Which pitcher is Astros' weak link? (Spoiler: There is none)

October 28th, 2022

In Game 3 of the ALCS, the Astros sent out 25-year-old Cristian Javier to face Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Javier, in his third season in the Majors, posted a 2.54 ERA this year. He finished the season with a 25 1/3-inning scoreless streak, he had the third-highest strikeout rate among pitchers who threw as many innings as he did (behind only Shohei Ohtani and Carlos Rodón) and he was the starter when the Astros no-hit the Yankees in June.

Javier is, by any definition, an extremely effective Major League pitcher. (He posted 3.7 WAR, per FanGraphs.) But despite the Astros making deep postseason runs in each of the past two years, this was his first postseason start. Game 3 was his first start of any kind in three weeks, and even that only came about when expected starter Lance McCullers Jr. injured himself in a champagne incident -- no, really -- and needed another day.

On nearly any other team, Javier would be a No. 2 or 3 starter. On the Astros? He’s a luxury. He’s depth. He’s the guy only when you need a guy. And now you know why the 2022 Astros pitching staff has led them to yet another World Series appearance -- because they’re so good, so talented, that a pitcher who hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a game since July can’t even find an opportunity to get on the mound without a fluke injury befalling a teammate.

Javier did his job and then some in Game 3. For a pitcher not even part of the regular postseason rotation, throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings and outdueling Cole to place your team one win away from the World Series is a solid day's work.

There was a notable stat floating around near the end of the regular season that showed that more than 99% of the Astros' innings had come from pitchers with an ERA below 4.00, which is both impressive and accurate. Eighteen Astros threw at least 10 innings and had an ERA of 4.00 or under, tied for the fourth most ever.

It was, obviously, a very good pitching staff, despite the departure of highly respected pitching coach Brent Strom after last season. If we go back to integration in 1947, the 2022 Astros were tied for 12th best in WAR and 27th in ERA. By ERA+, which compares a team’s ERA to the context of that year’s MLB average, they were tied for fourth best in a non-shortened season, which is both “outstanding” and “not even the best of 2022, because the Dodgers existed.”

If it’s a little difficult to take them into “the best pitching staff ever” territory, they're still mostly in the top 1% of nearly 2,000 team seasons since 1947. It is extremely good. But as good as that all sounds, not all those pitchers are here in the postseason, like Jake Odorizzi (traded to Atlanta), or Phil Maton (broken hand) or various Bielaks and Mushinskis who didn’t make the roster.

Instead there were 11 Astros pitchers to appear -- Blake Taylor, José Urquidy and Seth Martinez have variously been rostered but didn’t get in -- and every single one has been absolutely filthy. That really is the point of what we’ve seen so far, that there’s barely been a non-competitive pitch, much less a plate appearance, from a pitcher who wasn’t elite in some way.

For all the attention given to how much the Yankees' offense struggled in the ALCS, note that they didn’t achieve that ignominy by themselves. In the history of AL/NL postseason baseball, there have been 224 teams to play at least seven games. The Astros' .539 OPS allowed is fifth best; their .248 OBP allowed is fourth best; their .178 average allowed is third best; their 31.6% strikeout rate is second best. (Their 1.88 ERA allowed so far is “only” the sixth best on record, but also the best since the 1983 Orioles.)

You manage to pull that off when you don’t have the best pitchers shouldering a larger load to cover for the weaker ones; you do that when you just don’t have any weaker ones. (Houston starters faced 66% of the batters in the ALCS, the largest share of any of the final four teams, and then the relievers followed with one of the all-time dominating performances.)

“I tell you what: We have a lot of great facets on our team,” said McCullers. “The bullpen is the first group of guys that get the blame and the last to get the praise. [But] they are unbelievable.”

If it seems like Dusty Baker has had a defter hand in his postseason pitching decisions than Bob Melvin or Aaron Boone or Buck Showalter, perhaps he has. But he’s also had a lot more to work with. All 11 of his pitchers so far this postseason have shown dominating filth.

So where is the weakness on Baker’s pitching staff? We’ve already discussed Javier, so of the other 10 pitches who have appeared so far, who is the one he should worry about? Try to find the trouble spot ... if you can.

1. Justin Verlander is the weak link.

By 2022 postseason performance, it’s true. Verlander has allowed a .310/.356/.571 line and a 6.30 ERA, mostly because his Game 1 ALDS start against Seattle didn’t go well (six runs on 10 hits in four innings). But this isn’t Hall-of-Famer-in-the-twilight-of-his-career Verlander, this is almost-certainly-going-to-win-his-third-Cy-Young Verlander, still at or near the peak of his craft after posting a 1.75 ERA at age 39. In Game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees, he struck out 11 over six innings of one-run ball.

No, it’s (obviously) not Verlander.

2. No, maybe it's Rafael Montero.

By career ERA, it’s true. Montero, once a top Mets prospect, has a career 4.64 ERA over parts of eight seasons and has spent the past four seasons touring three-fifths of the AL West, where, as recently as last season, he had a 6.08 ERA. But in six postseason games this year, he’s allowed one run, and he’s throwing considerably harder than he ever did before. In Game 4, holding a one-run lead in the eighth, he froze Josh Donaldson for a third strike by painting 97 mph with 17 inches of run at the bottom of the zone.

