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The Astros play-off rotation: Are Zack Greinke and Wade Miley good enough?

No problem at 1 & 2, but then what?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Pray for Rain?

One of the immortal phrases passed down from baseball lore is this ditty from the 1950’s. “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain.” It noted the contrast between the greatness at the top of Milwaukee Braves’ rotation in 1953, and how poorly the rest of the rotation pitched.

Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain weren’t the greatest top of rotation duo in history. Their combined ERA+ was 311. (100 = league average) Still, that’s better than the famed Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale 1965 combo, combined 278, or the fearsome 1969 Oriole combo, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, 301.

I haven’t scanned every possible top of rotation combination, but I do know two that are better than Spahn and Sain: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavineof the 1998 Braves, an eye-popping ERA+ of 355. And Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole of the 2019 Houston Astros, spitting distance at 340. If JV and Cole keep throwing no-hitters and one-hitters like they’ve been doing lately, they might have a chance to beat that 355 mark. In their last 31 innings Verlander and Cole have only surrendered three runs.

One thing none of these teams had in common with the Spahn and Sain Braves is, after the duo pitched, they didn’t have to pray for rain. After Drysdale, the Dodgers had Don Sutton. After Palmer, the Orioles had Dave McNally. After Glavine, the Braves had John Smoltz. And after Cole, the Astros have Zack Greinke.

Zack Greinke

Yes, Zack Greinke, already a borderline Hall of Famer, and he’s your third pitcher. Can’t go wrong there, right?

Except, since joining the Astros, he hasn’t exactly been that Hall of Famer the Astros gave up a king’s ransom in prospects to acquire.

With Arizona in 2019, Greinke had a 2.90 ERA, a 3.19 FIP, a .217 Batting Average Against, and a 0.95 WHIP. His ERA+ was 155. Not a strikeout pitcher at this point in his career, he was still maintaining a 24% K rate, with only a 3.7% BB rate.

In six games with Houston, his ERA and FIP are up about a run each, 3.86 and 4.23 respectively. His BAA is up to .277, his WHIP up to 1.31, his K% down to 17.2%, and BB% up to 5.1%.

With Arizona Greinke’s hard hit % was 35.2% and his xwOBA was .279. These have increased to 39.7% and .302 respectively.

How much is this attributable to switching leagues? Not much. The difference between NL ERA and AL ERA is only 0.16. NL average is 4.44. AL average is 4.60.

OK, so far Greinke isn’t exactly what we bargained for, but he’s still not bad. As an Astro his ERA+ is still above league average at 118. That’s better than the BEST starting pitcher the Yankees have. It is slightly better than the Twins’ third starter, Michael Pineda, but slightly below that of the Dodgers’ third starter, Walker Buehler.

So assuming that Zack Greinke continues at the same under-whelming pace that he has kept so far with the Astros, do we need to pray for rain? No, not exactly. But Greinke was supposed to be an upgrade to the Wade Miley we had at the trade deadline. This he has not been. But he is far to be preferred over the Wade Miley we have had in the last few weeks.

Wade Miley

After August 9th, Miley had gotten his ERA just down below the 3 mark. His WHIP was just 1.13 and his BAA was .213. But as has been the case all year, there were underlying reasons to doubt the sustainability of Miley’s success. His BABIP was only .239, and his FIP and xFIP were both about 4.40. Did these weak peripherals have something to do with the trade for Greinke?

Since then regression has had its ugly revenge. In the last five games his ERA is 6.11, although the FIP is a bit calmer at 4.74. His WHIP in these last five games is 2.21, and his BAA is .378! The hard hit % has gone up too, from 36% to 41.3%.

So does this recent spat of bad starts mean that Miley has regressed to the level of almost unusable that he was two years ago? Or that he can’t be trusted even in a game four situation in the playoffs?

There is reason to hope he can return to form.

It’s true his peripherals indicate that he isn’t pitching as well lately as he was before August 14th. But it is not that big a change. For example, his SIERA was 4.64. Since August 14th it has risen to 4.96. His 2.99 ERA wasn’t sustainable, but the 6.11 he has had since August 14th isn’t likely to continue either. His BABIP during this time is a ridiculously unlucky .459. His left on base % has gone down about 20% to an unlucky 63.2%.

So perhaps there is reason to believe that Miley can right his ship before the playoffs to be at least an average fourth starter, although a return to his unsustainable early season outcomes seems unlikely.

Let’s hope so. Because if Miley’s outcomes in the playoffs look anything like the ones he has had the last few weeks, game four victories seem like a long shot. The Astros won’t be playing the Mariners after all. You can’t spot a playoff team five runs in the first inning and expect to win like the Stros did last Thursday.

Time was, if it was deemed that Miley wasn’t good enough, there was always Collin McHugh for fourth starter, or maybe Brad Peacock, or, maybe with a little Strom fairy dust, Aaron Sanchez. Uh, they’re all injured, in the case of Sanchez, probably through most of next year, the length of his contract. So please, if you have found the early season version of Wade Miley, return him to the Astros lost and found. His fans and teammates miss him desperately. The team’s playoff chances take a hit without him, especially considering the injury related uncertainties in the Astros’ bullpen.

So as we approach the playoff season, the Astros have one of the most frightening starting pitching duos known to man, both men pitching at the awesome tops of their games. None of the playoff teams want to face Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, that’s for sure.

But do we pray for rain in games 3 and 4 of a playoff series? Perhaps no more so than most of the playoff competition, but the back of the rotation sure doesn’t look like the advantage team Astros that it did just five weeks ago.