May 1, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Luis Garcia (77) walks off the mound after an apparent injury during the first inning against the San Francisco Giants at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The Astros’ starting pitching was last year’s biggest strength. It has not been one so far this season.
Starting pitching was not supposed to be an issue for the Houston Astros. The rotation was six deep, and Houston likely would have utilized a six-man rotation had they been healthy. They haven’t been healthy.
Lance McCullers Jr. was shut down Feb. 14 due to an elbow strain. He is working his way back, but the throwing program he started in March has not progressed as fast as the team hoped. His projected return date was pushed from late April to May and now isn’t expected to be until June. Getting McCullers right so he can be an effective pitcher when he returns is important, but it does not help the Astros that it is taking so much longer than expected to get him there.
Jose Urquidy had been having the worst stretch of his career and then left his start on Sunday with right shoulder discomfort. It’s the same shoulder that cost him half of the 2021 season with a pair of injured list stints. The team placed him on the 15-day injured list on Monday. Urquidy is coming off a season full of ups and downs that saw the team take the ball out of his hands and banish him from the postseason. Urquidy currently has a 5.20 ERA and 1.55 WHIP, both of which would be career highs by a mile. Known as a strike-throwing machine, Urquidy has uncharacteristically walked 10 batters in just 27.2 IP and allowed a concerning 33 hits. He has allowed an eye-popping six home runs in that span as well. He has probably been dealing with a shoulder issue all season, and possibly dealt with it late last season. The Astros’ organizational lack of quality starting pitching depth makes this second injury a significant concern at the moment.
Then, Luis Garcia left his start against San Francisco Monday night after making only eight pitches due to injury. Garcia could potentially wind up on the injured list Tuesday. Garcia had struggled in his first three starts of the season, possibly due to a shortened offseason and a quick ramp-up after pitching in the World Baseball Classic. He had seemed to right himself, pitching 13 shutout innings over his previous two starts against two of the best offenses in baseball in the Rays and Blue Jays. In those two starts, Garcia allowed just five hits and three walks and struck out 16. Garcia appeared to have moved past whatever early-season issues he’d had, only to leave Monday’s game before retiring a batter.
In other troubling news, Cristian Javier has shown a decrease in velocity of approximately two miles per hour on his fastball (as well as decreased velocity on the rest of his pitches). While the Astros hoped Javier would take a step forward from the terrific season he posted in 2022, there are some factors conspiring against him right now.
Javier threw 161.1 innings combined last season between the regular season and postseason. His previous career high was 113.2 innings in 2019 while pitching in the Astros minor-league system. Those additional 47.2 innings represent a significant workload increase and are very close to the 50-inning workload increase that data shows can lead to decreased effectiveness and a higher risk for injury in the following season in young pitchers.
Because the Astros won the World Series, Javier’s offseason was a month shorter than most pitchers. He also pitched in the World Baseball Classic, and if Javier’s sense of national pride is similar to that of other foreign-born players, he probably looked at games in the World Baseball Classic like postseason games. Javier ramped up faster than normal to pitch in those games so that he could represent the Dominican Republic with pride and honor, but combining a heavy workload increase with a shorter offseason and a faster ramp-up is dangerous for a young pitcher’s arm.
Javier is 26 years old, and 26-year-old pitchers don’t experience sudden velocity decreases for no reason. Last season, Javier’s fastball averaged 94 miles per hour – more recently, he has primarily worked at 92 miles per hour. As a result, batters are hitting .288 against Javier’s four-seam fastball this season, a significant increase in batting average from .188 in 2022. Last season, opposing batters slugged a paltry .326 against Javier’s fastball. This season, opposing hitters are slugging .525 against it. His fastball’s spin rate is down as well, from an average of 2,354 rpm to 2,249 rpm. Javier might be dealing with some dead-arm effects borne of the three issues listed above, or it could be something far worse (hopefully not).
Javier came up in the Astros system working at 92 miles per hour and added velocity at the MLB level. Clearly, he’s pitched at this velocity before – but if 92 miles per hour is going to be the new normal for Javier, expectations ought to reflect that. Fans should not assume that Cristian Javier will replicate 2022’s stellar performance if his velocity is decreased for an extended period.
With two current starting pitchers on the IL, a third potentially headed there Tuesday, and concerns regarding Javier’s unexplained velocity drop, the Astros are dealing with severe starting pitching issues. The organization’s depth at Triple-A is lacking in the starting pitching department. J.P. France is currently walking more than five batters per nine innings. Shawn Dubin is walking almost more than four batters per nine innings. Forrest Whitley is nowhere near ready for MLB work since he has barely had Triple-A work, and he’s sporting an ERA around 6.00 and walking more than four batters per nine. That brings us to Brandon Bielak, who was recalled with Urquidy officially going on the IL.
At the MLB level, Bielak is 6-7 with a 5.15 career ERA and 1.48 WHIP. Those numbers are hardly inspiring. Bielak isn’t someone that can be expected to pitch deep into games either – he hasn’t pitched more than 4.2 innings in an outing at the MLB level since August 2020.
Houston may have to deal with having a weak fourth and fifth starter for a significant portion of the season with the injuries continuing to mount up. Losing two starters is really pushing the Astros’ limits, but losing three would be borderline catastrophic for any team in baseball. That is where Houston is right now.
I’ve maintained since January the only thing that could really take down the Astros this season would be a rash of injuries to the starting rotation. Starting pitching is difficult to replace, and doing so via trade is often prohibitively expensive. If the Astros were to be without three starters at once, pitchers like France and Dubin would be pressed into MLB service.
It would make sense for Houston to seek a temporary reprieve in the form of a lower-level, innings-eater type of starting pitcher in the short term (think Jake Odorizzi). Someone the Astros can acquire without giving up much in terms of young prospects, perhaps providing salary relief for another team.
Impact starters are extremely expensive at this point in the season, and teams are incentivized to hold on to players longer with the expanded postseason. Houston will most likely need to find internal or low-cost answers to fill voids until July.