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Pitching Woes Abound in the Starting Rotation

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

If there was a theme to last season’s Astros, it was their incredible run prevention. Sure, the lineup did its thing, posting a 112 wRC+, the sixth-best mark in baseball. But the story revolved around the pitching staff and the defense behind it. After all, no team received more value from their pitchers (27 fWAR) than Houston, with only the Dodgers posting a lower cumulative ERA. By FIP, the Astros were better by 0.15 runs than the second-place Giants, who were closer to the sixth-placed Yankees in this metric.

In terms of the starting rotation, the Astros were only second to the Dodgers in ERA and the Giants in FIP. The staff threw the most innings in baseball last year (950) and still maintained a top-three strikeout rate (24.8%). In terms of value, much like the staff as a whole, the rotation was worth the most wins with a 19.4 fWAR. Ironically, the Phillies, last season’s NL champion, were second with 17.5 wins. Interesting how that worked out in retrospect.

For the first couple of months this season, the script was roughly the same. Regression was expected and it did occur, with a 3.31 ERA and 3.94 FIP through June 14 for the rotation. Not shocking when you consider Justin Verlander, the 2022 AL Cy Young winner, was pitching for the Mets at the time, and the club also lost Luis Garcia and José Urquidy to injuries. Throw in the absence of Lance McCullers Jr. and an increasingly ineffective Cristian Javier and it wasn’t a shock to see those numbers dip a bit. But in the grand scheme, the Astros still had a top-five pitching staff by fWAR, top-two by ERA, and top-six by strikeout rate.

That said, there were red flags about the rotation entering mid-June. For one, it is a heavy ask for a trio of relatively inexperienced arms — Hunter Brown, J.P. France, and Ronel Blanco — to carry a sizeable load. While Brown dazzled in his brief debut last season, he remains an inconsistent rookie who is already near his inning total from 2022. France has pitched well above expectations, but much like Brown, his innings total is a potential point of concern. Blanco and Brandon Bielak held down the fort as much as possible, but even their results ebbed and flowed.

The prevailing thought entering August, especially with Verlander reacquired from New York at the trade deadline, was that the rotation would stabilize a bit. It also helped that Urquidy came back to provide another arm and affords more flexibility in managing Brown and France’s respective workloads. However, this part of the plan assumed that the top guys — Verlander, Valdez, and, to some extent, Javier — would at least provide decent results on a consistent basis. We all know that Javier is less effective for some reason or another, but Verlander and Valdez, on paper, are a strong one-two atop of the rotation. Alas, the returns since June 15 before Verlander’s return have not been great on the whole and the Astros are struggling even more as a result, specifically as it pertains to Valdez and Javier.

Starting Rotation Woes, Since June 15

J.P. France 10 64 15.9% 5.0% 2.39 3.66 4.52 1.32
Framber Valdez 10 63.2 21.8% 6.8% 5.37 4.48 3.93 0.71
Hunter Brown 10 50.2 26.1% 6.2% 6.39 5.02 3.50 0.25
Cristian Javier 10 47.2 17.7% 10.7% 6.61 6.16 6.47 -0.12
Brandon Bielak 6 32 17.6% 12.7% 3.38 4.89 5.16 0.20
Ronel Blanco 5 26.2 22.7% 12.7% 5.40 6.98 5.24 -0.36
Justin Verlander 3 18 16.5% 5.1% 4.50 3.93 5.23 0.45
José Urquidy 2 8.1 23.5% 8.8% 6.48 3.99 4.20 0.17
Shawn Dubin 1 4 17.6% 11.8% 2.25 4.02 6.07 0.06

For a defending World Series champion, it isn’t a great look when a rookie has led the way this summer in not only innings pitched, but his overall numbers. I mean, all the credit in the world to France, who continues to defy his peripherals to a certain extent. I am fan of his performance, no doubt. However, the Astros need more from their best arms. Valdez’s recent implosion — his recent no-hitter against Cleveland not withstanding — is the most troubling aspect. I’ve mostly given up hope that Javier can figure out his issues by the season’s end. But if Houston wants to qualify for the postseason, and make a deep run, they’ll need Valdez to rebound. While Verlander provides an ace-level history, he isn’t the same pitcher as he was last season. Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. While he is integral to what the Astros want to do, Valdez is arguably more important at this juncture of their respective careers.

Sine June 15, the Astros’ rotation has become increasingly mortal. A 4.86 ERA, 4.86 FIP, and a nearly 4% drop in strikeout rate is a suboptimal development in a season full of them. Only eight clubs have received less value from their starting rotations than Houston during the same period. For as much as fans like to complain about Dusty Baker’s lineup or certain personnel decisions — I do the same thing, trust me — there are bigger issues to consider. The underperforming rotation, to me, is atop of that list. To catch the Rangers, or to even hold off the Mariners, the Astros need their starters to pitch better and deeper into games. Too many more games like the ones Valdez and Brown pitched over the weekend against Seattle could quite possibly mean the Astros watch the postseason from home for the first time since 2016.