Starting Rotation: A
Justin Verlander: A+
Framber Valdez: A+
Cristian Javier: A
Luis Garcia: B
Jake Odorizzi: B-
Jose Urquidy: C+
Death, taxes, and the Houston Astros developing starting pitchers. The fact still rings true this season, but the rotation’s leader is someone they brought in from the outside. Justin Verlander has returned from Tommy John surgery at age 39 to put together a magnificent year, and he currently holds a key stake in the AL Cy Young race. The strikeouts and velocity aren’t what they used to be, but he is still finding new ways to win games on the mound, and he’s sure to get plenty of rest in the 2nd half due to the team’s abundance of big-league-level starters. Verlander’s 1.89 ERA is 2nd in the AL and he has a staggering WHIP of 0.88 in 109 innings this season.
Framber Valdez was the the de-facto #1 in the rotation a year ago, and he has followed it up with a performance that, if he sustains it, would cement him as an undeniable ace. He has already spun 2 complete games this season and he’s one of the few candidates to reach 200 innings. His 2.66 ERA and 3.32 FIP would be career-highs among full seasons, and he has mastered the pitch-to-contact approach: his .331 Statcast xwOBA against on balls in play is one of the best in the Majors. He projects as the long-term leader of this staff if the Astros can keep him around for a while, which they should; he has been one of the best hurlers in baseball in 2022.
Cristian Javier made huge leaps this season as manager Dusty Baker oversaw his transition to being a full-time starter. He was on a historic stretch in late June, striking out 27 batters while allowing just 1 hit across 2 starts, and of course, he led the combined no-hitter the Astros threw on the road against the Yankees. He hasn’t been as stellar to start July, but he has the best strikeout stuff of anyone on the team (112 in 78.1 innings) and he’s sporting a 3.22 ERA so far.
Luis Garcia and his weird delivery are having a good season as well. He hasn’t been an ace at many points this year like the first 3 guys on the list, and he has been slightly worse than last year when he was the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year. Regardless, he’s still a valuable component of the rotation: a 3.65 ERA is virtually exactly what teams should want out of their 3rd starter. The reason he hasn’t experienced a Valdez or a Javier-like jump is the home run ball, which has gotten to him more than it did last year. However, part of that is poor luck on flyballs. His average exit velocity against has raised less than 1 MPH, and his xERA is down from last year according to Statcast. There’s no need to worry about the lack of year-to-year progress with Garcia: at age 25, he’s already a solid pitcher, and the Astros have shown time and again the ability to help young pitchers reach the next level.
Jake Odorizzi missed all of June on the IL, and a lot of his success has come against weaker offenses, but he has been serviceable nonetheless considering his spot in the rotation. His return from injury coincided with Javier’s dominant stretch, so many Astros fans have wondered whether there’s even a place for him on the team anymore, but if his second half is like his first half, he’ll end up being a decent extra arm to use in the postseason, which is crucial at that time of year. His 3.56 ERA and 3.43 FIP are promising for a back-end-of-the-rotation starter, but his 4.05 Statcast xERA and his 6.8 K/9 indicate that he both gives up a little too much loud contact and doesn’t have good strikeout stuff. He’s also averaging less than 5 innings per start, but if the Astros continue to use him every 6 days and only use him as a reliever in the postseason, his effectiveness will be maximized.
Jose Urquidy brings up the rear on many of this rotation’s stat rankings, which is a good thing in a lot of ways. If your team’s worst starter in terms of ERA had a 4.09, you probably wouldn’t complain either. Like Odorizzi, he has below-average strikeout rates and he has the highest WHIP on the staff at 1.25, meaning he surrenders baserunners a bit more than the team would like. He is also on pace for career-worsts in both results-based and peripheral stats (4.82 xERA, .524 xSLG), but he still deserves credit for limiting walks against and going deeper into games than he has ever been asked (threw at least 95 pitches in his 3 July starts). As well, he finished April with a 5.95 ERA and he has posted an ERA under 4 in each of the months since. He has experience coming out of the bullpen in the postseason from 2019, so if the Astros shelter his role down the stretch in a similar fashion to Odorizzi, he’ll help the staff more than he’ll hurt them.