Mandatory Credit: Photo by David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock (13433374a) Houston Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez throws against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game, in Houston Rays Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 30 Sep 2022
The Astros’ six-man rotation should stick for 2023
Most teams can’t field four quality starters. Houston is the only team in baseball with starters to spare.
Most Astros fans remember that in 2022, Houston really started their takeoff in line with their move to a six-man rotation. The six-man idea had been a topic going all the way back to January, primarily out of necessity. The Astros had a lot of workload management issues to get through and six months of regular-season baseball before their chase for their second World Championship.
Every starting pitcher the Astros had not named Jake Odorizzi entered 2022 with a workload question mark:
- Justin Verlander returning from Tommy John surgery at age 39 and essentially a two-year layoff.
- Framber Valdez had just thrown a career high 161.1 innings across the regular and postseason. His previous best was 140.0 IP in 2018.
- José Urquidy missed nearly three months of the 2021 season due to two separate stints on the IL for shoulder injuries.
- Luis Garcia had just thrown a career high 171.0 innings between the regular and postseason. His previous career high was 108.2 IP in 2019.
- Cristian Javier threw 112.0 innings in 2021. His career high was 113.2 IP in 2019. A starting rotation spot would bring him to new heights in innings pitched.
- Lance McCullers Jr., fresh off a career high 173.0 IP, was still dealing with a flexor tendon injury he suffered in the 2021 postseason and wasn’t ready to pitch. He wouldn’t return until Aug. 13, 2022.
The reason this is so important is because excessive workloads compared to previous workloads are indicators of diminished performance and higher injury risk. This is particularly true in young pitchers. It has become known as “The Year-After Effect,” based on the philosophies of noted longtime pitching guru Rick Peterson.
Peterson was at the very forefront of analytics and biometrics in pitching long before either word had thought of creeping into the modern vernacular. Peterson is credited with developing the “Big 3″ Of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson in Oakland. He is also known for revitalizing the careers of Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, and Billy Wagner in New York, where he also developed John Maine and Oliver Perez into quality pitchers.
Heading into the 2023 season, the Astros find themselves yet again looking at workload management issues for several of their pitchers.
- Framber Valdez pitched a career-high 226.1 innings across the regular and postseason in 2022. That’s a 72 IP increase from his previous career high set the year before.
- Cristian Javier threw a career-high 161.1 innings across the regular and postseason, a 50 IP increase from his season before and 49 IP above his career high.
- Luis Garcia struggled for significant stretches in 2022, the first season after he set a new career high in IP by 60+ innings.
- José Urquidy threw 167.1 innings, setting a new career best by 37 innings. He also struggled at times throughout the season with sudden drops in velocity early in games. Urquidy also struggled badly toward the end of the season.
- Hunter Brown pitched 130.0 innings between Triple-A Sugar Land and the Astros, setting a new career high by 30 innings.
- Lance McCullers Jr. followed his career best 173 IP in 2021 with an injury-plagued 2022, where he returned Aug. 13 and pitched a total of 63 innings between the regular and postseason.
Framber, Javier, and Brown are all workload concerns due to having significantly increased workloads. Javier and Brown being younger pitchers are of greater concern.
Garcia managed to get through the season injury free, but certainly had more hiccups than he did the previous year. After maintaining that workload back-to-back seasons, he should be ready to be off the concern list.
Urquidy’s struggles at various points last season, coming off a season in which he made two trips to the IL for shoulder issues, are of concern. His inconsistent velocity for stretches is also a concern.
McCullers injury history will always be of concern.
In 2022, the Astros were fortunate to remain overwhelmingly healthy. Five pitchers made at least 25 starts, with four making at least 28. That is not a standard occurrence. Part of the reason the Astros were able to stay so healthy was due to utilizing a six-man rotation to take some of the burden and workload off their pitchers. The result was overwhelmingly positive performance, and guys pitching better and deeper into games. Verlander, Valdez, and Javier all had career-best seasons.
Maintaining their health and efficiency in the rotation is of paramount importance for Houston, as the rotation is their biggest strength and greatest advantage over competing teams. Getting 28 starts out of five starters again in 2023 would likely mean another 100+ win season for Houston.
The smartest and safest way to get there is to take advantage of their assets in the rotation and use all of them and keep the six-man rotation for the regular season.