The Astros starting rotation was the biggest contributor to their disappointing finish last year. Besides hoping for some positive regression and some better injury luck, the Astros haven’t significantly added to their rotation. The Astros quietly owned the best bullpen in baseball last year (per collective FIP and fWAR). All the major pieces from that excellent relief corps are returning, but like any bullpen, their performance is extremely volatile.
LHP Dallas Keuchel
2016 Stats: 168 IP, 4.55 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 2.7 fWAR
2017 Projection: 209 IP, 3.50 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 4.0 fWAR
Dallas Keuchel really struggled through the follow-up to his Cy Young campaign in 2015. His strikeout rate got worse, as did his walk rate, and he wasn’t generating as many ground balls. In fact, most of his peripherals look like they did before his big breakout season in 2014. That’s not to say that the clock has struck midnight and he’s turned into a pumpkin. His margin for success is so razor thin because he doesn’t have dominating stuff. He lives on the edge of the zone, and if he’s not getting calls, it affects his entire approach. Keuchel also struggled to keep right-handed batters at bay in 2016, something he was able to do in both 2015 and 2014. The projection systems see him bouncing back with a solid, if unspectacular, season in 2017. The Astros will need it if they’re hoping to make any noise in the postseason.
RHP Lance McCullers
2016 Stats: 81 IP, 3.22 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 2.1 fWAR
2017 Projection: 184 IP, 3.45 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 3.6 fWAR
It’s truly a testament to McCullers’s effectiveness as a starter that he was able to keep his FIP so low despite walking five batters per nine innings. Of course, he missed more than half of the season with shoulder and elbow injuries, but when he was on the mound, he showed tons of promise. His strikeout rate was the sixth highest among starters who pitched a similar number of innings and he increased his ground ball rate by more than ten points. Still, with a walk rate that high, he won’t continue to be so lucky. He’ll need to improve his command significantly if he’s going to reach the lofty heights his other skills have teased.
RHP Collin McHugh
2016 Stats: 184 2/3 IP, 4.34 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 3.0 fWAR
2017 Projection: 181 IP, 4.06 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 2.7 fWAR
Collin McHugh also struggled through last season despite rather consistent peripherals. His strikeout rate even rebounded by a couple of points. Most of his problems stemmed from the spike in home run rate that was widespread across baseball. Despite those extra balls leaving the yard, he was still able to accumulate over 3.0 fWAR for the third season in a row. The projection systems may be shorting him a bit, calling for a lower strikeout rate and a home run rate in line with last season. Even if he isn’t able to get his dinger problem under control, his strikeout rate and good command makes him an excellent mid-rotation starter with some upside if things break right for him.
RHP Mike Fiers
2016 Stats: 168 2/3 IP, 4.48 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 1.8 fWAR
2017 Projection: 156 IP, 4.31 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 1.7 fWAR
Mike Fiers has always gotten more out of his sub-90 mph fastball than expected but that lack of dominating stuff caught up with him last year. His strikeout rate took a steep tumble and he continued to struggle with a home run problem. He did lower his fly ball rate by ten points, an important step considering his home park, but those batted balls turned into line drives as often as they turned into ground balls. That led to a 30 point jump in batting average on balls in play.
The fifth spot in the rotation will most likely be held by Charlie Morton, who signed a two-year $14 million contract with the Astros this offseason. Unfortunately, he’s dealt with a myriad of injuries throughout his career, making more than 25 starts in a season just twice in his career. When he is healthy, he one of the best ground ball pitchers in the league. Joe Musgrove will probably spend some time in the major league rotation as well. He made his major league debut last season and it was fairly successful. He was never considered much of a prospect so his upside is rather limited. After those two, the options become rather limited, with names like Brad Peacock and David Paulino listed on the depth chart.
Closer – RHP Ken Giles
2016 Stats: 65 2/3 IP, 4.11 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 1.5 fWAR
2017 Projection: 65 IP, 2.93 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 1.1 fWAR
The huge difference between Giles’s ERA and FIP was mostly due to some early season struggles. He began the year with an ERA of 9.00 in the first month. By August, he had gotten his home run problems under control and stepped into the closer’s role, replacing Luke Gregerson. His outstanding strikeout rate puts him in the upper echelon of closers, though his high walk rate keeps him just outside of the elite. He’ll begin the year as the anchor for this excellent bullpen and should keep the job the entire season.
Setup – RHP Luke Gregerson
2016 Stats: 57 2/3 IP, 3.28 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
2017 Projection: 65 IP, 3.46 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 0.7 fWAR
Should Giles falter as the closer, the Astros have a number of options who could step in without missing a beat. Luke Gregerson is at the top of that pile. Even though he increased his strikeout rate by five points, he was pushed out of the closer’s role in favor of Giles. Being the primary setup man might suit Gregerson’s skills better however. His ground ball rate fueled by his excellent sinker will help him clean up any messes that might arise in the seventh or eighth innings.
The only pitcher who isn’t returning to the Astros bullpen from last season is Pat Neshek. That means all the major pieces who helped the group accumulate 7.9 fWAR last season—1.3 fWAR higher than the next highest team—are returning. Will Harris is another option to step into the ninth inning should Giles continue to give up dingers. He was pretty luck to run a sub-2.00 ERA in 2015 but he improved his peripherals across the board in 2016, bringing his FIP in line with his ERA. Michael Feliz has the raw stuff to be a closer in the future but he too struggled with the long ball last year. Chris Devenski was also outstanding last year, relying on excellent control and a fly ball suppressed BABIP to post an ERA just over 2.00. He could be used as a swing man in 2017 should the Astros need his services in the rotation.