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Cristian Javier has a first-pitch strike problem

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve already written about Cristian Javier twice to varying degrees since the start of the 2021 season. The first of these occurred in the middle of May when I stressed the importance of location for his “invisiball,” while the second towards the end of the same month was lamenting Javier’s continued control issues. I am revisiting that well for a third time before the All-Star break. Not sure if that counts as laziness, but I’d like to think of Javier as one of the more fascinating pitchers —struggling or not — to write about on the Astros.

Today’s post will continue those earlier observations, which basically center around Javier’s control. Or lack thereof. We can look no further than a pitcher’s walk rate to obtain a general notion about their control.

Top Walk Rates for All Pitchers (60 IP Min)

Player IP BB% ERA FIP
Player IP BB% ERA FIP
John Gant 70.2 16.3% 3.57 5.11
Blake Snell 70.1 13.8% 4.99 4.34
Lance McCullers Jr. 72.2 12.7% 2.97 3.83
Shohei Ohtani 67.0 12.4% 3.49 3.58
Cristian Javier 69.0 12.2% 3.13 4.23

The names on this list are a bit surprising, but some pitchers are better than others at preventing runs due to various factors. In Javier’s case, his high strikeout rate (30.2 percent) helps negate that higher walk rate, which in turn lends itself to a higher left on base percentage (84.1 percent). With an ability to work himself out of troublesome situations, Javier has limited the damage against him. It is also why we see Javier’s FIP listed higher than his ERA by over a run. When the damage occurs, it is usually made worse due to his propensity to walk opposing hitters more often than some of his counterparts.

One reason behind this walk issue, I believe, is that Javier doesn’t throw enough first-pitch strikes. The result of that first pitch can alter the entire perception of a plate appearance for both a hitter and pitcher. For the pitcher, it is obviously better to have a 0-1 count than a 1-0 count. In Javier’s case, the first-pitch strike rate (45.3 percent) has been a bit of an issue since his debut last season; the league average first-pitch strike rate for all pitchers in 2021 is 60.3 percent. Javier has thrown a ball to lead off a plate appearance 148 times compared to throwing a strike 107 times in terms of raw numbers. That is a glaring issue, in my opinion.

Part of this issue does tie into what I wrote previously about his “invisiball,” which is his four-seam fastball, back in May. In short, his control over that pitch varies from game to game. It is also his typical default pitch (51.1 percent) when the count is 0-0. To help create the illusion of that “rise” on the pitch, he needs to throw it more in the upper portions of the strike zone. When it works, that four-seam looks like a piece of art. But when it misses, it can result in a ball putting Javier into an early hole to the hitter.

Four-seam when thrown in the strike zone in 0-0 counts

Four-seam when thrown out of the strike zone in 0-0 counts

The scary thought about Javier is his potential — as a starter or reliever — if he can ever control the strike zone more efficiently. While he can work himself out of jams now, there isn’t a guarantee that’ll occur every single time when the walks are piling up. It caps his ceiling, no matter the role. If he can refine the control of his four-seam further, it would possibly improve his first-pitch strike rate. If that were to occur, I think we can see Javier’s further evolve as the pitcher we all daydream about.