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Can the Rookie Pitchers Do It Again?

Despite some added bullpen depth, we need you guys.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Although they compiled a losing record last year, nevertheless, the 2020 season contained two silver linings for the Astros:

  1. An unexpected and somewhat redemptive deep run into the playoffs.
  2. The emergence of previously little known and unheralded rookie pitchers to fill in for a veteran roster decimated by injury.

Without the unexpected over-achievement of this group, the Astros would not have made the playoffs even in the expanded format of 2020. And most of these guys came up big in the playoffs, helping to get the Astros one win from another World Series.

But the real value of this group MAY be in the unexpected value they bring to the Astros this year and in coming years. Keith Law, in line with most other evaluators, has the Astros farm system rated at 25th in MLB. And after this season, already without Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, and George Springer, the Astros could lose Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Zack Greinke, Ryan Pressly, and Joe Smith, (did I miss any?) to free agency.

The future looks decidedly average for the Astros after this year, with so little in the farm seemingly to replace the mainstays that are sure to be leaving soon. That these under-the-radar prospects performed as well as they did in 2020 was welcome news last season, but with any luck, they could form a strong pitching core for the future, despite none of them having ever sniffed the somewhat rare air of being a Top 100 prospect.

The question is, was their success in the short 2020 season a fluke? Can this cadre of 2020 Cinderella Astros rookie pitchers be counted on to achieve at a competent major league level in the future?

The Rookies

First, who are they? In order of innings pitched in 2020 they are:

Christian Javier...54.1 IP.....3.48 ERA....4.94 FIP.....4.86 xFIP....2.94 xERA...5.33 ZiPS ERA

Jose Urquidy..... .29.2 IP.....2.73 ERA.....4.71 FIP.....5.36 xFIP....5.22 xERA...4.83 ZiPS ERA

Andre Scrubb.....23.2 IP......1.90 ERA....4.25 FIP.....5.25 xFIP....4.06 xERA...5.05 ZiPS ERA

Blake Taylor........ 20.2 IP......2.18 ERA.....4.55 FIP.....5.25 xFIP....2.99 xERA...4.76 ZiPS ERA

Enoli Paredes......20.2 IP......3.05 ERA.....3.63 FIP....4.58xFIP.....5.76 xERA...4.84 ZiPS ERA

Brooks Raley........16.0 IP......3.94 ERA.....3.94 FIP.....3.19 xFIP....3.11 xERA... 4.76 ZiPS ERA

So what can we expect from this group going forward? Was their 2020 success a fluke?

The numbers say yes, unfortunately.

The combined ERA for this group in 2020 was 2.95. However, the average of these players’ xFIPs is 4.74. Only Brooks Raley had a lower xFIP than ERA in this group, and only Raley and Cristian Javier had a lower xERA than actual ERA. Except for Raley, most of these pitchers had xFIPs more than two points higher than their ERAs, and in the cases of Andre Scrubb and Blake Taylor, more than three points higher than ERA.

What this means, obviously, is that these pitchers benefited from good luck in 2020.

Although I’m not a huge fan of pre-season projections, they are a better predictor of future performance than home team bias and/or pre-season hope-springs-eternal optimism. And ZiPS paints a pretty bleak picture for 2021.

The best of these pitchers is projected to have a 4.76 ERA in 2021, and projected fourth and fifth starters, Jose Urquidy and Javier, are projected to have a 4.83 and 5.33 ERA, respectively.

There’s hope

However, (reverting to hope-springs-eternal-optimism) this group far exceeded expectations in 2020, and maybe they will again in 2021. After all, they were mostly totally green rookies last year, pitching at a level way beyond their past experience. They are just beginning their major league journey, and even though they out-performed their peripherals last season, with another year of experience under their belt, their peripherals might improve more than projections predict.

In other words, these guys are still very early in their learning curves.

For Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, and especially Andre Scrubb, improving peripherals mainly means improving command and control. This quartet had a BB% of 8.4%, 12.2%, 13.8%, and 19.6% respectively. Yet Taylor was 32nd in MLB among pitchers with 20+ innings with a batting average against of .173. Scrubb was 44th at .183, and Javier 47th at 1.86. Paredes came in at a respectable .231. Let me throw in Raley here, 36th at .176. (Including Reds innings) This is out of 323 pitchers with more than 20 innings in 2020.

With rookie jitters out of the way, could these pitchers take a page out of Framber Valdez’ playbook and learn to pound the zone with greater confidence? Look what happened to him when he learned to throw strikes last season. Valdez has gone from the staff deuce to the staff ace.

Still, advanced analytics seem to suggest that these pitchers are only back-enders long-term on a major league staff. No wonder the Astros invested in relief pitchers this off-season: Javier Baez, Ryne Stanek, and perhaps Steve Cishek.

But hope springs eternal. I’m still rooting for the rookies. (They’re still rookies except for Javier, Urquidy, and Raley) They were the best story of 2020. And the successful contributions of most of these (especially Urquidy and Javier) are essential to the Astros’ success in 2021.

And who could root against a face like this?

But if they do falter, there are a few more rookie faces who could help in 2021; Luis Garcia, Bryan Abreu, dare I say, Forrest Whitley.

It’s fun to root for a veteran team with playoff hopes. It’s also fun to root for young Cinderellas who are still growing into their full potential. The Astros will give us a little of both this year, with any luck.