“And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” - Revelations, Chapter 6, Verse 8
There was a football game on tonight...I didn’t see it. They say it was the last one of the year, but I couldn’t (right now...I’m sure that I’ll see tomorrow) tell you who won.
No, there was no Super Bowl for me. You see, I have gradually evolved, to the point that I eschew all sports that aren’t baseball. It’s okay with me if you like more than one sport, I’m not here to sell you on sports monogamy. It’s not for everybody.
But while so many were glued to their televisions watching Tom Brady in the Big Game...again...I was sitting in my office, applying eye black with my musty old glove sitting on my head like a hat, a scratchy vinyl recording of “Centerfield” by John Fogerty playing in the background. Had you been in the room with me, you might have heard me muttering “...I don’t care if I ever get back...”
Yes, baseball is back, boys and girls. But who are we kidding - if you’re anything like me, for you...baseball never left.
For the Astros, the offseason question has been “How do we improve upon the team that WON THE WORLD SERIES” (man, that never gets old) in 2017? Some important bullpen additions were made, and Joe Smith and Hector Rondon deserve their own article. This article, though, is to focus on another area where the Astros improved...
...the Starting Rotation.
The Astros rotation was actually a fairly strong unit in 2017, despite some well-publicized injuries and time lost. I mean, this is a rotation which devoted 28 starts to Mike Fiers and 15 starts to Joe Musgrove (who was great in relief in 2017 but not good as a starter) and still managed 15.2 fWAR for the starters, collectively - which was sixth most in the Majors. It’s not like the 2018 Baltimore Orioles rotation was running out there or anything. The well-publicized Justin Verlander trade on August 31st added five regular season starts from an exciting future Hall of Famer, but the bulk of the pitching excellence outside of the most talented arms in the staff (Keuchel, McCullers) rested on the unlikely shoulders of Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock, the latter of whom will most likely be rewarded with a trip back to a bullpen role that he will likely flourish in.
But Lance McCullers battled some minor, nagging injuries throughout the second half of the season, Dallas Keuchel was on and off the disabled list, Charlie Morton missed a little time...injury concerns derailed a lot of the elite pitching value that the Astros rotation could have otherwise produced. Justin Verlander provided the spark that lit the fuse on a World Series Championship and returns for his first full season in Houston, but there was a sense among the fanbase that the rotation might still be lacking that one critical piece to set the rotation apart and really give it an edge.
So, after Jim Crane said early this year that the Astros were in the market for a “high-end starting pitcher”, well, nobody should have been too shocked that they went out and got one in Pittsburgh Pirates stud Gerrit Cole. And there was some kind of magic unleashed, deep in the bowels of the earth. You might say that a seal was broken. For the first time since the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies (and only the second time in modern history), a Major League team has four legitimate Opening Day Starters - three who actually were opening Day Starters in 2017, and one who, if he stays healthy, might just be even more deadly in 2018 than the other three.
For the first time in years, The Four Horsemen have returned to baseball.
The White Horse
In biblical parlance, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse refer to four harbingers of doom and destruction as the world descends into the zero hour of the Apocalypse. The first of these, traditionally, rides a white horse. Different interpretations assign different meanings and characteristics to the Rider, but the one I prefer is a description of Conquest.
Conquest has many associations, often with negative connotations, but in its purest form, conquest refers to one who, on a quest, goes forth to vanquish foes.
He was raised a Yankees fan in Newport Beach, California...he then spurned the Yankees when they drafted him out of High School in the first round in 2008 by insisting on attending college at UCLA (which, good for him) and he was once again a prize the Yankees were unable to attain this winter before the Astros snatched him out of their grasp on January 13th. Through a series of events that may or may not have been in his control, Gerrit Cole has vexed the Yankees and their fans for years, and Astros fans will surely be looking for more of the same in 2018 and 2019.
Cole has flashed top of the rotation ability as recently as 2015, when he was considered one of the game’s brightest pitching stars right alongside names like Syndergaard and Darvish and Bumgarner. In 2016 and (especially) in 2017, his results were still good, but they were diminished somewhat from what many expected - his fastball in particular was being hunted more, and hit with greater authority as home runs and exit velocity exploded all across the Major League Baseball landscape. Travis Sawchik wrote at FanGraphs about the phenomenon in an excellent piece that focused on Cole, on January 9th, and then Eno Sarris wrote a different piece after the Astros traded for him that discussed exactly why the Astros might be the very best place for Cole to pitch.
Gerrit Cole has a fight on his hands to reaffirm his place among the elite starters in baseball. He also, alone of all the projected starting pitchers on the Astros, is seeking his first World Series championship in addition to that return to dominance.
He is a man on a mission. His mission is Conquest.
The Red Horse
The second Horseman comes astride a red warhorse and brandishes a greatsword or a spear, depending on which version of the story you prefer, and violent destruction and burning nation-states are left in his wake.
Enter Justin Verlander.
Beyond the fiery passion and intense competitiveness, there is an additional component of Justin Verlander as the Horseman of WAR.
