Like Playing Tennis With Your 70 Year Old Uncle
by Jim Silva
When a team rebuilds from the ground up where do they start? Where would you start? It is certainly more exciting to draft a bunch of young hitters because that’s what most fans want to see – offense. But, as my wife tells me all the time, pitching is too important in baseball. And she’s right of course, although she says it as more of a complaint because she prefers a good 9 to 8 barn-burner, whereas I am a fan of a nice 3-2 or 4-3 game. What my lovely wife means is that pitchers have too much power over the game – right again. When you look at the franchises around the league giving absurd amounts of money and multi-year contracts to starting pitchers, who more and more often don’t finish the contract without undergoing arm surgery, it is clear that baseball agrees with my wife. The Astros probably agree with that aphorism as well, but it doesn’t look like it when you look at the young players who have made it to the majors in the wake of their current rebuild. Their rotation is only just now seeing the fruits of their tanking efforts where they had top draft picks year after year. When fans and writers alike were saying that the Astros were ready to compete already, it was because they saw the exciting position players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve. But what really drives a team to success in the post-season is the depth of their starting rotation, and the effectiveness of their bullpen. So are the Astros really “here” or are they still a season or two away from being perennial playoff participants? Let’s look at their rotation and ponder that question as they push down the stretch to grab a wild card spot.
Is there such a thing as a Cy Young hangover? Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young in 2015 and ended up 5th in MVP voting but started this season looking like a guy you might want to send back to triple-A. He was getting lit up and his control had clearly slipped. One very bad sign is the fact that he had already given up 14 home runs in his first 17 starts – only three fewer than he had given up all last season. Since then he has given up only five home runs in his last eight starts, which is an improvement. In short, the Astros ace has been horribly inconsistent for most of his first 25 starts. It seems like maybe, just maybe he is figuring it out. His ERA for the season was over 5.00 but has dropped to 4.64. It’s not pretty especially when you compare it to his last season – it boils down to Keuchel trying to figure out what made him the Astros ace in 2014 and 2015. Keuchel this season has looked like the guy in 2013 who hadn’t quite figured it out. He is not now, nor has he ever been, the type of pitcher who can get away with missing spots relying on power to save him. If he isn’t sharp with command and control he will flat out suck. His fastball averages a tick under 90 and he mixes it with three other pitches. Looking at his game logs, he seems to have it for a start or two and then appears to lose it. For the Astros to get to the playoffs and to do anything once they get there, Keuchel has to figure it out and time is running out for the bearded Oklahoma native.
Colin McHugh doesn’t blow his fastball by hitters either. He is a mixmaster, throwing his fastball, slider, curveball almost equally often. He seemed to put it all together when he got to Houston in 2014, but has given up more and more hits as the league gets to see his slippery stuff more and more. Along with the blossoming hit rate (2013: 6.9 hits per 9 innings pitched, 2014: 9.1, 2016: 11.1 so far), his home run rate has increased from 0.8 each of the last two seasons to 1.4 through his first 15 starts in 2016. At this point, McHugh’s ERA is sitting at 4.99 and is just getting worse as his ERA in his last five starts is at 9.00. The Astros, who are sitting in third in the AL West and starting the day in sixth in the battle for the two wild card spots have to make some tough decisions. Do they continue to watch McHugh get lit up every night wasting star quality offensive performances as their playoff chances fade into the steamy Houston twilight, or do they cut bait and find another answer?
Mike Fiers was acquired last season in a deal with the Brewers and closed the season with nine starts that included a no-hitter and an ERA of 3.32. So entering 2016, Fiers – who had sported ERA’s in the twos and threes in each of his stops, except one since his debut in 2011 – seemed like he would slot in nicely in the third spot in the rotation. The righty, who will be a free agent at the end of this season, has been healthy all season, but has been unable to duplicate his past success so far. His ERA has bounced around a bit and currently sits at 4.48 after a month where he went 2-2 in five starts and managed an ERA of 3.72. If you arbitrarily break his season into blocks of five starts going back to his first start on April 7th, Fiers has reached the 6th inning in exactly two of every five starts. The former Brewer’s 22nd round pick in the 2009 draft mixes four other pitches with his 89 MPH fastball but is hard on the bullpen. The Astros have to use at least three other pitchers in most of his start as he hasn’t made it into the 8th once this season. So even in his best starts the Astros are likely to use at least two more relievers to finish the game. If Fiers can keep his ERA in the threes the rest of the way, the Astros will deal with the exhausted pen.
