An attempt to construct the ultimate Astros pitcher by using the very best traits from the arms in their current pitching staff.
The depth of the Houston Astros’ pitching staff is simply unparalleled. Especially when it comes to homegrown assets, no other organization in the league can claim to develop pitchers the way the Astros can. This season, they look primed to show off their best arms on the biggest stage as they hold the #1 seed in the AL with a little over 6 weeks to go in the regular season.
It’s interesting to think about the wide variety of skills and abilities that each of their pitchers can bring to the table. They don’t just prevent runs in one or two ways; every single one of their pitchers will get batters out in a slightly different fashion. When combining the most potent skills that the Astros’ staff has to offer, the result would undoubtedly be one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. Here is my attempt at constructing the ultimate Astros pitcher.
Fastball: Cristian Javier
Javier’s fastball has been the catalyst behind his brilliant breakout campaign. It averages 94 mph, which is fairly pedestrian, but its spin and the way he has been able to locate it have made it an elite pitch. He uses it roughly 60% of the time and frequently pounds it up and in to both left and right-handed batters. Its average spin rate of over 2300 RPM makes it hard for hitters to pinpoint coming out of his hand, and it also gives off the illusion that it rises coming in toward the plate.
In all, opponents are hitting .197 and slugging under .400 against Javier’s fastball this year. It has a 27% whiff rate as well, and its -12 run value according to Statcast makes it a top-15 fastball in the major leagues this year. His improved command of it has made him far less susceptible to home runs than he used to be, and it has led to a great third season for him in the big leagues. He doesn’t throw it terribly hard, yet many pitchers would give up a lot to have a fastball like his.
Changeup: Framber Valdez
Valdez is having an amazing season in his own right, and his changeup has been the best on the team. The current AL leader in innings pitched has made 19 consecutive quality starts and owns a sub-3 ERA on the year. His changeup is downright gross: hitters own a .217 average and a measly .239 slugging percentage against it, and its average of 4.1 inches of vertical drop makes it one of the most active changeups in the game in terms of movement.
A caveat of his great year has been his mastering of the pitch-to-contact approach. He has a 67% ground ball rate, by far the highest in MLB among starters, and his changeup is one of the many weapons he uses to generate harmless contact. It has a mediocre 14.6% strikeout rate but a respectable 28.2% hard-hit rate, so hitters don’t miss it often but they almost never square it up either. A pitcher with Valdez’s changeup to compliment Javier’s fastball would not be easy to beat.
Breaking Ball: Lance McCullers Jr.
There’s an argument that Lance McCullers has the most effective breaking pitches in the game. According to Statcast’s run value, both his slider and his curveball were in the top 10 in MLB last year. They both sit in the mid-80s in terms of average velocity (the slider is obviously a bit faster), and they produced eerily similar results in 2021. Take a look at their pitch tracking numbers from a season ago.
Slider: .150 AVG, .244 SLG, 35.9% Whiff, -13 Run Value
Curveball: .149 AVG, .214 SLG, 36.7% Whiff, -13 Run Value
When facing two different breaking pitches, one of which has more horizontal movement while the other has more vertical movement, that both have above-average spin, it’s nearly impossible to do any meaningful damage. That theory clearly checks out, judging by McCullers’ slash line against of .205/.305/.324 from last year.
In an attempt to build the ultimate Astros pitcher, we have taken Cristian Javier’s fastball, Framber Valdez’s changeup, and Lance McCullers’ breaking pitches to complete his arsenal. Now, let’s look at some of the Astros’ best examples of the broader tools that define a great pitcher.
Control: Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander is having a historic return from Tommy John surgery, and at age 39, he is leading the AL Cy Young race in remarkable fashion. His 1.85 ERA and 0.86 WHIP both lead MLB, his 2.91 FIP is in the top 10 among qualified starters, and he’s averaging over 6 innings per start. Anyone could point to a million things that Verlander is doing well this year, but his most impressive trait has been his control.
His 1.59 BB/9 is the best among all Astros pitchers and 4th in MLB among qualified starters. 52% of his pitches this season have been in the strike zone according to Statcast and he throws a first-pitch strike 62.5% of the time, both of which are among the best rates in baseball. Verlander can still pound the zone and suffer limited damage, even though only a tiny fraction of pitchers can still do so at his age. He is the antithesis of a rollercoaster ride on the mound: he throws strikes and rarely lets an inning get away from him.
Stamina: Framber Valdez
In an age where few pitchers are still going deep into games, Valdez still empties the tank every start. As previously stated, he leads the AL in innings pitched at 142, which is good for an average of 6.45 innings per start. In May, he went on an absurd streak of 4 consecutive starts with at least 7 innings pitched, something he has done 8 times on the season in total. He has thrown 2 complete games as well, and averages 97 pitches per outing.
Thanks in majority due to his active streak, his 20 quality starts lead MLB, and again, he’s not just an innings eater who isn’t good for anything else. His 2.73 ERA is elite even in 2022’s reduced run-scoring environment. His combination of stuff and endurance make him a candidate to be a game-changer in the postseason, and at age 28, he has plenty of years left to be one of the most dominant starters in baseball.
Clutch: Ryan Pressly
How much more clutch does it get than a closer setting a franchise record by retiring 32 consecutive batters? That’s what Ryan Pressly did in July, and that streak was a perfect representation of how his entire season has gone. Pressly has recorded 22 saves and finished an additional 9 games on top of that, in comparison to just 4 blown saves. In addition, he has a stellar 2.14 FIP and a WHIP under 1, so his success has been convincing as opposed to lucky.
Pressly has also allowed just 2 home runs across 34 innings this entire year. Since the start of last year, he has recorded 48 saves, which ranks 9th in the major leagues. He has been dependable during his entire tenure with the Astros, dating back to the days where he was a 7th and 8th-inning reliever before taking over the closer’s job. That ability to perform in high-leverage spots will also be crucial in October.
The pitchers on the Houston Astros roster have some of the best skillsets that baseball has to offer, and combining them is an especially thought-provoking process.
The ultimate Astros pitcher, in my eyes, would have Javier’s fastball, Valdez’s changeup, McCullers’ breaking pitches, Verlander’s control, Valdez’s stamina, and the clutch gene (if that even truly exists, but that’s a whole other debate) of Ryan Pressly. A pitcher with all of those tools would be nearly unstoppable, and doing this exercise with the Astros is more fun than almost any other team considering the depth of their staff.
Author’s note: Reply in the comments if you’d like to see a similar article for hitters!