be a valuable bullpen arm again next year.


Everybody Else

For much of the season, there was a large discrepancy between the best relievers in the bullpen, listed above, and the rest of the group.  Pitchers like Jeff Fulchino, Chris Sampson, and Gustavo Chacin were mediocre at best, and a number of other relievers were bad in smaller sample sizes.

On the plus side, some young talent did emerge in the latter half of the season, with Mark Melancon and Fernando Abad providing many strong appearances and flashing good overall potential.  If healthy, Sammy Gervacio and/or Alberto Arias could also provide a boost next season, having missed 2010 with injuries.  There are other relievers in the minor league system who could step in as well, in case of need, and one of the Norris/Paulino/Figueroa trio will likely start the season in the bullpen.

Tim Byrdak may have a shiny earned run average again, but I still don't trust him; he walks too many batters and gives up too many fly balls.


In Conclusion

A solid starting rotation and back end of the bullpen kept the Astros from having an embarrassingly terrible season in 2010.  They figure to have a good pitching staff again next season, but not a spectacular one.  Top prospect Jordan Lyles also awaits his chance at triple A, so further reinforcement is possible in the next year or two.  Will be enough to carry the team to the postseason in that time?  Probably not, but there's a chance.