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The No. 5 spot in the Astros’ rotation

J.P. France and Jose Urquidy Could Be Competing for No. 5 Starter.

Championship Series - Texas Rangers v. Houston Astros - Game Two
Overhead view of J.P. France pitching in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Rangers.
Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in a little over two weeks. As spring games start later in February, fans begin to track the competition for various roles on the team. Let’s talk about the starting pitcher rotation and, more specifically, the No. 5 role.

Verlander, Valdez, and Javier are the 1 thru 3 pitchers. A previous article (“Looking Forward to Hunter Brown in 2024”) pointed out the importance of Hunter Brown establishing himself as the No. 4 starter. That leaves the No. 5 rotation spot in the rotation.

J.P. France and Jose Urquidy probably are the top candidates for the fifth slot in the rotation. Both pitchers are the same age (28 and turning 29 during spring training), but Urquidy has a four year advantage in major league experience. Sure, it’s possible that Brandon Bielak, Ronel Blanco, or one of the rookies in AAA could pitch in that spot at some point this season. But France and Urquidy are likely favored for the role, with the runner up possibly pitching out of the bullpen.

In terms of results, France had a nice rookie season in 2023, throwing 138 innings with a 3.83 ERA. Urquidy’s 2023 was the worst of his career with a 5.29 ERA, which compares to a 3.98 career ERA. Both guys experienced some things which may have hurt their seasonal results.

France accumulated an innings workload which was the highest of his career, and (similar to Hunter Brown) this may have hampered his performance. France’s August and September ERA was 5.92 and 5.75, compared to 2.90 for the earlier months of the season. Urquidy began 2023 by pitching in the World Baseball Classic, and later in the season suffered an arm injury which kept him out of action from May thru July. We don’t know whether this disruption of his normal season routine may have contributed to a career worst ERA.

This article will compare the two candidates for the rotation.

Despite the difference in their 2023 ERA, Urquidy and France are more similar than it appears on the surface. The expected ERA indicates that France’s results were luckier than Urquidy’s. France’s x-ERA of 5.00 is worse than Urquidy’s x-ERA of 4.70. Urquidy and France posted a somewhat similar SIERA in 2023: Urquidy at 5.28 and France at 4.96. The ZIPS 2024 projection for the two pitchers is quite close—-Urquidy with a 4.11 ERA and France with a 4.16 ERA.

  • Urquidy and France have nearly the same Stuff+ ranking (102 and 103, respectively). This indicates that both pitchers have Stuff which is somewhat above average. Location+ (100 for France and 103 for Urquidy) would suggest that Urquidy has slighty better command. France and Urquidy throw the same velocity fastball (93 mph).

The Baseball Savant pitching percentile summaries for both pitchers are also comparable. Urquidy’s summary is slightly more red (which is good) than France’s.

Jose Urquidy Pitching 2023
Baseball Savant

Urquidy did a better job of managing quality of contact (exit velocity and hard hit%) and elicited a higher chase percent than France. Both pitchers are contact oriented pitchers with unexceptional strike out rates and reasonably good control (BB%). As shown below, France’s percentile rating for strike out percent and BB% is slightly better than Urquidy’s.

J.P. France
Baseball Savant
  • France throws a 4 seam fastball, cutter, change up, and curve ball. Savant shows the best run values (in order) are the change up, cutter, and fastball. This is a pretty good mix for a starting pitcher, with no real clunker pitches and above average results on three pitches.
  • Urquidy throws a 4 seam fastball, sweeper, sinker, change up, and curveball. Savant shows negative run value on the fastball, sinker and sweeper. The change up is Urquidy’s best pitch in terms of run value, according to Savant. Hitters scorched Urquidy’s 4 seam fastball in 2023, with a .597 x-SLG, and his usage of the fastball declined to 38%. I’m not sure what caused the poor run value on the fastball. Over his career, the 4 seamer has been a positive pitch, and Savant indicates that the fastball was his best pitch in 2022 and 2021.
  • Another odd similarity is that both pitcher have reverse splits on RH vs. LH batter. This is probably because the change up, which can be used to slow down LHBs, has the best run value for both France and Urquidy. J.P. France allowed a 116 OPS+ to RHBs and a 86 OPS+ to LHBs. Urquidy allowed a 125 OPS+ to RHBs and 96 OPS+ to LHBs. Urquidy’s high OPS+ against righthanders is problematic, given that most hitters bat from the right side.
  • If either pitcher is used out of the bullpen, the reverse split tendency may prove beneficial. It is easier to target relief pitchers against batters with different platoon splits. France and Urquidy could be used as faux-LHPs when either is in the bullpen.
  • In 2023 Urquidy’s actual HRs (16), according to Savant, was five higher than expected (x-HR). Only 25% of the HRs were “no doubters.” MMP appears to be the worst HR ballpark for Urquidy’s style of pitching (15 x-HR, highest of any park).
  • Both France and Urquidy had worse results at home. Urquidy’s ERA was almost two runs worse at MMP, and France’s ERA was almost one and a half run worse. For example, France allowed 12 HRs at MMP and 7 on the road, in approximately the same number of innings. Urquidy HR split was even more dramatic. With only eight innings separating home and road, Urquidy allowed 10 HRs at MMP and 1 HR on the road.

Conclusion

This appears to be a close competition between France and Urquidy. Both pitchers are surprisingly similar. It’s not unusual for the No. 5 rotation spot to be held down by contact-oriented pitchers who succeed based on control rather than strike outs. Indeed, there is considerable value in using average-ish starting pitchers in the bottom of the rotation slot.

Normally I would say that Urquidy’s experience, including 11 playoff appearances with a 4.08 ERA, would give him the advantage. But Urquidy had difficulties managing his pitch repertoire in 2023, while France seemed to have a more stable selection of pitches. In particular, Urquidy’s fastball was a problem in 2023. Urquidy would benefit greatly if he could recover the 4-seam fastball of previous years, which was an effective pitch.

Your thoughts?