The Astros rotation is far from playoff caliber.
But the team is in better shape than many may think – even with Dallas Keuchel unavailable to throw in a winner-take-all game this year. The 2015 Astros snuck into the final AL Wildcard spot with an 86-76 record and were one appalling inning away from a trip to the ALCS. It’s probably going to take more than 86 wins this year, but if they do manage to make it to October, the rotation won’t be their weakest leak.
Is Lance Back?
Astros don’t have an ace this year, with the possible exception of Lance McCullers who hasn’t pitched since August 2nd. It was announced on Friday that McCullers has resumed throwing, and while there is no date or timetable for his return, there is at least a chance that he might be available for a winner take all Wildcard contest.
McCullers has been the Astros de-facto ace for the majority of the season. With Keuchel failing to live up to his 2015 Cy Young statue, McCullers has stepped up in a big way. In 14 starts in 2016, McCullers only allowed more than three earned runs twice, the last time coming on June 10th when he allowed four runs to the Tampa Bay Rays. Since then the young right has a 2.28 ERA in eight starts with 62 strikeouts compared to 22 walks. His accuracy has been an issue that has prevented him from going deep into games because of pitch count.
McCullers has a rate of 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. With a slider that opposing batters have called the most dominant in the game, he’s more than capable of going toe to toe with the game’s elite offenses in October.
Regression to the Mean
BABIP, batting average on balls in play is a metric used by statisticians to help quantify how lucky (or unlucky) a batter has been at the plate. Players with a BABIP higher than their batting average have collected slightly more hits than they would expect over the course of a season and vice versa. Of qualified pitchers, four Astros starters rank in the bottom half of BABIP against Doug Fister, Keuchel, Mike Fiers, and Collin McHugh.
For example, McHugh’s BABIP of .349, when compared to a batting average against of .291, suggests that more of the balls put in play against him are falling for hits than should be expected on average. As poor as Astros starters have been of late there has been an element of bad luck that is not sustainable throughout the rest of the season. Look at Joseph Musgrove who was chased from a start in which he allowed no hits through five innings against the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday after a pair of bloop singles led to a run for the A.
Getting Hot at the Right Time
A wild card team by definition wasn’t the best team in their league or their division for the duration of the season. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t get hot at the right time and go on a playoff run. For example, since the introduction of the second wildcard in 2012, two wildcard teams have made the world series, the Royals, and Giants in 2014. The Giants, behind the arm of Madison Bumgarner, won it all. You don’t have to be the best team in April (the Astros certainly weren’t), just the best team in October.
Over the last two weeks, Astros pitchers have a 3.81 ERA collectively while several of the starters have been very good.
- McHugh, (3-0) in 3 starts with a 1.53 ERA and 17K/7BB
- Brad Peacock (0-0) in 3 starts with a .796 WHIP against 59 batters
- Joseph Musgrove (2-0) in 3 starts with 15K and just 14 hits allowed in 18 2/3rds innings
As rough as this past home stand was for the Astros, the starting pitching wasn’t a problem. Of the 23 runs scored by the Angels, just 5 of them came against the starting pitching. 18 runs were surrendered by a tired bullpen that seemed to pick the worst time to have a few off nights. If they can put a few more outings together, Houston will still have an outside chance a securing a playoff birth.
***Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference ***