Outside of Zack Greinke, there arguably wasn’t a better starter for the Astros in the season’s first month than Cristian Javier. In his first 20 2⁄3 innings across four starts, the 24-year old only allowed two earned runs and posted a 32.9 percent strikeout rate. With an up-and-down performance from the rotation in general throughout April, Javier’s performance helped stabilize the staff when they needed someone to step up. That dominant showing also makes his random two-week gap between major league starts last month even more interesting.
But the month of May hasn’t been nearly as kind to Javier as the right-hander has surrendered 11 earned runs in only 17 1⁄3 innings in three starts. Strikeouts are trending down while walks are going up. Not a great combination for any pitcher. This rough stretch includes last night’s extra-inning mayhem affair against the Rangers. While his overall numbers (3.08 ERA/3.62 FIP) remain fine, recent performances have allowed some concern to creep in.
To be clear, the season remains young and Javier has only seven starts to his credit in 2021. He has only compiled 92 1⁄3 innings as a major league pitcher. There are bound to be hiccups along the way, especially for a pitcher who just turned 24 in late March. That said, we’re allowed to take a deeper look to see where his May issues are originating from and specifically what is happening to cause his performance to suffer.
Without digging too deep, we can easily see that the main difference between Javier's performance in April and May is the number of home runs allowed. In his first four starts, which cover 20 2⁄3 innings, he allowed zero home runs. In theory, that nice round number is something you’d like to see often from a pitcher. In his next three starts, however, Javier has allowed four home runs, which is tied for the major league lead in the month of May. Not an optimal development.
So, why the sudden spike in dingers allowed? Take a look at where Javier is throwing his pitches when he allows a base hit, including home runs.
Javier has allowed 23 base hits thus far in 2021 and 16 of those hits have occurred via a four-seam fastball. Or, in this case, his “invisiball.” As you may already know, the effectiveness of Javier’s fastball depends on how much backspin he can create. By adding backspin to it, he can cause a hitter to believe that his fastball is rising in the zone. Truly a work of art, in my opinion.
But what if his fastball doesn’t rise? Well, that is also where the home runs issues come into play. Take a look at where Javier threw this four-seamer to Cavan Biggio last weekend.
When Javier locates his four-seam fastball well, he generates plenty of swing-and-misses or the hitter simply gets under the pitch to hit into the air. But when he does throw it in the heart of the strike zone, hitters can square the offering up and do some damage. Again, look where Javier generally locates his four-seam normally.
See, the upper regions of the strike zone or just above it. That is where his four-seam fastball is most effective. But when we isolate the heatmap to show only base hits, that graphic looks different and we can see why location is key for a four-seam fastball that averages at 93 MPH.
In other words, if the backspin and location aren’t there, that “invisiball” is quite hittable. For Javier to turn it around, he must go back to locating his “invisiball” better than he has thus far into May. Nearly 70 percent of all his hits allowed in the early going have occurred when he throws a four-seam fastball. I have a feeling we can see a rebound closer to his April numbers if his command improves. Although the sample remains small, a 3.5 percent jump in walk rate between April and May alerts us to a command issue.