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Astros Need A Rebound Season From Framber Valdez And Cristian Javier In 2024

2022 World Series Game 2: Philadelphia Phillies v. Houston Astros Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

For as much criticism as the lineup endured in 2023, the Astros ultimate downfall was primarily due to a sharp pitching regression. A staff that posted a 2.90 ERA and 3.28 FIP in 2022 — arguably the best in the spot with 26.5 wins — never clicked on all cylinders the following season, which led to a 3.94 ERA, 4.31 FIP, and only 15.2 wins. While there were a couple of personnel changes, the staff was mostly the same following Justin Verlander’s return at the trade deadline. Losing Luis García and Lance McCullers Jr. for most, if not all, of 2023 didn’t help matters, but there simply wasn’t a ton of turnover within the staff. But the downturn in performance — expected and unexpected — was a key factor in why this roster squeaked into the postseason with only 90 wins and ultimately lost four home games in the ALCS.

Of course, to expect a near replication of that championship season always felt like a longshot. Dating back to 2000, only eight clubs posted higher win totals in a single season, including that vaunted 2018 Astros staff. The performance in 2022 was more of the exception, not the rule. Regression for 2023 was expected, to some degree or another. With that said, I don’t think anyone was expecting the level of dropoff from arguably the best staff in baseball to roughly middle of the pack. And the decline occurred on both fronts, the starting rotation and the bullpen.

Starting Rotation
2022: 950 IP, 24.8% K%, 7.1% BB%, 2.95 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 19.1 fWAR
2023: 900 IP, 22.4% K%, 8.2% BB%, 4.17 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 11.4 fWAR

Bullpen
2022: 495 13 IP, 28.3% K%, 9.2% BB%, 2.80 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 7.4 fWAR
2023: 545 13 IP, 26.3% K%, 9.8% BB%, 3.56 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 3.8 fWAR

To concentrate on the rotation for today, there were a few reasons why the staff struggled in the manner that it ultimately did. Some issues were derived from injuries, without a doubt. For as much as McCullers Jr.’s availability is criticized, when healthy, he’s a reliable starter every fifth day, with a career 3.48 ERA across 718 23 innings. Garcia was another injury that truly put this staff’s depth to the test, especially on the heels of arguably two of his best starts prior to his Tommy John surgery. Again, not the main reason why this staff struggled, but their absences along with José Urquidy, placed on a noticeable strain on the pitching depth.

But the Astros received enough contributions within their depth chart — J.P. France, Brandon Bielak, and Ronel Blanco — to a point where they could survive a couple of absences. Verlander was also re-acquired at the trade deadline. Instead, it was regression among some of the club’s best arms that became the primary culprit for their struggles. Again, some of this regression was expected; however, it was steeper for certain players. Cristian Javier, for example, entered last season as the presumptive number two starter behind Framber Valdez. Fresh off a memorable 2022 season (2.54 ERA, 3.16 FIP in 148 23 innings), Javier looked prime to capitalize and become a household name. Instead, he struggled nearly the entire season, posting a 4.56 ERA and 4.58 FIP in 162 innings. The primary cause? Javier’s four-seam fastball was increasingly mortal, especially with less ride than it displayed in 2022.

While there was a rebound later in the season, most of the damage was done prior to this recovery. But that development does provide a sliver of optimism about whether Javier is trending in the right direction. Yes, I am ignoring that Game 7 start in the ALCS as it was hopefully an outlier. With a season under the pitch clock, I wonder what adjustments we will see from the right-hander’s fastball and its shape. For someone who relies upon an optimal release point, any deviation, no matter how small, could greatly impact Javier’s performance, like the introduction of a pitch clock. While I can’t state whether it was defentively the issue, it does beg the question about whether the pitch clock did have some effect on his struggles.

Valdez’s struggles, especially following the All-Star break, were even more baffling than Javier’s.

Pre All-Star Game
111 IP, 26.2% K%, 5.9% BB%, 2.51 ERA, 2.80 FIP

Post All-Star Game
87 IP, 23% K%, 8.5% BB%, 4.66 ERA, 4.39 FIP

There was the whole All-Star Game kerfuffle. I mean, it was a defensible position for Dusty Baker and the organization as Valdez would only pitch on two days rest in an meaningless exhibition game in a season with greater aspirations. By all appearances, though, there are no indications that the All-Star Game decision played a role in his eventual second half struggles, but the timing is at least coincidental. Possibly more important, there was also the ankle injury back on June 20 against the Mets and a calf injury during his July 16 start against the Angels to consider. It is difficult to pinpoint one cause behind Valdez’s sudden decline. Other than his no-hitter against the Guardians on August 1, the Astros’ Opening Day starter was not pitching at an ace-like level for the entirety of the season’s second half.

It is interesting to note, on the whole, Valdez had a season in which his average pitch velocity inched even higher in 2023 — average four-seam velocity of 95.7 MPH compared to 94 MPH in 2022 — along with larger horizontal and vertical breaks on nearly all of his pitches. In theory, additional break and velocity on pitches sounds fantastic, but I wonder if this was ultimately a case of too much of a good thing. That will require a bit more digging, especially as Valdez did some tinkering with his cutter following the All-Star Game.

Ultimately, the Astros will need both Javier and Valdez to return to form in 2024 if the club wishes to contend for another World Series title. If there is a silver lining from 2023, it is that Houston still won 90 games in spite of two of their best pitchers regressing more so than expected. Even a moderate bounceback season from both pitchers would go a long way in competing against the Rangers and Mariners. But if those struggles persist into this upcoming season, then the Astros — with a lessened farm system — could become limited in their options to improve. In other words, there is a lot riding on the arms of Javier and Valdez, in addition to the entire staff. But if that duo can pitch more like they did in 2022, the Astros have to feel good about their chances.