2) Where’s Javier?
For most of their window of title contention, the Astros have mashed their way past the opposition, racking up offensive numbers not seen since the Murder’s Row Yankees. The 2022 Astros functioned differently.
While still a well above average offensive team, by no means were they the historic offense we’ve grown accustomed to. This year’s team won largely on the backs of a lights out rotation and a smothering bullpen. The Astros pitching staff finished second in the MLB with a 2.87 ERA. Their bullpen led the league with a 2.80 ERA. The team limited opponents to a franchise record 518 total runs on the season, a minuscule 3.2 runs per game. Starters posted a 77-10 record when receiving 3+ runs of support. Said plainly, this staff shoves.
With numbers like these, it comes as no surprise one of their arms finished the 2022 season in the 98th percentile in expected batting average (xBA) 96th percentile in xERA/xWOBA, 95th in xSLG, 94th percentile in strikeout percentage and 82nd percentile in both whiff percentage and hard hit percentage.
Those must be numbers recorded by the prohibitive Cy Young favorite, right? No? Well how about the starter that set an American League consecutive quality starts record? Still no? Surely it’s the reliever that only allowed 7 earned runs on the season and obliterated the single season team ERA record?
Those numbers don’t belong to future Hall-of Famer Justin Verlander, 2022 All-Star Framber Valdez or new franchise record holder with a 1.15 ERA on the season in Ryne Stanek. They belong to a man that threw only 21 pitches in the ALDS—Cristian Javier. His traditional stats were just as nasty: a 2.54 ERA that would have finished tied for 7th with enough innings to qualify, and 11.7 K/9, trailing only Carlos Rodon and Shohei Ohtani.
Javier’s season is more than deserving of down vote Cy Young recognition and he’s one of the most versatile pitchers in the game, holding a career ERA of 3.00 as a starter and 3.21 out of the bullpen. His ability to be deployed as a starter or reliever, propensity to miss bats and proven postseason track record (career 3.38 ERA) make Javier a weapon any team would covet in October.
Dusty Baker has deployed Javier in two roles this October: leverage arm to keep a game close in Game 1 of the ALDS and starter in the hostile confines of Yankee Stadium in Game 3 in the ALCS. Javeir took his turn in the rotation and responded with 5 1/3 innings of shutout, one-hit baseball to all but put the final nail in the Yankees’ 2022 coffin.
Heading into a World Series against a red-hot Phillies team with 16 home runs and a .749 OPS as a team this October, it is vital Javier has a clearly defined role and gets the ball as often as possible.
What happens if Verlander’s World Series woes carry over into this Fall Classic? Do the Astros get Lance McCullers from Game 3 in Seattle, or Game 4 in New York? Did Luis’ Garcia’s Game 3 heroics earn him a turn in the rotation, and if so, does that limit Javier to one start? Does Javier start on his own, or does he piggyback off of Verlander in Game 1 and Game 5 and Dusty alluded to as a possibility had the ALDS gone to Game 4?
Those questions may have to be answered moving forward. Assuming JV regains form, it’s hard to imagine a tougher duo to put a crooked number against over 9 innings than Verlander followed by Javier. It’s a great plan, but as the legendary Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until the get punched in the mouth.”
The ‘Stros embarrassment of riches in pitchers assures a good arm will often go unused or underutilized. But if the Stros do get punched in the mouth in Game 1 again, are his 21 ALDS pitches out of one of the biggest weapons in all of baseball the recipe for success? Does his Game 3 domination keep him ahead of McCullers Jr. in the rotation? Lots of questions surround Javier’s role, to no fault of his own. Does he play the role of Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer and get handed the ball as often as his arm can physically withstand in this World Series?
His ability to fill two roles in dominating fashion make him quite an asset, but also requires difficult decisions to be made. Whatever the case, a clear decision and role must be made. After all, what good is a weapon in battle if it never comes out of the holster?