Is Something Wrong with Cristian Javier?

Apr 17, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Cristian Javier (53) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Is Something Wrong with Cristian Javier?

Javier’s velocity is down across the board, and 26-year-old pitchers don’t have sudden velocity drops for no reason.

Entering the 2023 season, Houston Astros star Cristian Javier was a trendy pick to be the AL Cy Young award winner. Javier was brilliant in 2023 and started no-hitters at Yankee Stadium and in Philadelphia during the World Series in one of the greatest World Series pitching performances ever.

Perhaps the expectations for Javier were unrealistic, and it isn’t as though he is pitching poorly (2-0, 3.21 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) this season. However, there is something about his performances that cannot be ignored. His velocity is down across the board on every pitch he throws.

In 2022, Javier threw his four-seam fastball 60% of the time and averaged 94 MPH on it, peaking at 97 MPH. His slider is his second most thrown offering, at 28%, averaging 80 MPH and reaching as high as 84 MPH. His curve he threw a little over 8% of the time, averaging 77 MPH and reaching as high as 80 MPH. He threw his changeup 4% of the time, averaging 85 MPH and as fast as 89 MPH.

So far in 2023, his averages are slightly down. He is averaging 92.8 MPH on the fastball, 78.8 MPH on his slider, 76.2 MPH on his curve, and 83.3 MPH on his seldom-used change.

The bigger issue isn’t so much the averages of the pitches, but the inconsistency in his velocity inning to inning, pitch to pitch. The fastball, of course, is the biggest concern, as breaking pitches gather effectiveness more on sharp, late break than on velocity.

Javier is coming off his fifth start of the season and easily his best effort, going six innings while allowing two runs (one earned), three hits, two walks, and struck out a season-high 10. His command was much better, as he was hitting his spots at the very top of the zone, working both sides of the plate, and changing eye level consistently.

In the first inning, he threw 12 fastballs. One at 91, eight at 92, three at 93.

In the second inning, he threw six fastballs, three at 91, three at 92.

In the third inning, he threw 12 fastballs, five at 91, seven at 92. It should be noted he struck out the side, two of which were swinging strikes on fastballs high in the zone at 91 and 92 MPH.

In the fourth inning, he threw eight fastballs, two at 90, five at 91, one at 92.

In the fifth inning, he threw nine fastballs, one at 90, two at 91, six at 92. He surrendered a home run on a 91 MPH fastball dead middle of the plate belt high.

In his sixth and final inning, he threw eight fastballs, six at 91 and two at 92.

That is a total of 55 fastballs. Three at 90 MPH, 22 at 91, 27 at 92, three at 93. That averages out to 91.5 MPH, nearly 2.5 MPH below his average fastball a year ago.

There are myriad reasons why this could be happening, but 26-year-old pitchers don’t suddenly lose velocity for no reason.

It could be as simple as he is dealing with some dead arm as a result of participating in the World Baseball Classic. The WBC requires pitchers to ramp up faster, as the games are more important to the players representing their countries than they are in terms of the MLB season. It is not uncommon for pitchers who have participated in the WBC to go through a dead-arm period.

It could be arm fatigue from having pitched more innings than he had ever pitched in his career and the short offseason that accompanied those greater innings. Javier had never thrown more than 113.2 innings as a professional, and that was in 2019 until last season. In 2022, between the regular and postseason, Javier logged 161.1 innings, nearly 50 innings more than his career high to that point.

It could be a combination of the heavier workload, shorter offseason, and faster ramp-up. It could also be that he is experiencing some sort of discomfort (to steal a word from the Astros) that is causing the diminished velocity.

The most recent game against the Braves is not an outlier. The decreased and fluctuating velocity has been an issue for Javier in every start he has made this season, as his four-seam fastball has ranged from 90-94 MPH within multiple innings, let alone game to game, but he seems to be working primarily around 92 MPH.

Overall, the decreased velocity on his fastball has made the pitch less effective. Last season, opposing batters hit .183 off Javier’s fastball with a lowly .326 SLG. Thus far in 2023, opponents are hitting .269 off Javier’s fastball, with a .493 SLG. Those are substantial increases in hitter success, albeit in a small sample size (28 innings).

However, the small sample size is all we currently have on Javier’s diminished velocity.

Javier wasn’t considered a big prospect in the minors because he threw his fastball 92-93 in the minors and was successful because he knows how to pitch to both sides of the plate, changes eye level, and has a deceptive motion. It is not as though Javier cannot be successful with a reduction in velocity to his minor league days.

The question is, why is there a decrease after he increased velocity at the major league level several years ago? Young pitchers don’t suddenly lose arm speed or leg power to drive. This is why I don’t consider this situation to be ‘panic level,’ but it is definitely something to monitor.

The Astros are counting on Javier this season more than ever, hoping he could build off his terrific 2022 that saw him post a 2.54 ERA, an 0.95 WHIP, and strike out 194 batters in just 148.2 innings (11.7/9 K rate).

It should be noted Javier’s strikeout rate in 2023 has dropped to 9.3/9. That is still a strong number but a significant drop from the level he had established the previous two seasons (11.5/9 in 2021, 11.7/9 in 2022).

If it is a dead-arm period, he will eventually overcome it and see the return of previous velocity levels. If it is something else, Javier may need to make adjustments, as it can be very dangerous for a pitcher who lives high in the zone to be throwing 91-92 MPH. Missing a spot at that velocity high in the zone usually results in pitches being blasted.

Since Javier is so important to the Astros’ success this season, what happens next could be very important for the team’s rotation.

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