As the Astros have struggled to cobble together a pitching staff in the midst of coronavirus chaos and a rash of injuries, several rookie hurlers have already debuted for the club in the 2020 season. The results have been a bit mixed overall, but there have been a couple of young guns that have already been entrusted with rotation duties with generally strong results- Cristian Javier and Brandon Bielak
Javier is a familiar name to those who follow Astros prospects, as he’s been firmly on the radar since no later than 2017-2018, when he was posting massive strikeout numbers across the team’s A-ball levels. In those days, most saw Javier as a likely reliever- he lacks typical size for a starter, wasn’t a polished strike thrower right away, and had a very wide arsenal of offerings that most felt would be pared down as he moved up the ladder. However, the Astros are never quick to move arms to single inning duty, particularly when they show the kind of strikeout potential that Javier did at the lower levels.
2019 was when Javier’s career really took a leap, as he took a big step forward with his strike throwing, and with injuries to top pitching prospects in the organization such as Forrest Whitely and Jairo Solis, he was also thrust into the spotlight as perhaps the most highly touted active arm in the system for much of the season. He responded with one of the most impressive minor league pitching seasons in baseball, striking out a whopping 170 batters in just 113 and ⅔ with a total ERA in the 1s. Not much changed about Javier’s profile to precipitate the huge season- he simply stayed healthy, pitched with confidence and executed, and the results were outstanding.
Bielak’s path to the bigs was a bit different, as he had to make adjustments between his amateur and pro career to find success. An 11th round selection in the 2017 draft, Bielak was coming off of a rough junior season with Notre Dame, in which he pitched to a 5.55 ERA and 5.1 walks per 9 innings across 73 innings. This was a step back from his relatively strong freshman and sophomore seasons, but the Astros felt confident that tweaks could get him back on track and convinced him to skip his senior season. They were right, as practically immediately upon getting to the pros, Bielak’s command improved precipitously- he carved up rookie ball hitters in late 2017, not only limiting runs and generating strikeouts, but also limiting his free passes to between 1 and 2 per 9 innings.
The big debut earned Bielak some attention- going back to his Notre Dame days, his stuff has been recognized as strong. One point of similarity that he shares with Cristian Javier is that both are able to throw multiple breaking balls, though Bielak’s slider and curve have more discrete shapes while Javier’s breaking stuff tends to change shape along a spectrum to suit his needs. Bielak also has a broader, thicker frame which portends more durability, though things don’t always play out as you’d expect based on physical markers. Bielak also has a rock solid fastball/change combination that plays up when he’s having a good command day. Unfortunately, the good command days still don’t come quite as often as he or the Astros would like.
While Bielak has certainly made strides with his command since his amateur days, there’s still a degree of start to start inconsistency holding him back from hitting his ceiling. This makes him a bit frustrating to follow at times, as when he’s locating well he looks ready to lock himself into a big league rotation role, and on others he’s more around the plate and has to get through hitters with more brute force. On such days, he also has more difficulty creating strikeouts, as his style of pitching when he’s locating is rather aggressive, and when he’s missing his spots more frequently, he’s not able to set up his offspeed as effectively, resulting in fewer swings, and in turn whiffs.
This trait has been on display as Bielak has made his transition to the bigs- he has now made three appearances, totalling 10 and ⅓ innings, and we’ve seen something of a different pitcher each time out. In his first taste of the bigs he was very impressive, as he threw 3 and ⅓ frames against Seattle in which he struck out four, walked none, and allowed four hits while looking in full control of his arsenal. In his next outing, a relief appearance against the Angels, he was tasked with two innings and got through them with no hits allowed, but did walk three hitters against two strikeouts which made the outing a bit of an adventure. In that outing, his fastball wandered on him, but he was able to consistently land his changeup, which got him through the outing without damage.
In his last outing, we got to see what Bielak looks like without his best stuff, and the results weren’t excellent, but he did turn in a gutsy performance to get through five innings, and was able to avoid hard contact for the most part. That said, the start was a bit alarming to Astros fans who are learning about Bielak on the fly, as it goes without saying that it’s difficult to sustain success with a 1:3 K:BB ratio, but it’s important to recognize that the start-to-start consistency bug is one that has followed him for much of his career, and he’s shown progress in this regard over the last few seasons. Perusing his Triple-A game log, there’s a pattern apparent- middling outings are few and far between, almost nonexistent. Rather, Bielak tends to run hot and cold, with his K rate sometimes dipping to almost nothing on a bad day rather than his typical 8-10 per 9 innings.
