Houston Astros: The Rise of Colton Gordon

World Baseball Classic Pool D: Puerto Rico v Israel
World Baseball Classic Pool D: Puerto Rico v Israel / Eric Espada/GettyImages

Houston Astros fans have even more reason for excitement because a legitimate left-handed pitching prospect just got promoted to Triple-A Sugar Land from Double-A Corpus Christi. His name is Colton Gordon. Read on for more.

Following the Justin Verlander trade, the smoke has yet to settle on a lingering question—who got the better end of the deal—the New York Mets who landed prized prospects Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford, or the Astros who received the American League ’22 Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander?

While it might be too early to tell if Verlander wins another ring or if Gilbert develops into the next Andrew Benintendi—a 2018 World Series champion who last season slashed an impressive .304/.373/.399 while splitting time between the Yankees and Royals—one thing remains certain: the Astros did not give up their best left-handed minor league pitching prospect. His name is Colton Gordon.

The St. Petersburg native pitched at the University of Central Florida for a couple of years, leaving after the 2021 season. As a collegiate player, Gordon went 7-2 in 13 starts striking out 96 hitters in 78 innings. One of his most impressive accomplishments was facing 334 batters in college and only walking 18 of them. This got the attention of the Astros who drafted him in the 8th round of 2021 MLB June Amateur Draft.

Since going pro, Colton Gordon, now 24, possesses a career 3.26 minor league ERA. Last season, Gordon pitched just about everywhere as he continued to rise through the minor league ranks in the Astros’ system. The southpaw went from the lowest rung of the ladder in rookie ball, then to Single-A in the Carolina League, and finished the season in High-A ball in the South Atlantic League. All combined as an Astros' farmhand last year, Gordon went 2-1, with a 2.35 ERA in 53.2 innings pitched, surrendering just 35 hits, while punching out 78 batters.

Following last season's minor league performance that netted him a phenomenal .80 WHIP, Gordon pitched for Israel in the World Baseball Classic and earned a promotion to begin the current season with Double-A Corpus Christi.

In his time with the Corpus Christi Hooks this season, Gordon held a respectable sub-four ERA through 93 innings pitched, while only giving up 75 hits and striking out 121 hitters. Gordon was so good at fanning batters he averaged 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.

And if that was not enough—Gordon walked only 36 batters of the nearly 400 he faced in a Hooks’ uniform through 93 innings of work, speaking to a major strength of the prospect that the Astros are undoubtedly excited about: his ratio of innings pitched to allowed walks.

To put this into perspective, the Astros’ top left-handed pitcher, Framber Valdez—as gifted of a premier major league starter as he his—has struggled in this category throughout his career.

And as talented as many MLB batters are as athletes when they become base runners, each allowed walk by a pitcher threatens to translate into more runs scored, often even making the difference between winning or losing a given contest.

Another way of looking at this is the Astros have identified a left-handed starting pitching prospect in Gordon who is experiencing tremendous success with command and location via walks allowed per nine innings pitched as well as tremendous success with dominance via strikeouts.

However—Gordon will have to sustain this success against tougher competition at Triple-A and ultimately the major league level. No easy task, to be sure, but the Astros’ future starting rotation may very likely feature two lefties—Valdez and Gordon—who provide different, but effective skill sets. Valdez relies heavily on a plus curve and a sinking fastball that can touch 96; whereas Gordon touts a low 90’s fastball, mixed in with a slider, changeup, and slow curve.

In his debut last Tuesday for Sugar Land, Gordon tossed five scoreless innings, giving up three hits and two walks, while punching out three, earning his first win at the Triple-A level. In his subsequent start on Sunday, he gave up four runs to Triple-A El Paso and received a no-decision.

While this may sound discouraging, it remains important to put into context just how prolific El Paso's offense has been in its four-game winning streak against Sugar Land, in which the western Texas rival ball club scored a combined 46 runs off of Sugar Land's pitching staff. But if there is any silver lining, Gordon managed to strike out five and walk only one through three innings of work—encouraging signs for his tentative next start this upcoming weekend against Round Rock.

What is Gordon’s pitching style like?

While observing Gordon in person in Corpus Christi, I noticed several things. He’s a particularly cerebral player, often electing to analyze and converse with his batterymate when he walks back to the dugout. Most pitchers prefer to walk back alone in solitude after the conclusion of an inning. Gordon is in a minority of pitchers who prefer to find their catchers after the last pitch of each inning, and walk back to the dugout together potentially to discuss their strategy, execution, and preparation.

I also observed Gordon’s deep desire to win and his competitiveness. Following a delivered pitch by Gordon at Whataburger Field that resulted in a successful throw down to second base to eliminate a runner on a steal attempt, Gordon hit the deck on the mound like lightning struck him in order to give his batterymate the best sight line possible, as the catcher’s throw whizzed passed him overhead, showing how badly Gordon wanted a baserunner who reached against him previously in the inning to be taken off the basepaths. It’s as if Gordon knows his stats and like a perfectionist, wants to be the best.

