Houston’s offense may get the headlines, but the Astros also have a solid group of starters.
The 2021 Houston Astros are best known for their offense, which they showed by averaging 7.75 runs per game in the American League Division Series against the Chicago White Sox. However, as the Boston Red Sox get set to contend with the Astros in the American League Championship Series, they also have to prepare for the team’s starting pitchers, so let’s take a look at the rotation for the Astros.
Houston’s starting rotation was pretty good this year. It would be tough to make it to the playoffs, let alone the last step before the World Series, without having some talent on that part of the roster. Overall, Houston starters ranked 10th in Major League Baseball in fWAR (13.3) and fifth in ERA (3.60).
Unlike last round against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox can expect a bit more of a traditional deployment of starting pitchers with the Astros, but as manager Dusty Baker showed a few times during the ALDS, he will also pull the plug early on guys if needed in the postseason. With that written, here are the primary starters the Astros will feature.
Lance McCullers Jr.
McCullers has been a key pitcher for the Astros during their renaissance over the last half decade or so, but he was better than ever this season. He set career-bests in games started (28), innings pitched (162 1/3), fWAR (3.3), ERA (3.16), ERA- (75) and wins (13), helping the Astros overcome an unexceptional year from Zack Greinke and the absence of Justin Verlander. An above average strikeout pitcher, McCullers ranked in the 72nd percentile in MLB in strikeout rate in the regular season, but he can sometimes miss his feel for the plate, as his 11.1 percent walk rate was the second-highest mark of his career and placed him in the bottom 17th percentile in MLB. Fortunately for the right-hander, when he does work around the plate, he rarely gets hit hard or very far, as he finished the regular season third in MLB in home runs allowed per nine innings (0.72), with the two guys ahead of him two of the top candidates for the National League Cy Young award (Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler).
McCullers features a five-pitch repertoire, but he relies primarily on a sinker, an elite slider and a devastating curveball. He adds in a changeup and a very rare cutter from there. Now back to the curve and slider. McCullers ranks in the 94th percentile in MLB in curve spin, according to Baseball Savant, and FanGraphs has it as one of the 10 best hooks in baseball. McCullers’ slider is also exceptionally effective, featuring 13.7 inches of horizontal break and ranking among the top five such offerings in MLB based on FanGraphs’ pitch value metrics. While those two breaking pitches are tough to handle, McCullers’ sinker is hittable, especially since his velocity has dipped a bit this year.
In the ALDS, McCullers was called on to start game one and what turned out to be the series-deciding game four. He only logged 10 2/3 innings across those two starts (mostly because he was pulled early in game four) and didn’t strike out a ton of guys, but he kept the scoreboard pretty clean, producing a 0.84 ERA by allowing just one earned run. McCullers didn’t pitch against the Red Sox during this year, but he has a 5.40 ERA in five previous regular season appearances against them (25 innings). However, the last time the Red Sox saw him was in a relief role during the 2018 ALCS. They’ll likely have to wait a bit longer to see him in this series, especially since he isn’t 100 percent healthy and already started game four of the ALDS on Tuesday.
Valdez is probably going to get the start in game one. He was the game two starter in the ALDS and will have a week to rest. Valdez pitched fairly well for the first few innings in that ALDS game, but he lost steam in the fifth, ultimately leaving the game after 4 1/3 innings in which he gave up four earned runs on seven hits while striking out six batters. The Astros picked up the left-hander from there and went on to win 9-4.
Valdez earned that game two start after putting together a very strong 2021 campaign in the rotation following his breakout 2020 season. In 2021, he went 11-6 with a 3.14 ERA across 134 2/3 innings. However, Valdez is a unique pitcher in today’s world because he doesn’t put much velocity or spin on his fastball or strike out many batters. Instead, he has perfected the art of avoiding hard contact, ranking in the bottom one percent (!) in maximum exit velocity allowed in 2021 and the bottom ninth percentile in average exit velocity allowed.
The keys to Valdez’s success in inducing soft contact are his splendid sinker and curveball. Let’s start with the sinker. He throws it more than 50 percent of the time and this year averaged 92.5 miles per hour and 27.2 inches of vertical drop with it. Then there’s Valdez’s wipeout curveball, which in 2021 averaged 61 inches of vertical drop and 13.5 inches of horizonal movement. If you need more proof of how lethal it can be, Valdez’s curveball ranked seventh in MLB in curveball runs above average among pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown this season, according to FanGraphs.
Valdez was nearly impossible to figure out for the Red Sox in the two times they faced him this season. Those two matchups occurred only six days apart in early June and Valdez produced a 1.26 ERA and 0.83 WHIP while lasting at least seven innings both times.
The Red Sox will probably see Garcia in game two this weekend. Although Garcia made his MLB debut in 2020, this has been his first full season at the MLB level and he’s made the most of it. Across 30 appearances (28 starts) in the regular season, he logged 155 1/3 innings with a 3.30 ERA, 3.63 FIP and 78 ERA- while logging 3.1 fWAR. Unfortunately for the Astros, Garcia’s strong regular season work didn’t translate in game three of the ALDS, as he was pulled in the third inning while being held responsible for five earned runs during Houston’s lone loss in the series.
Trying to extrapolate and build hope on such a small sample (can you even call it a sample?) will do the Red Sox no favors, however, especially considering what he did to them earlier this year. If you don’t remember, on June 1, Garcia faced the Red Sox for the first and only time in his career and it was a terrible introduction for the Red Sox, who managed just one run on five hits while striking out six times against the 24-year-old right-hander.
The success Garcia had in that game and during the season as a whole is not the result of luck. Garcia has a plus cutter and slider, producing negative 11 run value with the former and negative six run value with the latter, according to Baseball Savant. In addition, Garcia’s slider features 15.9 inches of horizontal movement and 45.9 inches of drop, while his cutter breaks 2.6 inches horizontally. For reference, all three of those marks are comfortably above average. Garcia also has a deceptive fastball that ranks in the top 77th percentile in fastball spin and which he throws more than any other pitch, as well as a curveball and changeup that he mostly uses against left-handers.
Since this is a seven-game series and McCullers might be unavailable for some of it, the Astros may extend their rotation a bit more than they did in the ALDS. If that’s the case, they have a few solid options to call on. Greinke is the first, of course. The veteran right-hander is no stranger to postseason pitching and although he wasn’t a Cy Young contender in 2021, he still went 11-6 with a 4.16 ERA and logged the most innings on the staff (171), even as his strikeout production took a huge dip. After Greinke, José Urquidy is a solid option. The 26-year-old right-hander started in 20 games this year and produced a 3.62 ERA across 107 innings while keeping his walk count down quite a bit. In addition, although Cristian Javier has been used mostly out of the bullpen, he did make nine starts this year, so the Astros could turn to him if they get desperate.