The Houston Astros are in the midst of another dominant season, sitting at 49-27 and atop the AL West. As such, there are plenty of cases to be made for them to be represented at the all-star game. Yordan Alvarez has been on an other-worldly tear and is arguably the AL MVP frontrunner. Justin Verlander has had an unbelievable comeback season on the mound. Jose Altuve currently leads AL second basemen in fan voting, continuing to perform despite all the negative PR he has gotten in recent years. There’s one case, though, that belongs to Cristian Javier, and while it may be less obvious to casual fans, he deserves to be at the all-star game in Los Angeles all the same.
Javier is playing in his third career season, and he has suddenly become one of the best pitchers in the American League. After finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in the shortened 2020 season, he was used mostly as a multi-inning reliever in 2021. He had the ability to generate plenty of swings and misses, but control would sometimes evade him, and his respectable ERA in the mid-3s last season was accompanied by a FIP in the mid-4s. In 2022, he has gone back to the rotation and had as good a season as just about anybody in the AL.
Javier’s ERA this season has dropped to an elite 2.58, and his WHIP is an impressive 0.96. He’s controlling the “three true outcomes” well (strikeouts, walks, and home runs), as evidenced by his 2.58 FIP. Among pitchers in the AL with a minimum of 60 innings, only 2 pitchers have a higher K/9 rate than Javier’s 12.27: Dylan Cease and Shohei Ohtani. He is striking out opposing hitters at a higher rate than established stars such as Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber.
Both his ERA and FIP rank top-10 among that same group, and if didn’t pitch out of the bullpen to start April, his Fangraphs WAR of 2.0 (11th) would almost certainly be inside the top 5. In all, that’s a very impressive first 3 months of the season, and when looking at how he compares with his counterparts, it’s reasonable to suggest that Cristian Javier has been a top-10 pitcher in the American League in 2022.
The biggest factor behind his breakout season has been his improved fastball. In 2021, it was mediocre at best. Opponents hit .226 against it, which isn’t bad, but there was definitely a bit of luck behind that figure: they managed to record a hard-hit ball against it (min. 95 mph exit velocity) 51% of the time, which culminated in an expected batting average against of .273 – nearly 50 points higher than what actually happened. This suggested that without much improvement, Javier’s fastball was due to get knocked around in 2022.
His heatmaps from the season prior show that he would most often throw it down the middle of the plate, slightly elevated. This implies that he tried to bank on its above-average spin and mixed it with his good slider to generate swings and misses, but the obvious downside of that approach is more hard hits against – only 17% of pitchers in all of baseball had a higher hard-hit rate against than Javier did last season.
In 2022, despite the departure of renowned pitching expert Brent Strom from the Astros’ coaching staff, Javier has shown a subtle change in the way he’s locating his fastball that’s making all the difference. He now throws it at the highest frequency, instead of middle-up, to the two upper corners of the strike zone; specifically up and in to both right-and-left-handed batters. This increased aggression, coming right after hitters inside with high velocity as opposed to leaving his fastball out over the plate, is what his superb season can be attributed to.
According to Statcast, Javier’s fastball has only 12 inches of vertical movement, which is less than 90% of all MLB pitchers. This gives the illusion that it’s rising, which can be lethal, especially when it’s coupled with a slider that has above-average horizontal movement that he can use down and away to complement the fastball location. Not only that, but it makes it seem faster than the 94 mph that it averages in reality. That’s correct: Cristian Javier has one of the best fastballs in the game, and it’s mediocre in velocity compared to everyone else, especially in the hard-throwing era of the 2020s. Javier’s mastering of the art of fastball command has allowed him to get by with middling velocity and effectively complement his nasty slider, and the result has been the impressive ERA that makes him worthy of being an all-star.
There’s only room for 5 starting pitchers on the players-only ballot, and from there, the remaining ones selected to the all-star roster are decided by the commissioner’s office. In the past, the all-star game hasn’t always been about objectivity; fans want to see their favorite players on the biggest stage and someone that isn’t a household name such as Javier is automatically less likely to be nominated. Before he headlined the Astros’ combined no-hitter against the Yankees last weekend, it’s likely that most casual fans of other teams didn’t even know his name. However, there’s still time to spread the word about him. After all, most players get to go to the all-star game to begin with because of good lobbying by their fans. Do your thing, Astros Nation. Tell your friends that Cristian Javier deserves to be an all-star, in the event that those within the game actually take notice.