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The Rotation Has Taken A Step (Or Two) Backwards

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The past month hasn’t been kind to the Astros’ starting staff.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Say if I approached a random baseball fan on the street and asked them for the first thought that pops to mind when thinking about the Astros’ rotation, I’d probably receive a comment or three about buzzers and trash cans. Following a courtesy chuckle and perhaps a quick reminder that this was about the pitching staff, I might get a response about “sticky stuff.” In one attempt later, I may actually receive an honest response like “they’re alright” or “adequate.” Or “solid enough, but unspectacular.” On paper — and by the numbers — that kind of response fits this staff fairly well.

We’ve all known for a while that Houston’s offensive production wasn’t likely to be an issue this season, and it ultimately hasn’t with a Major League-leading 119 wRC+ through August 4. The question mark was all about the pitching staff and how it would hold up across a full season. Of course, the bullpen recently experienced a makeover of sorts to help bolster this team’s chances in October. The starting rotation has roughly remained the same for the most part, with various absences sprinkled around. However, the results have been mixed, especially as of the previous five weeks or so.

  • April - 133 IP, 3.65 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 23.8% K, 7.7% BB, 2.5 fWAR
  • May - 153 23 IP, 3.34 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 25.4% K, 8.5% BB, 1.9 fWAR
  • June - 159 IP, 3.11 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 22.3% K, 6.6% BB, 3.3 fWAR
  • July - 131 23 IP, 3.96 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 23.9% K, 9.8% BB, 1.4 fWAR
  • August - 14 1⁄3 IP, 6.91 ERA, 7.42 FIP, 27.1% K, 10.0% BB, -0.2 fWAR

When you add all of these months together, you find that the Astros are right outside of the top-ten starting staffs in terms of fWAR (t-11th), FIP (13th), and strikeout rate (t-14th), but sixth in overall ERA. It kind of fits the “solid enough, but unspectacular” description earlier, right?

As demonstrated for most of the season, the floor for this group is higher than most starting staffs in baseball. Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and Jake Odorizzi are average to above-average pitchers. That said, the past month has not gone according to plan for this rotation. The numbers following the All-Star break have lacked a certain appeal and make one think twice about the state of the rotation.

  • 103 IP, 4.63 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 24.1% K, 9.8% BB, 0.2 fWAR

Of course, we’re dealing with a smaller sample here as the All-Star break wasn’t that long ago. Plus, this rotation has had stretches when they will pitch quite well then follow it up with some stinkers. I think we’re currently in the latter stage of the cycle right now. But there are a few numbers to monitor with this staff until the production starts to turn around. For one, Valdez’s increasing walk rate probably deserves more attention. In his last four starts (21 13 innings), the southpaw has walked 17 batters, which gives him a 17.2 percent walk rate. For additional context, he has a 19.2 percent strikeout rate during that same stretch of time. While his 3.38 ERA looks good, his 5.88 FIP takes some of that luster off, as it indicates that Valdez has not pitched all that well. This is a small sample, yes, but his overall strikeout and walk rates this season have both trended in the wrong direction.

Greinke is another starter whose ERA (3.72) has looked much better than his FIP (7.41). But it corresponds with the trend that the veteran right-hander has established this season with a earned run average — 3.65 — nearly a full run than his fielding independent pitching — 4.56. In my opinion, something that bears monitoring, as is the case with both Odorizzi and Luis Garcia, who have looked incredibly vulnerable in recent starts. The latter, however, has pitched better — 2.13 xFIP — than his ERA — 5.87 — would otherwise suggest. Garcia’s strikeout and walk figures during this time remain impressive as ever. But with the former, let’s hope they sort out some of those mechanics sooner rather than later.

The immediate hope for this staff is for McCullers Jr. to continue to pitch as well as he has recently shown. Also, this staff needs a healthy Urquidy to return and make an impact. With at least two or three starters struggling to various degrees right now, his return will help solidify a staff that has now taken a step or two backward from where they were earlier this season. Thankfully, the Astros still have some time on their side to adjust, but that time is finite.