The biggest open question about the Astros’ 2019 season has been, “Who will fill out the starting pitching rotation?” The question became even more urgent when it was announced that Lance McCullers, Jr. would be missing all of the season after having Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.
Anxiety levels among fans rose as free agent pitchers Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, Lance Lynn, Tanner Roark, Charlie Morton, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Fiers, Tyson Ross, J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia, Trevor Cahill, and Matt Harvey all came off the board.
It is reasonable to expect that the Astros will acquire another starting pitcher this off-season, whether it’s re-signing dearly departed former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, or adding depth that could be easily replaced if it doesn’t pan out, like Marco Estrada, James Shields, or Ervin Santana. Perhaps savvy Astros GM Jeff Luhnow can swing a trade.
However, even if the Astros choose to stand pat, the situation isn’t as dire as some make it out to be .
As things stand right now, the Astros rotation lines up thusly:
- Justin Verlander
- Gerritt Cole
- Collin McHugh
- Brad Peacock
- Joshua James
For the sake of brevity, this article will not dwell on discussing Verlander or Cole, both of whom were on the short list to win the 2018 AL Cy Young award, and figure to be in that discussion again next season.
Rather, the discussion revolves around uncertainty after Houston’s lead two horses, and around the depth (or lack) behind the starting five.
A brief trip into the way-back machine
First off, reports of the demise of Houston’s rotation have been grossly overstated. This is understandable - fans in a very brief time have become accustom to a rotation in which its fifth starter (McCullers or Morton) could hit near 99 mph with his last pitch of an outing, and pair it with a vertebrae-crippling curveball.
But such depth, while wonderful, isn’t strictly necessary to have a World Series contending club.
Here is your official reminder that the 2015 Astros reached (and almost won!) the ALDS with a rotation that consisted of:
- Keuchel (2.48 ERA)
- McHugh (3.89)
- McCullers (3.22)
- Scott Feldman (3.90)
- Scott Kazmir (4.17)
- Roberto Hernandez (5.18)
- Mike Fiers (2.67)
- Brett Oberholtzer (4.46),
- with a smattering of appearances from the likes of Vince Velasquez, Asher Wojciechowski, Dan Straily, and Samuel Deduno.
Of that list, only Keuchel had a truly outstanding year. McCullers and Fiers performed well but only played for parts of the season.
Compare the 2015 rotation with the projected 2019 one. Things will be ok. Vegas agrees, by the way, as they recently projected the Astros to finish with the best record in baseball.
So obviously the folks who stand to lose the most by being wrong think that the Astros’ rotation won’t hold them back from being the best team in MLB.
Remember when Collin McHugh received votes for the American League Cy Young award in 2015?
Remember that McHugh was a well-above-average starting pitcher even before he was edged into the bullpen by injuries at the beginning of 2017 and by a loaded rotation that stayed healthy all season?
This isn’t about that.
Last season, McHugh was, without exaggeration, one of the best relief pitchers in the major leagues.
His 1.99 ERA was 6th-lowest out of 151 qualified relievers. His strikeout percentage was 15th-highest, and his K-BB% clocked in at #14. His FIP was 23rd, his WHIP was 7th, and he has good hair. You get the idea.
So, a good starter who turned into a great reliever. It’s a story as old as baseball.
As such, it’s easy to dismiss by saying, “Well, when he goes back into the rotation, he won’t be a standout pitcher anymore. He’ll be just a guy. A pretty good guy, but not special.”
Hold the phone and back up the bus.
Back in August of 2017, the Crawfish Boxes’ own leistomania409 wrote that McHugh had added a new pitch, a slider, and that it was pretty good. Curtis said:
McHugh’s version of the slider has changed hands through the Astros clubhouse more often than Octavio Dotel changed teams - but we can ultimately trace it back to Luke Gregerson’s slider of death, thanks to some sleuthing from the Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan - McHugh picked it up from Brad Peacock, who picked it up from Jordan Jankowski, who himself picked it up from Gregerson.