If results dictate who the ace is, then Doug Fister is the Astros ace in 2016. I’m not sure why the Astros went out and cornered the market on soft tossers, but none of the top four Astros starters cracks 90 MPH with their fastball on a regular basis, and Fister is the softest tosser of the bunch sitting around 86 MPH with his “heater”. Interestingly, the oversized righty (he is 6’8”) throws his fastball about 70% of the time mixing a slider, a changeup, and a curve the other 30% of the time. Fister’s five starts this past month have been even better than his season totals with an ERA of 3.00, a WHIP of 1.267, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.43 – all better than his season totals to date, and boy are those solid numbers needed by the Astros! Some of Fister’s results are luck and having the backing of a good offensive team as most of his peripherals are a touch below his career numbers, except for his hits allowed per nine (8.5 this year versus 9.1 for his career). At 12 and 8, Fister is holding down the fort until another starter can step up and do what they were expected to do.
Lance McCullers the younger is the freak in the Astros rotation who can actually break glass with his fastball which averages a notch over 94 MPH. His curve and change also contribute to his high strikeout totals. In 22 starts last season as a 21 year old, McCullers averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine. That rate jumped to 11.8 in his 14 starts this season before he landed in the DL with elbow issues at the start of August. While his strikeout numbers make him look dominant, McCullers’ control has taken a big step back this year. His ERA is exactly what is was last season at 3.22, but he has walked 5.0 per nine this year as opposed to only 3.1 free passes per nine last season – his first in the majors. McCullers hits per nine have also jumped this season moving from 7.6 last year to 8.9 so far this season. His home run rate has remained stable at 0.6 home runs per nine (0.7 last year), to best the rest of the starting staff. McCullers will be the ace someday soon, but he has to get off the DL and stay off the DL for the ‘Stros to have any chance of fighting their way into the post-season.
The Astros youth movement has paid off quite nicely in the last few seasons with stars as well as talent that has filled in admirably. Joe Musgrove falls in between these two marks as he is the 7th ranked prospect in the Houston system according to Keith Law, and he has carried the flag for Lance McCullers while the flamethrower is on the DL. Musgrove can throw the pill with alacrity – perhaps not quite as rapidly as Mr. McCullers – and is stingy with the free passes. The 23 year old, 6’5” righty from El Cajon has fanned 25 batters in five games while only walking three. His minor league control shows that his control is not a fluke. Here’s a weird stat – Musgrove’s career walk totals in the minors (41) are just barely ahead of his home runs allowed plus hit batsmen (a total of 39 – 24 home runs plus 15 men plunked) in the same time period. He has amassed this totals in just over 337 innings and has struck out 320 men in that same span for an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.8. With control like that you have to wonder if Musgrove is particularly grumpy and hits batters because he doesn’t like their walk up song. In a small sample size of five games in the majors (four starts) Musgrove’s weakness has been the long ball as he has allowed five of his pitches to leave the yard. As his minor league ratio is 0.64 home runs per nine, that issue is likely to correct itself over time. Depending on how Musgrove’s next few starts go the Astros might have a tough decision to make when they get McCullers back from the DL. Do you keep the hard-throwing youngster in the rotation and jettison one of the vets like McHugh, or do you send Musgrove down and hope that the team can get there with the guys they started the season with.
The only other pitcher who the Astros have in their top ten is Francis Martes, their 2nd best prospect and the 40th best in baseball. Only 20 years old and already chucking it in the mid to upper 90’s, Martes has reached double-A and after having a dominant season last year where he managed an ERA of 2.04, he is competing admirably this season. His ERA is 3.52, he has limited home runs to four in 115 innings, and his strikeout rate is actually up – above nine per nine innings pitched. From such a young hard-throwing pitcher, Martes’ control is a good sign as he has averaged 3.1 walks per nine – not Musgrovian, but good numbers for a youngster who can bring it. At 20, Martes is unlikely to break into the rotation this season in spite of the needs of the big club, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him called up in September to bring his heat from the pen.
The hard throwers are coming, and when they reach the majors, the soft tossers might be disposed of, ushering in a new era in Houston. But for now, the Astros have to hope that they can make do with deception and trickery (plus McCullers if he can make it back) because that is their only reasonable choice at the moment. Having painted themselves into this particular corner by not trading for a conventional hard-throwing ace, the Astros are showing their hand a bit. Their reluctance to give up on their youngsters implies that while they are hoping to reach deep into the post-season this year, they believe that their true time is near, but not yet here. Don’t be surprised if they go out and get a big nasty ace before they go to battle next season. 2016 isn’t over, but the writing is on the wall for the Astros with too many teams to climb over, and inconsistent starting pitching. Their patient approach, while likely frustrating to many fans, will pay off soon, but for now the Astros players view of the post-season is likely to be from their sofas.