Much has been made of Cristian Javier’s struggles before the All-Star break and for good reason. Counted upon as the Astros’ best starter not named Framber Valdez, Javier’s performance is vital for the club’s fortunes in 2023. But his June performance — 5.79 ERA and 4.87 FIP in 23 1⁄3 innings — left many scratching their heads why the starter for two combined no-hitters last year appeared suddenly vulnerable. Hint: Velocity and release points.
Possibly due to fatigue, Javier’s four-seam velocity and its release point, specifically his vertical release point, subtly changed as the season progressed. As a pitcher who relies upon optimal delivery of his unique four-seam fastball, a higher vertical release point could have a negative effect. But in his first start since July 3 against the Angels following the All-Star break, Javier looked more like his old self, limiting Los Angeles to three runs in five innings while striking out seven. It was a step in the right direction for a pitcher who allowed 18 runs in his preceding 10 2⁄3 innings with only six strikeouts. While the Angels started the game clobbering the ball with notable exit velocities, Javier had a mid-game adjustment to his release point, which led to better results in his final three innings.
As such, I was curious to see how Javier would throw the ball in his start against the A’s on Saturday. It was subtle, but also reassuring to see how his vertical release point was relatively stable compared to June and his first start in July.
For a pitcher like Javier, any small deviation in how he releases the ball holds greater consequences than other hurlers. In this start, for example, Javier picked up 13 swings and misses. He had 12 swings and misses on July 16. He only had seven in his start against the Rangers on July 3. Ultimately, it was a refreshing sight to see his four-seam work more as it should against the A’s.
There’s the Cristian Javier that I remember. pic.twitter.com/PaxGHJaDAj— Astros Stats (@astro_numbers) July 23, 2023
Alas, Javier’s performance was the lone bright spot for the Astros against the A’s, even with issuing six walks. The lineup, in particular, was noticeably ineffective, minus Alex Bregman’s solo home run in the top of the sixth.
Bregman and José Abreu picked up two hits each, with Kyle Tucker and Grae Kessinger each having one hit on the evening. Only two extra-base hits for the entire game. Unfortunately, this lineup will continue to scuffle at times, especially without Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez. While I am not normally someone who stresses out about lineup construction on a game-by-game basis, it is apparent that Kessinger or Mauricio Dubón at leadoff with Jeremy Peña hitting second isn’t an optimal arrangement.
The bullpen also had its issues as well, with Phil Maton issuing two walks and allowing a hit that drove in the deciding run without recording an out. Ryne Stanek ran into some problems himself, surrendering a run in 1 1⁄3 innings. Joel Kuhnel allowed a run on three hits. Only Seth Martinez — on 6 pitches — didn’t allow a hit or walk in relief. Following a stretch where the Astros didn’t allow a run for fiving innings, the A’s scored in each of the remaining frames.
Unfortunately, the Astros didn’t capitalize as the Rangers also lost Saturday. With the calendar about to turn to August, Houston will eventually run out of chances to overtake Texas in the AL West. The upcoming stretch starting Monday against the Rangers and then the Rays could ultimately set the course about whether winning the division or a Wild Card spot is more realistic. A win Sunday against the A’s could help ease those concerns.