At the time of the article, McHugh had thrown all of four games using his new slider, and so it was an open question about whether or not he would stick with it, and whether or not major league batters would adjust.
Brooks Baseball shows that McHugh dramatically increased usage of his slider, at the expense of his cut fastball, all throughout 2017 and 2018.
And batters absolutely could not hit it. It was impervious to their feeble efforts.
In two hundred and eighty six sliders thrown in 2018, batters hit for an average of .114, with a slugging percentage of... .114. That’s right. Eight hits allowed. Zero, and I mean Z-E-R-O extra base hits. No homers. No triples. No doubles. All year.
His slider had a 49% strikeout rate when thrown with two strikes. Batters whiffed at it nearly 40% of the time. Its spin rate was higher than that of his famous curveball. The spin rate on McHugh’s slider ranked 18th-fastest in the major leagues...out of 603 pitchers who threw a slider in 2018! (97th percentile).
McHugh is not the same pitcher who was a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy from 2015 to 2016. He’s something else entirely. Yes, a move back in the rotation will see his numbers drop from their ridiculous height in 2018. But that slider isn’t going away, and it is 2legit2quit.
McHugh already had a great fastball/curveball combo that made batters guess which was witch when they left his hand. But he not only added a third good pitch to the mix, he added his best pitch. And it’s not close. McHugh is for real.
Chris’ bold prediction: 180 IP, 3.30 ERA, 200 strikeouts.
I don’t have anything nearly so exciting to say about Brad Peacock, other than to remind readers that he was quietly amazing in the bullpen 2018, and quietly ridiculously amazing in the rotation in 2017.
During 2018, Peacock posted the 8th-best K/9 and the 11th-best strikeout rate in the major leagues. And by limiting walks, managed the 7th-best K-BB%.
His 3.46 ERA isn’t the most important number either. No, the most important number was a flukey 18% HR/FB rate that was more than 6 percentage points higher than his career average. As a result, his xFIP sat at a measley 2.82. He also had a sorta high BABIP of 35 points higher than his career.
Like McHugh, a return to the rotation will dampen those skills somewhat, but that still leaves an impressive foundation for a starter who could be a strong #3 or even a #2 on many MLB teams. In Houston, he will be expected to slide into one of the back two spots.
Lest we forget Peacock’s true heroics, during the 2017 World Series season, Peacock stepped in to take over for an injured McHugh, a move thought to be short-lived until it became evident that McHugh wasn’t recovering quickly.
Peacock’s performance in the rotation remains one of the more shocking and oft-forgotten aspects of that magical season. In 112 rotation innings, Peacock tossed out a 3.22 ERA while striking out 135 batters, finally explaining to fans why Houston had been so patient with the former Top 100 prospect.
The major change in Peacock’s performance came when...get a load of this...he added a slider. The same slider that he taught to McHugh.
Given this and his dominance in 2018, why should fans doubt his ability any longer?
Chris’ bold prediction: 150 IP, 3.45 ERA, 170 strikeouts
Now we come to the guy I have been most eager to write about. I’ll admit that I was slow to the Josh James bandwagon. I’m by nature risk-averse and cautious with prospects—particularly come-out-of-nowhere players like James.
The secret is out on James now.
The once-obscure 34th-round soft-tosser is a resounding success story of the Astros’ player development machine. Propsectphiles now agree, with MLB.com ranking him the 62nd best prospect in the country and baseballprospectus.com ranking him 46th.
Why are scouts jumping on board?
Perhaps it was his 2.35 ERA, his 11.4 K/9, and his minuscule walk rate over 23 innings with the big league club, including three starts.
Maybe it was his fastball, that averaged 97.5 mph last season, which ranked 26th out of 530 pitchers who threw 20 innings or more (95th percentile).
Or maybe he just freaking rocks.
Yeah, that was a 100 mile-an-hour fastball that breaks away from the batter. That’s unfair. James’ fastball fades an average of seven and a half inches horizontally—farther away from opposite-handed batters than all but fifteen other pitchers in the majors. Of those whose fastballs break away more, only Diego Castillo and Arodys Vizcaino can match his average velocity.