Justin Verlander trails only CC Sabathia and Clayton Kershaw in fWAR among active pitchers at 56.9, and trails the same two plus Zack Greinke with his 56.6 bWAR. His Black Ink, Gray Ink, HoF Monitor, HoF Standards, and JAWS scores are all either on track or nearly on track for a Hall of Fame Ceremony one day, and his list of similar pitchers through this point in his career includes names like Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, and Bob Gibson. He is going to play the 2018 season at 35 years old - a warrior - and is projected by Steamer and by Depth Charts at identical 3.7 WAR marks. The “Fans” projection system is even more bullish on him, hanging a 4.2 WAR prediction on him.
It’s unlikely he sustains his short sample dominance from his first five regular season (and following postseason) starts, but rest assured that Justin Verlander is absolutely not cashing it all in now that he has his ring. He’s not a shoo-in Hall of Famer yet, and there’s plenty of room on his hand for more rings...even with the two he added this year. No, Astros fans can definitely be certain that Justin Verlander will once more ride onto the battlefield for Houston in search of glorious victory.
The Black Horse
The most confusing allegory (in my opinion) centers around the Rider of the Black Horse. Sometimes referred to as Pestilence, sometimes by other titles...but I keep coming back to Famine. Because does anything more accurately describe Dallas Keuchel?
Whether he was making sure everyone knew his name before everyone knew his name:
I don't see my name... Weird “@brianmctaggart: Cosart, Appel, Lyles, Alex White, Thurman, McCullers, Foltynewicz, Peacock, Velasquez, etc— Dallas Keuchel (@kidkeuchy) July 13, 2013
Or vocally affirming to the world that he, speaking for the clubhouse, was hungry for a Championship this past July when he voiced disappointment at a lack of a major trade acquisition before the July 31st deadline.
And the hunger he instills in opposing hitters is legendary. Only three active starting pitchers have better career soft contact percentages than Keuchelangelo’s 21.4% soft contact percentage, and no one active - not even Clayton Kershaw - has limited hard contact better than his 24.7% mark. Not only do hitters starve for well-struck baseballs against him, they are famished for baseballs put in the air. No active starting pitcher has a higher career ground ball percentage than Dallas Keuchel’s 60.1% GB rate.
Keuchel’s competitive fire is legendary - no one has to convince him to come to the ballpark looking to win each day. And, with perhaps the biggest payday of his life coming once he leaves via Free Agency at the end of the season, don’t kid yourself...
The Pale Horse
The Rider of the Pale Horse is also the most recognizable Horseman to any person. He has instilled the most fear in humans since the Dawn of Man, for he is the end of all things except decay and rigor and rot.
The Pale Rider; the Fourth Horseman...is Death. And Death is Lance McCullers.
Sure, he hasn’t yet put it all together for a full season. Injuries and walks have plagued him, it’s not a secret. But we have actually seen what Lance McCullers looks like at his peak, and we saw it in 2017 for the first half of the season. Check out these numbers in that timeframe:
.223 Avg. Against
That’s ace-caliber stuff. Or at least, top of the rotation stuff. And in a lot of ways, that’s been consistent with the flashes he’s shown. Among all active starting pitchers in the Major Leagues, Lance McCullers is eighth in career FIP (3.14) and eighth in career xFIP (3.27) - ahead in both stats of guys like Max Scherzer, Carlos Carrasco, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Madison Bumgarner, Aaron Nola...and every member of the Astros rotation. There are only seven active starting pitchers who have averaged double-digit K/9 numbers in their careers, and Lance McCullers is one of them. Again - no one else on the Astros starting staff is on the list. Additionally, Lance McCullers just came off a season in which opposing hitters put the ball on the ground 61.3% of the time. In 2015 he was inducing ground balls at a solid 46.5% rate before increasing drastically in 2016 to 57.3 GB%, and then another large jump to the 61.3% number...a number which, by the way, was fourth in all of baseball among starters with at least 110 innings pitched. He was also eleventh in baseball at inducing soft contact last season, as well as seventeenth as far as limiting hard contact.
Additionally, some of his second half (and beyond) struggles can be, according to Lance himself, attributed to his loss of feeling for his changeup...a problem he intends to correct once again this spring:
Lance McCullers said he plans to once again focus on developing his changeup during spring training. "In the first half my changeup was an awesome pitch for me. ... When I went on the DL for my back I kind of lost the feel for it and I never really got to get back to that."— Jake Kaplan (@jakemkaplan) January 13, 2018
Yes, the question of durability remains, as does some lingering doubt about walks and such, but I genuinely believe this is the year Lance McCullers fully arrives in the Show. I believe this is the year he will take the step from “great stuff, can’t put it together” to true top of the rotation arm. I believe this is the year he will embrace his role as the embodiment of the Robert Oppenheimer quote.
“I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
The Four Horsemen Ride Again
The Horsemen will ride, legions will be slaughtered, and a new reign is beginning. Not to be forgotten in all of this are those like Charlie Morton, who figures to reprise his World Series heroics by occupying a pivotal role as one of the best fifth starters in the game. Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock will both feature in prominent, interesting ways out of the bullpen as well. Young stars in the making like Francis Martes and David Paulino and Rogelio Armenteros are all banging on the door for their turn, and the giant specter of Forrest Whitley is looming, lurking quietly nearby in Corpus Christi. Truly, few teams have ever had such enviable, quality depth as these Astros do.
But the Horseman are Four, and this piece is theirs. Next: The World.