Looking for something to write about on a lazy Daytona 500 Sunday, I delved into the Crawfish Boxes’ archives.
In an article published 17+ years ago, TCB founder rastronomicals, with some help from former contributor Bill Gilbert, used Bill James’ GameScore to sort out the contenders from the pretenders in Houston’s rotation. The big winner in nearly every category that season was Roger Clemens, with an average of 63.5. The club wasn’t always great at backing him up, going 15-17 in games that he started. For context, they were 74-57 in games he didn’t start.
Quality Starts have long been defined to mean any game in which the starting pitcher lasts at least six innings and allows three or fewer runs. I’ve redefined the stat for my purposes by setting the bar for a QS at a GS of 50. Additionally, a “hard-luck loss” is one where the starter is the losing pitcher of record despite a GS of at least 50, while a “cheap-win” is one where they earn a win despite a GS of 49 or lower.
The 2022 campaign didn’t lack for heroics from any part of Houston’s roster, finding efforts from all 26 roster spots as needed to take home the franchise’s second World Series Championship. For this thought exercise, however, we’re focusing on the 162 regular season and 13 postseason starts, featuring eight pitchers.
By raw GameScore, the best pitcher on the Astros using this metric was Hunter Brown, with an average GS of 64. That’s hardly fair, however, as that average is comprised of exactly two late-season starts. Starts that Brown won quite handily, but nonetheless too small a sample size by which to judge a pitcher’s talent against his rotation mates.
The 2022 American League Cy Young Award winner was Houston’s best pitcher with more than two starts. Justin Verlander averaged 62.7 through his 32 starts, along with two hard-luck losses and an 88 percent QS-rate. Verlander’s 2022 campaign was doubly remarkable when you realize he did it straight off Tommy John Surgery. Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.
Just inches behind Verlander on the GS scale is incoming Cy Young Award candidate Cristian Javier, who clocked in with an average GameScore of 61.9 through 27 starts. His GS was boosted by two staggeringly good postseason starts during which he allowed zero runs on one hit over 11 1⁄3 innings. He struck out 14 and was the winning starter in the Game Four World Series combined no-hitter (his second combined no-no of the season for good measure). Javier had both the Astros best (89) and worst (19) GameScores of the season. He also led the team with four “tough-luck” losses.
Fellow incoming Cy Young Award candidate Framber Valdez was just a bit behind Javier, at a score of 59.9 and also with four “tough-luck” losses. Valdez made headlines earlier in the season with 25 consecutive Quality Starts, topping new AL West alum Jacob DeGrom’s two-year old record. By my count, Valdez led the Astros with 30 QS in total, but he leads the world in our hearts.
With a 7-4 record in his starts, the Astros supported Lance McCullers Jr.’s efforts about the same as they did everyone else’s. McCullers pitched to a 56.5 average GS, with no cheap wins and one tough loss to his credit. Both his highest and lowest GameScore’s of the season happened in the postseason. With McCullers already injured before the start of Spring Training, it’s possible that last season’s six-man rotation is no longer an option. Really though, all the evidence was stacked against a six-man going into 2023, especially when Dusty Baker mentioned Brown having every shot at making the “five-man rotation” at a presser a few days ago.
With a QS in just 57 percent of his starts, Luis Garcia brought up the rear of Houston’s eight pitchers. The club did go 19-9 when he was on the hill, for a .679 winning percentage second to that only of Verlander’s .719. Still, Garcia is a solid number-three starter in most organizations. Although his highest GS was only 74 (the lowest “high” GS of the top five starters), his lowest was 37, the highest of those same five, and he averaged 55. Garcia’s results were the “middlest” of the starters. His five “cheap wins” were one more than the rest of the team combined. He also suffered three tough losses.
José Urquidy’s 53 average GameScore topped only Jake Odorizzi’s 52 out of Houston’s starters. That being said, maybe it’s too easy to forget that the MLB “average” GameScore is right around 50. By definition, every one of Houston’s starters were “above average.” Urquidy benefitted from three cheap wins but also suffered a pair of tough losses while Houston went 17-11 in his starts.
Odorizzi, since traded to the Atlanta Braves before landing in the Texas Rangers rotation for 2023, was the worst of a lot of better-than-average options. Houston’s 7-5 record in his start completed the feat of all eight starters finishing the regular season at least two games above .500. In spite of Odorizzi getting some flak around these parts, he was still a pitcher that could produce at a clip better than at least half of major league pitchers.
Going forward, Houston has lost Odorizzi and Verlander, and now McCullers isn’t a slam dunk for the Opening Day rotation. That leaves, by my estimation, a rotation of Javier, Valdez, Brown, Urquidy, and Garcia. That’s a rotation that ZiPS projects to amass a combined 53-34 through 116 starts through the 2023 season, a .609 winning percentage. Still though, pitchers wins is about the least reliable harbinger of success, less so even projected wins.
To answer the question posed in the title of this article, it could be any of those five, but I give Javier, Valdez, & Brown the edge. My heart says El Reptile is definitely Houston’s ace, but how can you put Framber behind anyone? It’s a good problem to have, and Brown has a lot to prove before he can be regarded as an “ace,” let along a worthy successor to Verlander. That’s why they play the game, right? Thanks for reading.