At the end of that inning, Gordon walked off the field toward his catcher, and emphatically praised his teammate for the throw. Gordon, excited and pumped up, came across as desiring to win, while also showing evidence of a genuine willingness to bond with and appreciate his teammates.

Which former Astros’ lefty might be most similar to Gordon?

Scouting him in person at Whataburger Field while he pitched for Double-A Corpus Christi before his recent promotion to Triple-A Sugar Land, a couple of other things also became apparent.

The 6’4’’ Gordon features a similar build and delivery to Astros and Yankees' fan favorite, Andy Pettitte. Gordon weighs in at 225 pounds, about 10 pounds lighter and an inch shorter than the 18-year veteran who amassed a combined 275 wins between the regular and post season before he retired.

But that’s not all—the comparison does not end there. While taking notes on Gordon from the vantage point of the stands behind home plate, something else caught my eye. Gordon conceals his pitches very effectively like Pettitte did. Both players use the fielding glove in front of the torso so as to hide their throwing-hand’s pitch grip from the batter’s view while taking signs from the catcher in the moments before delivering the ball.

And for good measure, Gordon even possesses a similar all-business poker face to Pettitte’s while on the mound. Also—for added nostalgic throwback value for Andy Pettitte fans—sometimes Gordon’s mouth and lower facial expression are partially obstructed from the batter’s view by his glove as he comes set before the pitch—keeping the opposing hitters off-balance and guessing as to what’s coming next.

Gordon, also like Pettitte, does not have a blow-you-away fastball, but he has proved himself so far a true strikeout pitcher at every collegiate and professional level he’s played at to date. 

Earlier in July, I watched Gordon in person garner nine strikeouts in five innings at Whataburger Field. He appeared perfectly fine to keep pitching, but the Astros' decision-makers likely did not want to overburden his pitch count.

Just a theory—but Astros’ skipper, Dusty Baker, might have mandated to Corpus throughout the season that he wanted Gordon on a pitch count with a premeditated intention to promote him to Sugar Land before season’s end. Baker and Astros’ GM, Dana Brown, may have already decided much earlier in the season Gordon was an untouchable asset and intended to clear up space among the left-handed pitchers in Triple-A by promoting Parker Mushinksi to the big league roster and designating for assignment Blake Taylor.

In essence, Baker and Brown may have just wanted to allow each minor league contributor’s performance to play out without tipping their cards to other ball clubs on who they thought their best prospect really was, while they actively scoured the market for a viable left-handed pitching option that could help the Astros win the championship again this season before the trade deadline.

Albeit Gordon is only two years removed from Tommy John surgery, so the early exits could just be the Astros not looking for Gordon to go deep into games he already is dominating and in line to win after the fifth inning as a safety precaution.

Irregardless of all the trade speculation for the Astros to acquire a left-handed arm before the MLB trade deadline that passed in early August, Gordon might even be on Baker’s radar to audition for a lefty reliever bullpen role for the Astros a little later this season should southpaws Matt Gage or Parker Mushinski be unavailable due to injury or illness. However, Gordon has shown the Astros’ top brass that the starting role—not the bullpen—is the niche where he shines brightest.

Where does Gordon’s promotion to Triple-A go from here?

Now if Gordon were to wow in Triple-A and and earn a spot start for Houston this season—perhaps even getting called up over Brandon Bielak or Ronel Blanco—that call-up further accentuates a long-term problem for the Astros who are logjammed with quality starting pitchers, some of whom are waiting in the wings to return from the injured list. And when Lance McCullers, Jr. and Luis Garcia are good to go—well, you get the point.

But sometimes, there are good problems to have.

In the big picture, should the Astros need top minor league prospects or impact major league players, they stand to have a loaded 2024 roster of talented starting pitchers with major league experience under contract. And if this list includes Colton Gordon on the Astros’ roster, all the better.

For Astros’ fans desiring blockbuster moves from general manager, Dana Brown, to upgrade the team to contend again for a World Series title in 2024, Gordon’s impending debut and success in Houston only adds value to Brown’s ability to deal quality pitchers in exchange for All-Star caliber players. Although, should Gordon stay an Astro, a season or two from now the lefty could be leading the Astros’ rotation—even the majors—with the lowest allowed walks per nine innings pitched ratio.

Did the Astros lose on the Verlander trade?

As one of the few writers out there who has seen both Drew Gilbert and Justin Verlander play multiple games in person, I can tell you Gilbert is dynamic, capable of making full-speed diving catches, and knocking the ball over the fence. But he is also gifted at small ball and a pesky out, capable of getting three- or four-hit games by spoiling quality pitches and depositing them into the shallow outfield. He runs well and might—key word, might—at some point be a significantly above average major league outfielder.

But whether or not Gilbert becomes the next Brett Gardner in his prime or Andrew Benintendi tearing the cover off of the ball on a championship run is difficult to say. Just as it is difficult to predict if Justin Verlander will have the same effectiveness following the injuries he has recuperated from.

Nevertheless, all in all, Gordon won the trade for the Astros over the Mets precisely because he was not a part of it.