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Some Thoughts About Cristian Javier Heading Into Game 3

Championship Series - Texas Rangers v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Considering how only one club has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series in MLB history, the Astros are looking at a near must-win for Game 3. I mean, it isn’t mathematically impossible to still win the ALCS down three games to zero, but the odds of it happening are extremely low. According to FanGraphs, the Astros now only have a 20.8% chance of winning the ALCS trailing 2-0.

So, Game 3 is a big deal to the Astros and the outcome perhaps largely hinges on which version of Cristian Javier is present. Following a breakout 2022 — 2.54 ERA in 148 23 innings — the right-hander has seen his performance regress, even more so than initially expected. The summer months, in particular, were tumultuous for Javier, posting a 5.92 ERA in his last 79 innings for the season due primarily to a decline in velocity and pitch shape changes related to his release point, specifically on the vertical plane. Ultimately, we watched Javier struggle with generating the same rate of swing-and-misses, with his strikeout plummeting by roughly 10%. Opposing hitters teed off on his four-seam fastball, slashing .236/.314/.455 compared to .183/.285/.326 the season before.

With that said, Javier’s performance in his last four starts to close out the season was much more encouraging — 3.05 ERA in 20 23 innings — than what we watched from basically late June onwards. Strikeouts were up again. His pitches looked a bit more crisp, although his release point issues didn’t completely subside. In other words, Javier wasn’t “fixed” that late in the season, but the improvement was enough to bring his performance from generally abysmal to respectable with, at least from me, a more moderate level of heartburn during his starts.

That late-season improvement also carried over into his postseason start against the Twins in the ALDS, limiting the AL Central winners to one hit and zero runs across five innings. He also struck out nine and had 19 whiffs. The key caveat with Javier’s performance, however, was the number of free passes he allowed, issuing five walks in total. His slider was noticeably more effective, though, picking up 13 whiffs by itself.

Again, control was a bit of an issue for Javier during that start, as evidenced by the pitch chart above. The Twins, ultimately, were unable to convert on those walks. But could the Rangers convert on those opportunities, especially if Javier’s control is leaking enough? Quite possibly considering the outright depth of their lineup, with seemingly few holes to exploit. Whereas Minnesota led the league in strikeouts during the season, Texas was more middle of the pack in this regard. Against the former, Javier was able to prevent those walks from haunting him partially due to their swing tendencies. Against the latter, however, I am less confident.

My biggest concern of all is if that “invisiball” misses its intended target. With a fastball that largely hinges on the deception of its release and location to be successful, it doesn’t take much for that pitch to become quite hittable. We saw what happened this season when that deception wasn’t present and Javier wasn’t able to fully adjust. He thrives on generating strikes — called or swinging — from that high fastball in the zone, with opposing hitters unable to catch up to it. Not due to overwhelming velocity, mind you, but to how “flat” it appears when approaching the plate.

If his four-seam is even somewhat effective, it opens the door for that biting slider. When both of those pitches are on point, he is nearly unhittable for stretches. While the Astros could survive Game 3 and this ALCS without the unhittable version of Javier, they at least need something more akin to the past month or so worth of starts compared to most of 2023. If not, well, the odds don’t look promising.