Consistency is something that comes with time, and there’s plenty of hope for Bielak’s command to improve as he gains experience, but there’s more cause for optimism here as well. In the minors, Bielak’s breaking balls often acted as putaway pitches for him, and in the majors he hasn’t yet leaned on them to that degree. He’s instead opted to lean on his changeup in such situations, and has actually had a lot of success doing so. This is a bit surprising, as Bielak’s change lacks ideal separation from his fastball, but the way it fades sharply as it approaches the plate has generated plenty of swinging strikes nonetheless. I’d imagine the decreased breaking ball usage is simply a matter of confidence as he acclimates to the bigs, and I expect to see them come out more frequently as he’s given more turns in the rotation. In his amateur and minor league days, his breaking stuff was his best trait at times, so working it effectively into his big league arsenal could lead to further strides.
In contrast with Bielak, Javier has looked mighty consistent for about 2 years now. He has rapidly answered the questions scouts have had about him, displaying durability, command and pitchability while moving through all levels of the pro baseball ladder. There have been persistent questions about how Javier’s deception-heavy style of pitching would translate to the majors, but thus far he hasn’t slowed down much in his transition to the highest level. A key for him thus far is the confidence he’s shown in his arsenal- often when young pitchers make the jump to the bigs, they lean primarily on their best stuff to avoid mistakes and getting behind in counts, but Javier has attacked major league lineups the same way that he terrorized minor leaguers.
If you count fastball variations, Javier has a five pitch mix that includes a four seam, curve, slider, change and cutter, with the four seam and curve getting the bulk of the usage, but traditional pitch classification fails to capture Javier’s ability in some ways. Javier has rare spin control, and he’s able to play with the movement on both his fastballs and breakers to suit his needs more than the typical hurler. Additionally, Javier’s delivery creates some unique deception both in its tempo and in the angle from which he attacks hitters. Minor leaguers were never able to adjust to this, but big league bats may be up for the challenge, which was on display in his outing against Oakland when the A’s were able to key on his fastall.
The biggest obstacle that Javier faces in entrenching himself as a long term starter is his fastball velocity- while the movement he creates on his heater helps matters, he sits 91-93 which is decidedly below average from the right side, and while he has little difficulty throwing strikes, he does sometimes catch a bit too much plate, which becomes especially problematic when he’s leaving a relatively soft fastball over the heart. Such pitches generally result in hard contact, something Javier is usually good at avoiding with the diverse action on his stuff. This became readily apparent in his start on Sunday against Oakland, in which he surrendered three home runs in the first three innings, all of which came on four seam fastballs to the middle of the zone. Two of them came to outstanding hitters in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, but they were mistake pitches that could’ve had the same result against non all-stars as well. This is likely to be an ongoing issue for Javier, but its one that he can mitigate. His pitchability and pitch mix diversity have allowed him to get away with it in the minors as hitters have been unable to key on pitches out of his hand resulting in them being frequently frozen, but he’ll have less margin for error at the highest level. The answer going forward will be to exercise more caution with the fastball, perhaps even scaling back its usage in favor of more breaking stuff, which he has had success throwing within the zone thus far, in addition to working in more cutters to give his hard stuff more variation.
In my view, the positives in Javier’s profile outweigh the more subtle negatives, and to me he looks like he has a chance to hold onto his rotation spot for the foreseeable future. There will be bumps in the road, as he won’t be able to attack the zone quite as aggressively as he is used to, which was on full display in his Oakland appearance, but this should simply be a matter of adjustment rather than a permanent deficiency. He may never generate a ton of swinging strikes and his margin for error with his fastball is small, but his confidence and pitchability should allow him to navigate those issues, and in my estimation he’s a long term #4 starter so long as he throws his heaters with a bit more caution and works in the cutter more frequently to avoid hitters keying on the four seam out of his hand.
Bielak, on the other hand, may not be in the major leagues for good just yet. His performances thus far in the bigs have been decent, but his strikeout and walk numbers cannot support run prevention in the long term. I haven’t seen Bielak with his best stuff in the majors yet, so it’s impressive that he’s managed to limit damage to the degree that he has, but there are still kinks to work out in terms of his strike throwing, fine command and pitch mix. I’m still very much a fan of much of his profile, and if he’s able to take another big step with his command I think his ultimate ceiling is that of a #4 starter, but the more likely outcome is as a #5, if he sticks in the rotation at all, based on what we’ve seen so far. He’s also another arm that could smoothly transition to the bullpen, as he’d likely throw quite hard in 1 inning bursts and could effectively narrow his arsenal if need be- such a move might even pay instant dividends with his walk avoidance.
The Astros likely hoped to call up these pitchers in different circumstances, but they’ve both done the team proud with their performance thus far given the tall orders they’ve been handed. While there have been bumps in the road, both show the makings of successful big league profiles at a base level. As the bats that were expected to carry the club have faltered in the early-going, their performances have helped keep the team afloat and offer a window into the club’s future post-Verlander and Greinke.