James couples that fastball with a Changeup that major league batters hit .158 against, and a slider that they managed a batting average of .100.
Batters aren’t barrelling him up at all. By statcast measurements of exit velocity and “barrels” per batted ball, he ranks favorably with Craig Kimbrel, Zack Greinke, and Corey Kluber, among others.
When ranked by expected On Base Average (xOBA), he came in 62nd-best in the majors, five spots better than Gerrit Cole and eighteen ahead of McHugh.
Small sample sizes absolutely apply, as does the fact that major league batters have not had the chance to adjust to James’ arsenal.
But it won’t matter. A 100 mph moving fastball coupled to a good changeup, a nasty breaking slider, and a penchant for not walking batters will play. It will play very well.
Chris’ bold prediction: 160 IP, 3.35 ERA, 195 strikeouts, and a Top 3 AL Rookie of the Year finish
But wait - that’s not all! One of the fans’ most valid concerns perhaps involves depth in the starting rotation. What happens if somebody gets hurt? As shown above by my predictions, I do not think that any of the three pitchers listed above will come close to 200 innings pitched.
It still seems possible that the Astros could add a veteran to the rotation...but should they, considering what I just wrote? Before I started writing, I would have been solidly in the “add a starter” camp. But now? I’m not sure. Perhaps a swing man type who is desperate for a job in Spring Training? Perhaps a pitcher wanting a shot at a ring, who is willing to accept pitching in Triple A for a good chunk of the year?
What I do know is that the Astros have a wealth of richest in the upper minors....
Forrest Whitley: ...starting with major league baseball’s top pitching prospect, a 100-mph slinging, six-foot-seven-standing right hander. After a suspension in 2018 for failing MLB’s drug policy, he pitched only 26 innings in 2018 and will be on a strict innings count this season. He will see the major leagues, but it is uncertain when, and in what capacity. What we do know is that many scouts consider him to be as sure of a thing to grow into an ace as a pitching prospect can get.
Cionel Perez: Perez, a 22 year old left-hander, has an inside track to spend most of the season in Houston’s bullpen. However, he pitched almost exclusively in the minors as a successful starting pitcher, and only pitched five innings in triple-A before reaching the majors. He can touch triple-digits from the left side, and features a sharp slider and a change-up. In a pinch, he could be a lefty rotation option who still has the upside and stuff to be a top-tier major league starter.
Rogelio Armenteros: James’ rotation mate at Fresno last year, Armenteros remains quietly one of the most overlooked players in the Astros’ farm that probably shouldn’t be. For his minor league career, he averages over ten strikeouts per nine innings and is good at limiting walks. After notching a 2.16 ERA in AAA in 2017, he came out to a slow start in 2018 before finishing the season off with a 2.95 ERA in twelve games (eleven starts). He is MLB ready and seems likely to get a shot in the Astros’ rotation at some point during 2019, with expectation of MLB-average performance or better.
Cy Sneed: Another Fresno starter, Sneed enjoyed something of a breakout in 2018 when he pitched a 3.86 ERA with eight strikeouts per nine innings over 20 starts.
Francis Martes: Worth a mention, the former MLB Top 50 prospect missed most of the season and figures to miss all of 2019 after undergoing UCL reconstruction surgery in August. He won’t figure into this season, but he is a factor in the Astros’ long-term depth, particularly being aged only 23.
Others: Corpus’ Ryan Hartman came out of nowhere in 2018 to throw 25 games with a 2.69 ERA and nearly 11 K/9. Corbin Martin will be in AAA this season and appears on all national Top 100 prospects list going into 2019. J.B Bukauskas evokes shades of Lance McCullers in that the Astros steadfastly refuse to accept industry consensus that he profiles as a reliever, and is also landing on Top 100 lists and should pitch a full season at Double A this season. With a strong performance, he could jump into the majors just like Lance did, if needed.
After reading, do you feel better about the Astros’ rotation going into 2019?
This poll is closed
Hell yeah - the glut of young talent should translate well to the majors
No, I’d still feel more comfortable with another veteran.