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Cristian Javier Is The Key For Game 3

Houston Astros v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Cristian Javier is the Astros’ Game 3 starting pitcher and their season may ride with how he pitches Tuesday. Well, not entirely as Game 4 is guaranteed to occur, regardless of the result of Game 3. But the complexion of this series varies greatly on what exactly transpires on Tuesday. For Houston, it hinges on which version of Javier shows up at Target Field.

The most prominent issue for the Astros this season was due to how much this pitching staff has regressed compared to 2022. Some of that regression was expected as last season’s staff was arguably the best in baseball, or at least second best, depending on your metric of choice. While an exact replication of last season’s results, at least to that level, was always unrealistic, I think it is fair to state that the pitching has regressed more than anticipated. Javier is in the middle of that conversation, with his performance in 2023 being the worst of his career up to this point.

It goes without saying, or writing in this case, that an effective Javier at least moderately enhances the Astros’ chances of winning Game 3 and possibly the series. If it was the 2022 version of Javier, then I would feel confident that we would actually see an effective version of the right-hander. The 2023 season version, however, doesn’t inspire much confidence. I mean, a pitcher with a 5.85 ERA and a 5.31 FIP since June 9 isn’t typically a starter in the postseason. A 10.6% swinging strike rate compared to a 13.8% rate in the season before. The fact that Javier is starting with generally poor results illustrates the overall situation within the starting rotation.

But there is a reason for hope, however fleeting it might prove. It didn’t feel like much at the time, but Javier has looked a bit more like his past self in his last four starts dating back to September 15. In spots, Javier has actually looked impressive, which isn’t something I have thought since May, or honestly most of the season.

20 2/3 IP (83 TBF), 3.05 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 32.5% K%, 9.6% BB%

It is one thing when a starter has positive results in only four starts, albeit in appearances that averaged only about five innings each. And, yes, one of those starts was against the Royals. Another was against a Diamondbacks lineup not at full strength following a postseason clinch the day before. But there were still two starts against two playoff-caliber clubs — Baltimore and Seattle — in between that left an impression. For as poorly as Javier pitched from essentially June through half of September, this development isn’t one to ignore.

If there was a number to fixate on within those four starts, it was that strikeout rate. In fact, if we take a look at swinging strike rates, Javier looks more like his prime self in these last four starts than he did for the majority of the season.

First 27 starts (3/31-9/9/23)
11.0% SwStr%

Last 4 starts (9/15-10/1/23)
14.3% SwStr%

30 games in 2022
13.8% SwStr%

Again, it is only four starts under different settings, but it is nonetheless a positive development.

For those interested, back in June, I wrote here about Javier’s release point, specifically mentioning VAA AA (Vertial Approach Angle Above Average). At the time I noted that Javier’s VAA AA was about 0.30 degrees, a stark contrast from his 0.55 degree measure in 2022. In other words, his four-seam fastball wasn’t nearly as flat as it was last season. To best optimize Javier’s deception with his release and the shape of his fastball, it requires a flatter approach than average to the plate compared to most of his contemporaries. Well, his VAA AA hasn’t improved by any large bounds this season as I initially hoped, but in his last four starts it does come in at 0.38 degrees. That’s an improvement, even if relatively minor compared to past seasons. Progress, right?

Game 3 represents a prime opportunity to confirm if Javier is indeed in a better spot than he was back in early September. With that said, I am still not completely sold if we’ll actually see an efficient Javier at Target Field. Spin rate, for example, remains down compared to last season, even in this four-start sample, and relatively unchanged compared to all his starts this year. Average four-seam velocity is basically the same compared to his other starts in 2023. The location has varied a bit, but, again, it is only four starts. If anything, he hasn’t thrown too many meatballs down the middle. But the recent results indicate that he has made some ground in the strikeout department. That’s an optimal development. Let’s see if that carries over against the Twins.