Monday, May 20, 2024
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Astros rotation, bullpen have combined for disastrous 2024 MLB season, but is there hope for Houston pitching?

The Houston Astros are in a bad way. Their latest loss, a 7-2 drubbing on Tuesday night by the Chicago Cubs, dropped them to 7-17 on the season. They didn’t lose their 17th game last year until May 7. The Astros are already in last place in the American League West, 5 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners. There aren’t many easy answers to the questions facing them. Their offense has underperformed (they rank fourth in wRC+ but 19th in runs scored) and their pitching staff has scuffled, to the extent that only the Colorado Rockies entered Wednesday with a worse staff ERA.  (Coincidentally, those two teams will meet this weekend in Mexico City; expect some crooked numbers.)

To be fair, the Astros have a valid reason for fielding an uncharacteristically poor pitching staff: they’re without most of their usual starting rotation. Justin Verlander only just returned from injury, but Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr., José Urquidy, and Luis Garcia remain sidelined because of this or that malady. The Astros, in turn, are attempting to get by with the likes of J.P. France and Spencer Arrighetti. To make matters worse, high-leverage relievers Josh Hader and Ryan Pressly are sporting airplane ERAs and have combined for more blown than converted saves.

With nearly a month gone in the regular season, it’s fair to ask: is there any hope for this Astros pitching staff? Below, we’ve highlighted three reasons why better days could be coming.

1. Help is on the way

We mentioned above that the Astros have been ravaged by injuries. While that’s not a positive development, the silver lining is that those pitchers are progressing in their recoveries. Valdez threw a bullpen session over the weekend, and Urquidy is now throwing off the slope of the mound. Depending on how well Javier’s neck responds to treatment, those three could be in line to return to the fold sometime in May.

Pitcher Injury Out since Career ERA+

Framber Valdez

Elbow inflammation

April 2

123

Cristian Javier

Neck discomfort

April 21

118

Lance McCullers Jr.

Elbow surgery

June 2023

118

Luis Garcia

Tommy John surgery

May 2023

113

José Urquidy

Strained forearm

March 15

104

Garcia and McCullers, meanwhile, seem more likely to return around the All-Star Game. Both underwent elbow operations last summer.

Granted, there’s always the possibility of a setback. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the layoffs will impact some of those pitchers, too. As perverse as it reads, the Astros can take some solace in the numbers game aspect: they don’t need every single one of those pitchers to be healthy at the same time. They just need enough of them to get by.

2. Water stills

If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly familiar with the concept of regression to the mean. If not, here’s how to think of it: extreme performances tend to move closer toward the average over long enough timelines. That’s just how baseball works. You can blame it on statistical theory, or you can credit it to the ability for the world’s best players to make adjustments — to their own games and to their opponents’. Pick whatever explanation makes it easier to fall asleep without a night light.

To use one example: Ronel Blanco, bless his heart, is not going to continue to sport a 1.33 ERA the rest of the way. The flip side is that the Astros have a lot of performances on the other side of the spectrum that should even out Blanco’s regression. 

Hader and Pressly are the most obvious candidates to perform better the rest of the way, given that both have extensive track records of being top-notch relief pitchers. That isn’t to say either is guaranteed to reach their old heights. We’ll concede that Hader has made some philosophical tweaks to his game that might be negatively impacting him; likewise, it’s possible that the wheels have fallen off Pressly, the same way they have across history for plenty of 35-year-old relievers. Still, we’re talking about fewer than 20 combined innings from the pair. With a sample that small, you’re generally wise to defer to the larger track record until you have no other choice.

Even pitchers like France should fare better moving forward. Mind you, this is someone who had a 110 ERA+ last season, and whose ball-tracking numbers are better than you’d expect. Although France has given up some hard contact, his average exit velocity is better than the league-average mark; additionally, his percentage of hard-hit balls (that’s 95 mph or hotter) is also several percentage points better than the average. That doesn’t mean France is going to replicate last season; he’s clearly struggling with his command, delivering fewer than 58% of his pitches for strikes. It does mean that, with the right adjustment, he could be a suitable stopgap again until some veterans return.

We hope we’ve been clear that there are factors that can prevent regression. As we alluded to with Pressly, skill decay (caused by age or injury) is a real concern. That established, if a team with competitive aspirations continues to run a player out there despite poor performance, it’s likely because they have reason to believe the player is better than they’ve displayed. Of course, teams aren’t infallible. Sometimes, be it because of a lack of alternatives or a sizable financial commitment, they stick with players who just don’t have the juice for longer than their play indicates they should.

Maybe that’s the case here, but the more likely outcome — at least in our estimation — is that the Astros have one or two bad apples on their staff instead of a rotten bushel.

3. Deadline looms

We’ve covered how the Astros have some internal help coming — at least in the form of regression and returning  injured veterans; their farm system remains weak after years upon years of go-for-it trades and late (or forfeited) first-round picks — but how about the external aspect? Yes, we know: mentioning the trade deadline in April, about a last-place team at that, is a groan-inducing maneuver. We’ll keep it brief.

There are some dreadful teams in the majors this season who have no real reason to wait until late July to start making moves. Surely the Astros could find an upgrade here and there on their pitching staffs, even if they don’t have the prospect war chest to make the kind of splash they did last summer when they reacquired Justin Verlander.

The catch is that the Astros have to stay close enough to a playoff spot for an active deadline to make sense. They’re already 5 1/2 games out and they’re staring down a schedule that includes series against the Cleveland Guardians, Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, and Detroit Tigers between now and mid-May.

If the Astros can weather that storm, and if they can start to pick up some of the pieces internally, then who knows — maybe looking ahead to the deadline won’t seem so silly.

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