In perhaps the most frustrating and tumultuous season in recent memory, Cristian Javier has been one of the few bright spots for the Astros' pitching staff in 2020. He's exceeded all expectations that he had coming into this season, a season that may have seen him begin the year in Triple-A had COVID-19 not come about. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that his contributions as a starter have been vital to this team staying relatively afloat. His production as a rookie starter has been as impressive as any. But is it sustainable? Let's take a look.
On the surface, there's some positives:
- Javier's in the top 25% in all of baseball in average exit velocity, hard hit rate, xBA, xERA and xwOBA, with his hard hit rate and xBA both being in the top 15%.
- Righties are batting an absurd .088/.173/.265 against him.
- His slider's xwOBA is an elite .138 while the pitch's putaway rate is comfortably above-average at 25%.
- The 4-seamer has great vertical movement.
- He gets a lot of easy outs via the pop-up, as his pop-up rate is roughly double the league average.
- His xwOBACON is well-above-average.
That's a pretty good foundation, especially for a 23-year-old rookie.
Now we come to the red flags:
- Javier's 20% whiff rate is in the bottom 15% in the league, while his K rate is mediocre at best. Despite possessing average control and command, his walk rate is a bit high.
- His first pitch strike percentage is alarmingly low at 44.6% (league average = ~60.6%), and it's important to throw first pitch strikes.
- He is an extreme fly ball pitcher and has a below-average barrel rate, which has resulted in him giving up 1.90 HR/9 so far.
- His FIP is two whole points higher than his ERA at 5.38.
Javier's third pitch, a changeup, has not missed bats (or even barrels). Opposing hitters have mashed it regularly. It has quality horizontal movement but the pitch has yielded atrocious results. He's thrown 50 changeups this year; all but one have been to lefties.
Overall, lefties are hitting .247/.330/.469 against Javier, which isn't ideal, but not terrible either. Unfortunately, however, those numbers could be lite, which brings us to the question posed in the title.
To set the stage, let's look a bit deeper into Javier's success against right-handed batters. As indicated above, Javier has utterly dominated them this season.
Just to quickly elaborate using xwOBA: Through the first three innings, righties' xwOBA is .197. And through the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th innings (Javier's yet to pitch in the 8th)? A .209 xwOBA. That is awfully impressive.
Now we get to the conundrum: lefties. This can be done in different ways, but I'm just going to be looking at whiff rate, xwOBA/wOBA and exit velocity.
For reference, the league average whiff rate is about 25%, and the average xwOBA is around .322, with the average wOBA at ~.317. Lastly, the league average for exit velocity is just over 88 mph.
Additional note: Javier's whiff percentage against lefties is 16.8%, as opposed to 24% against righties.
What I'm most interested in is how Javier fares against lefties as he progresses in each start.
- wOBA: .353
- xwOBA: .363
- Exit velo: 90.6
- Whiff rate: 22.1%
So far, nothing stands out too much.
- wOBA: .319
- xwOBA: .373
- Exit velo: 84.3
- Whiff rate: 11.1%
Now it gets interesting. He's getting half as many whiffs in these innings and there's also a sizable gap between his wOBA and xwOBA. How could the gap be that large if he's not getting hit nearly as hard? This is where Javier's overall middling strikeout and walk numbers have been especially bad.
Here are Javier's numbers in the first three innings in each start combined: 27 strikeouts and 7 walks. That's in 24 IP against both lefties and righties.
In innings 4-7, however, this is his ratio in 18.2 IP: 10 strikeouts to 9 walks. Of those 10 strikeouts and 9 walks, what do the numbers against lefties look like? 4 strikeouts and 6 walks. What is Javier's ERA in innings 4-7? 3.64. I think it's safe to say that number is likely to increase.
I could just leave it at that but the specific data on his 4-seamer and slider against lefties is also notable, and I think it's worth sharing. I'll only need to use wOBA/xwOBA this time to illustrate my point.
For reference, the average wOBA/xwOBA for starting pitchers on 4-seamers is roughly .361/.371. For sliders, it's about .298/.280. Again, the following numbers are against left-handed batters:
- wOBA: .429
- xwOBA: .431
- wOBA: .000
- xwOBA: .024
That's not a typo on the slider.
- wOBA: .235
- xwOBA: .368
- wOBA: .413
- xwOBA: .359
The 4-seamer tidbit really encapsulates the concern for me. Javier has had quite a bit of luck when dealing with lineups the second and third time around.
An underlying problem with all of these numbers is that the sample sizes aren't exactly adequate, but not much else can be done when evaluating a player in a shortened season, particularly a rookie.
I hope I laid this out in an uncomplicated way. While there may not be a clear answer to the question posed in the title, suffice it to say all of this data reaffirmed my belief that the vast majority of pitchers need at least three viable pitches in order to be a consistent and successful starting pitcher. Hopefully, Javier's changeup eventually comes around.