Does the Panic Battalion have a point — or is it just another slow April start for these Houston Astros?
Everything is not always as it seems, and maybe it’s not as bad as we think it is for some of our slower starters. On the other hand, maybe the best we’ve seen isn’t as good as we thought. Today we’re looking at Houston’s five starters through the first 20 Houston Astros games. I’ve sorted by average GameScore, but you can take this “ranking” with a grain of salt. As always, a story of this sort at this point in the season requires a SSS disclaimer. While four starts have significance, an entire season is a much more significant LSS.
Framber Valdez (59.5)
After five shutout innings on Opening Day, Framber has quietly Frambered along with three Quality Starts and a host of stranded runners. That’s not to say he’s in full Framber mode just yet — Houston has managed just a 1-3 record backing him up, with an average of two runs scored in the games they lose in his starts. They backed him with eight runs in the win, an April 10th, 8-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Looking at Valdez’s Statcast numbers, the only pitch f/x metric in which he’s somewhat elite has been the spin rate on his curveball (88th percentile). His strikeout and walk rates are ever-so-slightly better than last season (24.5-to-23.5 and 7.8-to-8.1, respectively), while he continues to induce negative launch angles (minus-1.6) due to his sinker usage (54.4 percent).
The elite spin rate on Valdez’s curveball is overwhelmingly his best “out” pitch, with a whiff rate of 51.4 percent, while the putaway rate on his changeup sits at a comforting 38.5 percent.
In short, Valdez appears to be unfazed by his start, despite a history of occasionally “losing” it, whatever “it” is. Martin Maldonado has the magic to nearly always settle Valdez down. Valdez’s position of de facto staff ace remains, although Brown and Cristian Javier also seem to be ready-made ace potential pitchers. That’s not to mention the reinforcements that may become available shortly (more on them later).
Hunter Brown (55.0)
After last night’s victory against the mighty Atlanta Braves, the Astros are 3-1 in Brown’s starts. Brown himself has a 2-0 record and a 3.09 ERA. Going back to last season, Brown has yet to be penalized with a major league loss, sitting at 4-0 for his career. Still considered Houston’s number-one prospect, Brown is about to lose that status with another 6 1⁄3 innings pitched.
Unlike other Houston starters, Brown relies in near equal numbers on three pitches, a 96 MPH four-seam fastball, an 92 MPH slider, and a curveball that has an imposing .154 XSLG. Brown’s four-seam velocity is his only savant metric in MLB’s top 20 percent, at the 87th percentile.
The secret sauce in Brown’s curveball is its elite vertical movement. With 53.3 inches of drop, it’s 5.3 inches greater than the “average” major league curveball. This is a good thing, and not just because that kind of movement is wizardly. Opponents are seeing Brown’s fastball much better than they did in his 23 1⁄3 inning introduction to the majors in 2022. His four-seamer (.246 XWOBA last year to .302 this season) has come to be much more hittable.
Nonetheless, Brown’s results have been tied as much to his intangible qualities as to his on-field performance. Last night’s game, in particular, showed a lot of gumption. After surrendering four runs in the first inning, he buckled down and saved the bullpen from a very long night by lasting into the fifth inning without incurring further damage.
I stated a while ago that Brown is an ace-in-waiting, and he’s got that Bumgarner attitude without that Scherzer crazy. Brown is not Justin Verlander, regardless of the similarities in their delivery, but Brown is well on his way to a long and successful major league career.
Cristian Javier (53.8)
In backing Javier, the Astros have done the 26-year-old invisiballer a service by scoring 6.8 runs per his starts. This has resulted in a team-record of 3-1 and a 2-0 mark for Javier. Underneath those base stats, things aren’t as rosy as they’ve been in seasons past.
Javier’s 3.68 ERA seems a little high for him, but with a 4.06 FIP, it’s impossible to deny. Javier is also allowing opponents to slash .247/.286/.424 along with holding them to 1.136 WHIP in the balance. He’s struck out only 19, but on the bright side, has also issued only four walks. Stack up those numbers against Javier’s .170/.252/.305 slashline, his 0.948 WHIP, and his 11.7 K/9 from 2022, and you may start getting the picture.
Some of this is just simple regression, as Javier had an otherworldly season as “The Most Unhittable Pitcher in Baseball,” but is there really nothing to worry about? Statcast says there may be a problem. He’s pitching to an xERA of 5.30, a K percentage 40 percent lower than last season, and an XSLG of .529, more than double last season’s mark of .264.
Javier’s newfound fallibility may be traced to his patented four-seamer, which was mostly unhittable at times last season. This year, he’s lost an inch off both his horizontal and vertical movement on the offering, which has all of a sudden turned into his worst pitch (.580 XSLG).
Is it time to panic? Probably not. Javier didn’t hit his stride until later in the year last season, when he put up numbers that nobody has ever seen before. Let me remind you that including the playoffs, Javier allowed 11 walks and seven hits with 43 K’s in 34 1/3 innings through his final six starts. That’s a stretch of over a month with a 0.495 WHIP. I’m not suggesting he’s resting on his laurels, but I am suggesting that maybe we give him a minute. The man has ice water in his veins.
