In the offseason, the loss of Justin Verlander (before subsequently re-acquiring him at the trade deadline) was seen as an afterthought from Astros fans and media. The team just won their second World Series ring in five full seasons. Backed by the historic pitching staff of Verlander, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and the dominant bullpen, losing JV to the New York Mets initially didn't appear to create a huge hole in the rotation.
On paper, the Astros didn't need Verlander. The pitching staff without him was still expected to be among the top five in most of the key categories. Unfortunately, the loss of three key pitching arms in Garcia, Urquidy, and McCullers early in this season left a gaping hole at the back end of the rotation. Additionally, SP Hunter Brown regressed from last year's MLB debut.
At this point in the season, Houston wished they bit the bullet and signed Verlander to that lucrative contract. They had no choice but to call up arms that didn't appear ready to play for a team still in championship contention. These included names such as Ronel Blanco, Brandon Bielak, and a Louisiana prospect drafted in the 14th round called J.P. France.
Pitching performances from Blanco and Bielak were to be expected: mediocre, with the occasional stretch of decent games. Both have been sent down to the minors and called back up more than three times this season. In contrast, France's journey was a pleasant surprise. Since making his MLB debut on May 6th, he has firmly held his spot on the Astros roster without a single demotion back to AAA.
J.P. France's tenure in the Astros rotation has significantly impacted their success in crucial games. In 16 games with 15 starts, France boasts an ERA of 2.75 and a 154 ERA+ according to Fangraphs. However, these numbers can be deceiving, given his opposing hitters' average of .240 and an OBP of .304, resulting in a FIP of 4.15. He also isn't known for striking batters out a whole lot either (68 Ks in 92 IP). His average exit velocity (88.8) and Hard Hit % (37.1%) align closely with MLB averages.
Without considering his ERA numbers, France seems to perform on par with a standard MLB pitcher. Yet, he excels in crucial moments, often navigating out of tight situations with multiple runners on base. France's strength lies in eliminating the long ball, with a 2.5% Home Run percentage, which is 0.7% lower than the league average. In the month of July, the Astros went 15-10. While this was due to the offensive outburst of Kyle Tucker and Chas McCormick, France also came up huge on the pitching side. He led the rotation in ERA, WHIP, and innings pitched, while only giving up one home run in July.
Urquidy and Verlander's Return To The Rotation
On paper, this should have solidified his spot in the rotation. But this season isn't like others. Injuries dealt to half the rotation was the main reason why France was called up. Just last week, two things happened that impacted France's current stretch in the rotation:
- The Astros re-acquired 2022 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander from the New York Mets.
- In the final game of the three game set against the New York Yankees in the Bronx, Jose Urquidy returned from the Injured List to make a start for the first time in over three months.
These events subsequently took over France's slot in the rotation and placed him into a bullpen role.
This decision from Dusty Baker to start Urquidy over the Mississippi State prospect angered Astros fans and media. They questioned the logic of sidelining a pitcher in form, especially when he delivered seven quality innings in his previous three outings.. Here lies the rub; J.P. France hasn't pitched more than 114 Innings in a season during his pro-baseball career. It's only natural for Baker to take him out of the rotation so that France doesn't blow his pitching arm. He was expected to make an appearance out of the bullpen because Urquidy was on a pitch count.
France Shines Out Of The Pen
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. Urquidy pitched well for three innings, giving up just one run, but failed to get out of the fourth after giving up a second run and left the bases loaded.
With a 5-2 lead, this brought in RP Phil Maton to try and stop the inning from getting out of hand so that France could start the next half of the inning on a clean slate. Regrettably, Maton exacerbated the situation. His mistakes – a hit-by-pitch and two consecutive walks – led to the Yankees scoring three additional runs, tieing the game. Maton's struggles forced Baker's hand, leading him to introduce France while the bases were still loaded. France showcased his timely prowess, forcing Gleyber Torres into a flyout.
France pitched two additional innings and allowed an unearned run along with three walks and four strikeouts after Houston blew their 5-1 lead. Despite this, he managed to keep the Astros in the game, a skill he has consistently displayed since his call-up. In each inning that France pitched, the Yankees had runners in scoring position, yet he didn't surrender an earned run. Intriguingly, despite not being the starter, his stint from the bullpen secured him his 8th win as Houston won 9-7.
Urquidy? Or France?
France's stellar performance has left Dusty in a tight spot. Should he keep Urquidy in the rotation and let France, who's enjoyed an outstanding rookie year, operate from the bullpen? It's important to remember that prior to Urquidy's injury, the 28-year-old had a shaky start to his season. In April alone, Urquidy allowed 16 earned runs over 27.2 innings, resulting in a 5.20 ERA and a .297 opponent BA.
While he's consistently been a linchpin in the back end of the rotation and played crucial roles in Houston's multiple postseason runs since 2019, the ever-present question still remains: "what have you done for me lately?" To put things into perspective, Urquidy's past 15 starts, tracing back to the previous season, equate to a 4.45 ERA in 82.2 innings with a .252 opponent batting average.
Based on stats, It seems that starting J.P. over Urquidy is the best course of action. While France's commendable performance this season doesn't go unnoticed, there are possible implications of this decision, notably his health and endurance after already pitching over his personal best across AAA and the Majors.
Overexertion for inexperienced pitchers in the majors can lead to potential injuries and underperformance, which could sideline a player, possibly impacting their long-term career. With these considerations in mind, either a six-man rotation is needed to add France back in, or balance his starts with bullpen stints. Similar to Cristian Javier in 2021-2022, this approach ensures form retention while also providing necessary rest.
As the postseason looms, the strategy might require adjustments, leveraging Urquidy's experience in high-pressure situations. While being in win-now mode is crucial, it's important to note how much of a deadly weapon France can potentially become once he gets more experience in the majors. Let's hope he doesn't burn out early in his career, even if it means making some challenging decisions in the short-term.