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Cristian Javier Has A Strikeout Problem Now

MLB: Houston Astros at Cleveland Guardians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When researching topics to write about for today’s post, I initially fixed my sights, again, on Cristian Javier. I haven’t made it a secret in the past that he is my favorite pitcher currently on the Astros. There arguably isn’t a more intriguing pitcher on the entire staff, other than perhaps Framber Valdez. The pitching lab, if one may call it that, built in Houston — first by Brent Strom then continued by the pitching coach wonder duo of Joshua Miller and Bill Murphy — has produced plenty of success stories in recent years. But Javier’s version might go down as one of the greatest hits from this franchise’s recent contention cycle.

Unfortunately, as with multiple Astros this season, regression has come for Javier. To some degree, anyway. The overall surface-level results indicate positive results — 80 23 IP, 2.90 ERA — and I am certainly not complaining. But there are indicators to monitor and could explain why Javier hasn’t been quite as good as last season. For my research, I initially concentrated on something I’ve been tracking for a couple of weeks now: Javier’s declining strikeout rate. I mean, there is something amiss here based on the below graph.

Of all pitchers who pitched at least 125 innings last season and 50 innings this season, Javier’s year-to-year strikeout decline of -9.4% is the largest in baseball. By this same criteria, Shane Bieber is second at -7.4%. For swinging strike rates, Javier’s year-to-year decline in this metric is in the top eight at -2.3%. Not a great development, especially for a pitcher also with the highest fly ball rate among qualified individuals in baseball at 54% and the lowest ground ball rate at 26.8%. To be fair, Javier also posted the lowest ground ball rate and highest fly ball rate among pitchers last season if you accordingly adjust the qualifier. But a declining strikeout rate — now 23.8% — in conjunction with his ground ball and fly ball rates does warrant some concern. With fewer strikeouts, Javier depends increasingly more on contact to generate outs and that contact is only on the ground a little over a quarter of the time. Thankfully, Javier does a decent job of limiting hard contact, although his barrel rate has trended in the wrong direction.

A saving grace for Javier this season is an area he had notable issues with not even two years ago, which is the number of free passes he issues. As the above graph illustrated a decline in his strikeout rate, Javier has continued to experience a walk rate decline, now at 5.9% after Thursday’s start against the Nationals. Using the same qualifier as earlier, Javier’s 3% decline in walk rate from last season to 2023 is the largest in baseball. By better limiting the number of runners on base, any contact Javier surrenders aren’t as dangerous as otherwise possible. This is somewhat reminiscent of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole back in 2019 when home runs were an issue for the duo, but limiting the traffic on the bases mitigated the damage. To Javier’s credit, home runs haven’t been an issue for him thus far, as his 7.4% HR/FB rate is among the lowest in baseball for qualified pitchers. But if the quality of contact against Javier improves from opposing hitters, it could lead to some issues in the future as long as his strikeout rate remains depressed.

The next question is why Javier’s strikeout and swinging strike rates are on the decline. This is where my research dictates a second post, in my opinion. I am tentatively planning for next week, preferably Monday. To be honest, I haven’t fully completed my homework on the topic I am writing about and I’d like to be as thorough as possible. Let’s just say it involves the “invisiball”, vertical release points, and other potential factors. Today’s post was more of an introduction, if you will, behind some numbers to watch. Next week will delve deeper than the usual strikeout and walk rates to identify the exact issue.