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That Time Cristian Javier Adjusted to Ronald Acuña Jr.

Breaking down one of my favorite set of moments from the Astros’ hurler in 2022.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Off the top of my head, I have probably written more about Cristian Javier than any other pitcher on the Astros during the past three seasons. Four total? Perhaps five times? I don’t recall the exact number, but I feel like that is reasonably within the ballpark. While I could confirm this estimate of mine, I honestly don’t want to go through the trouble for something so trivial. There are better ways to spend my time, such as writing about Javier for possibly up to the sixth time since 2020.

It is fair to assume based on the opening paragraph that Javier is my favorite pitcher on the Astros. And you would be correct. While the likes of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, and Lance McCullers Jr. have usually dominated the pitching discussion in Houston in recent seasons, at least as it pertains to the starting rotation, Javier, to me, was arguably the most intriguing. Despite the lack of overpowering velocity — his four-seam fastball was only in the 55th percentile in 2022 — the 25-year-old hurler flourished in a primarily starting capacity with a 2.54 ERA and 33.2% strikeout rate in 148 23 innings this year.

It isn’t only the results which capture my attention with Javier. It is also how he pitches and has evolved in the past couple of seasons. For example, his control, or lack thereof, in previous campaigns was a sticking point and would lead to the occasional clunker of an outing. But the overall improvement in this aspect of his game, especially with his infamous invisiball, allowed him to make huge strides in his development and become a more dependable pitcher in the process.

I was also impressed at various points by how well Javier would adjust in the middle of one his appearances. It is no secret that Javier’s four-seam fastball, otherwise known as the invisiball, is quite deceptive due to his low three-quarters arm slot and how he generates plenty of backspin to create a rising appearance as the ball travels to fool opposing hitters. But as for any pitch with enough repeated exposure, it isn’t impossible for those same hitters to start figuring out his fastball to some degree following a plate appearance or two. Ronald Acuña Jr. did exactly that in Javier’s only appearance against the Braves this season, which occurred on August 20 in Atlanta. Below is the breakdown of pitches seen by Acuña in his three plate appearances — 15 pitches — against Javier nearly four months ago. Look at how the pitch distribution changes against the star outfielder as the game progresses.

1st Plate Appearance

  • Four-seam fastball; ball (1-0)
  • Four-seam fastball; ball (2-0)
  • Four-seam fastball; called strike (2-1)
  • Four-seam fastball; foul (2-2)
  • Four-seam fastball; ball (3-2)
  • Four-seam fastball; called strike (3-3)

2nd Plate Appearance

  • Curveball; ball (1-0)
  • Four-seam fastball; swinging strike (1-1)
  • Four-seam fastball; foul (1-2)
  • Curveball; ball (2-2)
  • Four-seam fastball; fly out to center field

3rd Plate Appearance

  • Slider; foul (0-1)
  • Curveball; called strike (0-2)
  • Curveball; ball (1-2)
  • Curveball; called strike (1-3)

Javier’s initial gameplan against Acuña — four-seams galore — evolved in each subsequent plate appearance. By the third and final plate appearance, Javier had completely ditched his four-seam fastball, with a breaking ball approach led by his curveball. It is interesting to note that Javier threw only one slider to Acuña, which occurred in that third plate appearance, in a start that saw him throw it nearly 40% of the time, incidentally close to his 2022 average against right-handed hitters in general. For good reason, I might add, because the Braves’ slugger posted a respectable .355 wOBA against the offering on the season. While Acuña outperformed his expected batted ball metrics against sliders (.325 xwOBA), Javier and catcher Christian Vázquez probably felt better about leaning on his curveball in this particular matchup as his secondary offering, especially if the Braves’ star was becoming more comfortable against his four-seam.

It is also worth noting that while Acuña ultimately underperformed against four-seam fastballs this year (.321 wOBA, .397 xwOBA), pitchers have to make adjustments in real time based on what the hitter was doing in real time. I think the pitch sequence in the third plate appearance was influenced directly by how the second one ended, when Acuña just missed hitting out a four-seam that didn’t “rise” quite enough in the strike zone out of the park. Based on Javier’s body language at the moment of contact, he thought it was possibly gone and I would’ve too considering the opponent.

As you might have deduced from the breakdown above, Javier made quick work of Acuña primarily with his curveball in that final appearance as he completely stayed away from the four-seam, which isn’t something you’d necessarily expect from the Astros’ hurler. After all, Javier only threw his curveball 20 times this season against right-handed hitters. The plan against Acuña by the fifth inning wasn’t an obvious one.

Ultimately, the end result that day was quite encouraging for Javier — 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 SO — but it possibly doesn’t happen quite as efficiently if he wasn’t willing to adjust when the moment dictates as he did against Acuña. But seeing him make the necessary adjustments mid-game against one of the game’s best hitters was a positive development in a season full of them for him. While Vázquez deserves some credit based on how he was calling the game, it is up to Javier to make the pitches work and he did to great effect.