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2018 AL West Preview: The Astros’ Pitching Staff

The Astros boast one of the best and deepest pitching corps in baseball.

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In 2017, the Astros pitching staff posted the sixth best league adjusted FIP in baseball. With all of the major pieces of the staff returning, they could have stood pat this offseason. Instead, they added another ace to their rotation and continued to bolster their bullpen. What was a team strength only grew stronger. As with every pitching staff, there are some lingering injury concerns, but they built up some incredible depth to cover any major injuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Astros challenged for the best overall pitching staff in baseball in 2018.

Starting Rotation

RHP Justin Verlander

2017 Stats: 206 IP, 3.36 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 4.1 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 204 IP, 3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.8 fWAR

After making the move to Houston on August 31 last year, Justin Verlander made five starts for the Astros in September (and another five in the postseason). In those five regular season starts, he allowed just four runs—all off solo home runs—and posted a 2.69 FIP. It was quite the turnaround for Verlander, who had struggled through most of the season while he was still in Detroit. The biggest difference for him seems to be his slider. He toyed around with a hard slider in 2016 but it wasn’t nearly as effective early in 2017. A slight tweak gave him a slower but more effective slider with the Astros—and he even mixed in his hard slider/cutter at opportune moments during the postseason with great effect.

LHP Dallas Keuchel

2017 Stats: 145 2/3 IP, 2.90 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.5 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 202 IP, 3.69 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 3.9 fWAR

It seems like ages ago that Keuchel came out of nowhere to grab the Cy Young award in 2015. Since then, he’s dealt with a number of injuries to his shoulder and back, which have really taken a toll on his trademark command. After posting a 5.8% walk rate across 2014 and 2015, it’s jumped up to 7.4% in the two seasons since, including an 8.1% walk rate in 2017. Since he’s able to generate so many ground balls with his sinker-heavy approach, those additional baserunners don’t hurt too much. Still, if he’s going to return to his peak form, he’ll need to regain the command he showed during that two-year stretch. A clean bill of health will go a long way towards helping him recapture that magic.

RHP Gerrit Cole

2017 Stats: 203 IP, 4.26 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 3.1 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 175 IP, 4.19 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 2.8 fWAR

The Astros biggest acquisition this offseason, Gerrit Cole goes from headlining a starting rotation in Pittsburgh to the third or fourth best starter on his new team. After posting an excellent 2.66 FIP in 2015, Cole has followed with two sub-par seasons with a combined FIP of 3.81. It’s hard to point to one thing that’s led to the diminished results. Perhaps it’s the effectiveness of his fastballs—he allowed 18 home runs off his fastballs in 2017, a huge increase over his career norms. Maybe it’s his slider—its movement profile has grown flatter since 2015 and his whiff rate has suffered. Cole is just 27 years old and could probably stand to benefit from the Astros pitching philosophy which emphasizes breaking balls over fastballs. The Astros are definitely hoping he’s a few adjustments away from regaining all that promise he showed three years ago.

RHP Lance McCullers

2017 Stats: 118 2/3 IP, 4.25 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 3.0 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 137 IP, 3.61 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 2.9 fWAR

Lance McCullers is perhaps the best example of the Astros pitch philosophy. He maximizes his limited pitch repertoire by leaning on his insanely good curveball. He throws his bender almost half of the time, generating an outrageous whiff rate on it and weak contact that stays on the ground. His fastball and changeup are merely average pitches. Since he throws so many breaking balls, McCullers has struggled to stay on the mound consistently. Back and elbow injuries have limited him to an average of just 15 starts per year. He managed to cut five points off his walk rate in 2017 which was matched by a five point drop off his strikeout rate too—from an otherworldly 30.1% to a merely elite 25.8%.

RHP Charlie Morton

2017 Stats: 146 2/3 IP, 3.62 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 3.3 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 130 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.5 fWAR

Charlie Morton profiles remarkably similar to Lance McCullers. He doesn’t throw his curveball nearly as often as McCullers, but it’s his best pitch by far and he increased its usage after joining the Astros in 2017. A jump in fastball velocity during a brief 2016 campaign was enticing enough to earn Morton a two-year contract and the Astros were rewarded with 25 starts and a career high 3.3 fWAR. The extra velocity and the focus on his breaking ball added almost ten points to his strikeout rate. A long injury history hangs over his career, but if he’s able to maintain all these gains, he’s an excellent fifth starter for the Astros.

The depth

After posting a 3.08 FIP and accumulating 3.1 fWAR over 21 starts last season, Brad Peacock finds himself on the outside looking in. He started last season in the bullpen which is where he’ll start this season too. A number of adjustments, including his position on the rubber and a new slider grip, led to his breakout season. He’ll probably be the first option should any of the Astros starters injure themselves. Collin McHugh is also still on the roster without a spot in the rotation. An elbow injury forced him to miss more than half of last season but he’s still an excellent option should the Astros need another starter. Oh, and the Astros have one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, Forrest Whitley, working his way towards the majors too. (Update: Whitley was busted for violating the minor league drug policy this morning and suspended for 50 games.) And don’t forget Francis Martes or David Paulino, both were top prospects as recently as last year who will both toil away in the minors or in the bullpen, waiting for a spot to open up in the rotation. The quality and quantity of the Astros starting pitching depth is insane.

The bullpen

The closer – RHP Ken Giles

2017 Stats: 62 2/3 IP, 2.30 ERA, 2.39 FIP, 1.9 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 65 IP, 3.15 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 1.1 fWAR

Postseason struggles aside, Ken Giles is one of the best young closers in baseball. Since his debut in 2014, he’s posted the ninth highest strikeout rate in baseball, punching out more than a third of the batters he’s faced. But his inconsistency last October revealed some of his weaknesses. He can be wild at times and can be prone to allowing home runs in bunches. This streakiness has led to some brief periods where he’s lost the ninth inning role, but when everything’s clicking, he’s as close to automatic as can be.

The fireman – RHP Chris Devenski

2017 Stats: 80 2/3 IP, 2.68 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 1.4 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 55 IP, 3.75 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 0.5 fWAR

Along with Andrew Miller, Chris Devenski has revolutionized the modern bullpen. His ability to pitch multiple innings has led other teams to try and find their own version of a fireman (the Mariners unsuccessfully tried to convert Max Povse into a “Chris Devenski-type” reliever last year). The flexibility inherent to his role allows the Astros to keep their other relievers fresh while maximizing their strengths in shorter stints. All of these things are peripheral to Devenski’s actual performance on the mound. His changeup is one of the best in the game, generating a whiff almost half the time a batter swings at it. He’s posted the 12th best league adjusted FIP during his two years in the majors and leads the league in average innings pitched per appearance.

The rest

If I had more space, the Astros bullpen is filled with setup men deserving of a full profile. Will Harris is probably the closest to a traditional setup man as you’ll get in this bullpen. He posted the sixth best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball last season, though he’s prone to give up a few too many long balls. The Astros added the reliever with the eighth best strikeout-to-walk ratio to their relief corps this offseason, Joe Smith. He’s more of a right-handed specialist since his sidearm delivery and fastball/slider combo aren’t as deadly against left-handed batters. Former Cubs closer Hector Rondon is also a new addition to the Astros and he’ll look to regain some of the elite command he had shown in seasons past. The one weakness in the Astros bullpen might be their lack of left-handed pitchers. Tony Sipp is the only southpaw who is projected to receive significant innings, though there are lesser options on the 40-man roster who could step into the left-handed specialist role.