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Even without Verlander, the Astros’ rotation is good and deep

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Astros starting pitchers may not be able to fly below radar for much longer.

American League Championship Series Game 3: Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Removing Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander from a rotation is an utterly crippling notion. It was for the Astros at the outset of the 2020 season, but it became somewhat of an afterthought at its conclusion. The Astros’ starting pitchers performed exceptionally well last year and now, in spite of Verlander’s continued absence, seem primed to again be one of baseball’s better rotations.

Recently, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris updated his starting pitcher rankings ($).

The ranking criteria employed by Sarris is a mixture of QOS+ (quality of stuff), Command+ and IL% (injury list). The first two metrics are self-explanatory conceptually but are unavailable to the public. Nevertheless, they are trusted to be comprehensive and accurate. IL%, which predicts/projects players’ health outcomes, is based on research that can be read about here and here.

Of the 203 starting pitchers ranked by Sarris, only 2 teams placed 5 in the top 60 — the San Diego Padres and the Astros.

José Urquidy, 29th

Urquidy’s ranking could be a surprise to many, but as I explained in a recent piece, Urquidy has the traits of an upper-echelon starter. He just needs to translate it all into tangible production, and with a (hopefully) full season drawing near, the opportunity is there.

Framber Valdez, 30th

Valdez’s control improved markedly in 2020, but his command was slightly below-average according to Command+. What compensates for Valdez’s subpar command is his stuff, and though he lacks a truly viable third pitch, he’s the owner of what could be the game’s best curveball. Generating an extremely high number of ground balls helps too.

Lance McCullers Jr., 32nd

In terms of stuff and command, McCullers’ grades are similar to Valdez’s. McCullers’ repertoire is significantly more diverse, however, and a new cutter that he featured in last year’s playoffs figures to be more than just a show-me pitch in 2021. Maintaining proficient control and acceptable command is paramount for McCullers.

Zack Greinke, 39th

Unsurprisingly, Command+ rates Greinke’s as excellent. Though his fastball velocity is totally gone, Greinke’s changeup was one of baseball’s best in 2020, and is a big reason why his overall stuff grades out above-average.

Cristian Javier, 60th

Of all five Astros starters, Javier’s ranking and grades are the most fascinating, and thus warrant an abbreviated deep dive.

Command+ is not kind to Javier and that’s no surprise, but what is eye-catching is his QOS+ grade, which is the second-highest on the staff behind Urquidy. Javier does not have a wide array of pitches, as he threw his four-seam fastball and slider last year nearly 90% of the time combined. Having said that, there is a lot to like about his arsenal when thoroughly examined.

First and foremost, Javier’s fastball has a great profile. Its velocity is middling but it’s got solid spin and possesses terrific vertical movement. Additionally, Javier’s Vertical Approach Angle complements the pitch’s vertical movement seamlessly. Because Javier’s arm slot is lower than most — per VAA — it creates more of the coveted rising effect on his four-seam fastball, and that’s without accounting for the pitch’s quality vertical movement. Of course, adequate command is needed to optimize results, but its potential is apparent.

Javier’s slider needs no analysis. It was statistically one of the league’s best in 2020, and could be largely responsible for Javier’s favorable QOS+ grade.

Beyond his two primary pitches, Javier sparingly threw a changeup and a curveball, and while the former received more attention — it was supposed to be Javier’s equalizer against left-handed hitters — the latter is arguably of more interest.

According to Statcast, the spin rate on Javier’s hook is 84th percentile. It already has decent drop despite a mediocre active spin rate, meaning there’s a substantial amount of movement that can be added to the pitch if fine-tuned.

In addition, spin mirroring data shows that Javier’s curveball looks similar to his slider out of his hand. Both pitches have roughly the same velocity and horizontal movement, but the drop on each pitch differs significantly. This could befuddle hitters if competent command is developed, but doing so will require Javier to throw his curveball more often — he threw it only 38 times in 2020.

TL;DR version

In a vacuum, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect regression from a pitcher like Javier, or from the Astros’ rotation as a whole. They weren’t expected to make an impact last year, but considering that they did so in seemingly legitimate fashion, it is realistic to think — and perhaps even expect — that they’ll replicate 2020’s impressive showing.