Luis Garcia (49.8)
Garcia didn’t have much to show for his troubles after his first three starts of the season. Houston was 0-3 and Garcia was marked for two of those, along with a ghastly 7.71 ERA and an equally troubling 1.857 WHIP. With career marks in those two metrics of 3.57 and 1.148, respectively, Astros’ faithful had come to expect better from ol’ three-step.
Garcia’s fourth start, however, produced the highest GameScore of his four-season old MLB career. He finished with a mark of 81 after he struck out nine over seven shutout, two-hit innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, surrendering only one walk and putting 19-of-22 initial offerings over the plate — an 86.4 percent first-pitch strike rate.
But Garcia isn’t just the good or just the bad, he’s a sum of the parts. What the overall metrics show is that he’s in the top 20 percent of the majors in whiff percentage, fastball spin, and chase rate. His fastball velocity is very close to the bottom of baseball, with a 92.8 MPH average grading him in the sixth percentile, but the importance of having elite overall velocity has diminished as every pitcher in the majors can touch 90 now.
Garcia’s pitch selection per season bear out that he’s slowly used less of the four-seamer in favor of his cutter, to such an extent that he now relies on his cut fastball more than any other pitch (41.9 percent). This is a good thing, as his whiff percentage of 47.2 percent make it overwhelmingly his best pitch. That effectiveness has not diminished with increased usage either. In fact, it’s increased. In 2022, when he used it 29.5 percent of the time it had a whiff percentage of 42.8.
We can’t dismiss Garcia’s first three starts entirely, but his career marks bear out that he’s only getting better in the long run. That’s also a good thing, as he’s only 26-years-old.
José Urquidy (49.3)
Urquidy has a win and a loss, to go with a 2-2 overall Houston record in his starts. He has GameScores of 67, 55 40, and 35. On average, he’s allowed more hits and more walks in his four starts than he did in his starts last season, by factors of 10.5-to-8.4 and 3.2-to-2.1, respectively. That’s led to a 1.525 WHIP, a far cry from his career WHIP of 1.091.
Is there something changed in Urquidy’s delivery that has precipitated this imbalance? His chase rate (88 percentile) and average exit velocity (94th percentile — 83.9 MPH) are still in the upper echelon of pitchers in those metrics, respectively. The rest of his percentile rankings are neither good nor bad, mostly grading in the middle third of MLB pitchers.
Unlike in seasons past, Urquidy is more reliant on pitch-mix than other starters on Houston’s roster, with no pitch used more than 30.8 percent (four-seamer). He also uses the sweeper (23.6), a change (17.4), a curve (16.0), and a sinker (12.3). This is a marked contrast to seasons past, in which he has used his four-seamer well above 50 percent of the time. His year-over-year marks on the offering are essentially unchanged, which indicates to me, at least in part, that some of his ineffectiveness has to do with an overreliance on pitch selection.
Another part of Urquidy’s rocky start may be in his use of the sinker. He has not used a sinker in the past, and it’s easily his worst pitch — evidenced by a .378 xBA on the offering. His four-seamer, btw, has a .317 xBA, hardly elite by any measure. In contrast, his sweeper/changeup/curveball combo boasts a combined xBA of .156. It’s pretty clear which pitches he should be leaning on.
Urquidy’s historic success, along with his still-just-27-year-old arm, should give Astros fans well-deserved hope for regression toward his career figures.
Invariably, there’s a problem with injuries. It’s to be expected of the modern major league pitcher who exercises so much torque with each offering. I’m surprised we don’t see even more injuries. That being said, Houston has a fallback plan that includes the return of Lance McCullers Jr.
Although McCullers has been injured often through his seven major league seasons, he’s always shown pretty good stuff. Still, the only campaign in which he’s shouldered the load in every fifth game remains the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, when he started 11 games. It’s expected that he begins a rehab assignment at some point in the near future.
Forrest Whitley is a name that’s been tossed about for a pretty long time now. Houston’s first-round pick in 2016, Whitley has struggled to stay healthy for an entire season. When he has been healthy, he’s not pitched to his pedigree. In 73 minor league games, including 59 starts, he’s racked up a 4.97 ERA and a 1.366 WHIP. Good enough? Maybe for Oakland.
This season, Whitley has been pretty good in a small sample size, leading to a few game thread comments touting his “potential,” but I’m in more of the “wait-and-see” school of thought on him.
But it’s not yet time for Whitley, and McCullers still has — at minimum — three weeks before we may start to expect his arrival back in the rotation. When he does get the green light, who will be the odd man out? Can Urquidy fix his sinker? Can Garcia stay the course he set earlier this week? Is McCullers himself the odd man out?
In closing, although Houston is unlikely still a 106-win team, they’re for sure a 90+ win team, maybe a 100+ win team, and a near slam-dunk to clinch a playoff berth. We all know that once you get there — anything can happen. Thanks for reading.