Any pitcher who can do that reliably and consistently can't be the problem. No, it’s not Montero.

3. Hunter Brown is a rookie; it must be him.

By lack of experience, it’s true. Brown didn’t even make his debut until Sept. 5, and he’ll retain his rookie status in 2023. But he’s also the team’s No. 1 prospect, and he posted a 0.89 ERA in 20 1/3 regular-season innings, then threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings in three postseason appearances. After his debut, catcher Martín Maldonado offered the highest possible praise. “He reminded me of [Justin Verlander] back in the day -- a young J.V. -- when J.V. was still doing his thing.”

There were 525 pitchers to throw at least 40 sliders this year. Emmanuel Clase’s unhittable slider was the third hardest, at 91.9 mph. Jacob deGrom’s unhittable slider was second hardest, at 92.6. Atop that list? Brown, at 93.2 mph.

No, it’s not Brown.

4. Maybe it's Framber Valdez?

By weakest strikeout rate, it’s true. Valdez’s 23.5% strikeout rate is the weakest of any of the pitchers who appeared for Houston in the postseason. Of course, he threw 201 1/3 innings of 2.82 ERA ball this season, and he set a new record with 25 consecutive quality starts, which he did by posting the third-highest ground-ball rate by a starter on record. Then, Valdez allowed two earned runs in 12 2/3 postseason innings. He'll likely get some down-ballot Cy Young support.

No, it’s definitely not Valdez.

5. Perhaps Ryne Stanek is the weak link.

By highest walk rate, it’s true. A 14% walk rate is entirely too high, and really could come back to bite Houston in a big spot. Stanek also posted a 1.15 ERA in 54 2/3 innings -- a season unlike any in Astros history -- and struck out four of the six batters he faced this postseason. In Game 3, he entered to face Gleyber Torres, Matt Carpenter and Harrison Bader. Thanks in part to a fastball that averages 98.6 mph, it went: strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.

No, it’s not Stanek.

6. Then Bryan Abreu must be the weakest link.

By BABIP, it’s true, which is to say that when he allows contact, a much higher share of those balls turns into hits than for his teammates. Abreu never appeared on any top prospect lists as he journeyed through Houston’s farm system, and he had a 5.75 ERA in 2021. This year, he posted a 1.94 ERA. Abreu struck out 36% of batters he faced. He’s now throwing 5 mph harder than he did two years ago, and in 6 1/3 postseason innings, he’s struck out 10 while allowing no runs.

When Abreu closed out Game 3, he set up Donaldson with two 90 mph sliders for strikes, then finished him off with 99 mph at the shoulders. He is the least famous pitcher on this staff, but look at what he's able to do to Major League hitters.

No, it’s not Abreu.

7. Luis Garcia, then, who has appeared only once.

By highest home run rate, it’s true, and despite making 28 starts this year, Garcia has been buried in October, appearing only when the 14th inning rolled around in the ALDS Game 3 classic. Of course, he was trusted enough just a year ago to start two World Series games, and the Astros went 19-9 in his starts this year, in part due to one of baseball’s hardest-to-hit cutters. That single relief appearance we just mentioned, the one where Garcia didn’t get called upon until the 14th? He threw five scoreless innings to keep the team alive until it could finally score a run.

“Luis, what he did at the end was one of the best pitching performances I’ve seen in the playoffs," said Verlander, who’s been around long enough to have seen some things.

No, it’s not Garcia.

8. Newcomer Héctor Neris has to be the weak link.

By highest line-drive rate allowed, it’s true, barely. Neris spent parts of eight years as Philadelphia’s occasionally excellent/occasionally flammable closer; it’s worth noting that the Phillies' bullpen is probably the main reason their postseason drought lasted as long as it did. With the Astros, he’s added drop to his splitter, struck out five times as many hitters as he's walked and generally outpitched (2.35 FIP) his 3.72 ERA. Neris was perfect in four postseason outings before allowing a homer in Game 4.

There are relatively few pitches that, when thrown properly, can be given the label unhittable. Neris's splitter might be one of them. No, the weak link here isn't Neris.

9. Lance McCullers Jr., then, is the weak link.

By fastball velocity, it’s true. McCullers' 93.1 mph heat is the lowest of any active Astro. Then again, he posted a 2.27 ERA this year in eight starts after returning from an arm injury, and he’s one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers in history, having posted a 2.77 ERA across 18 games dating back to 2015; he’s started a World Series Game 7 and an ALCS Game 7.

No, it’s not McCullers.

10. While trying to keep a straight face: Ryan Pressly is the weak link.

We actually can’t keep up the bit any further. Pressly is dominant and has been since the day the Astros acquired him from Minnesota in 2018. Over the past three years, he has a 1.21 ERA in 21 postseason games. He’s struck out eight of 20 batters faced so far this postseason, allowing two hits.

No, it’s definitely not Pressly.

It is, of course, none of them, which is the point. The Astros pitch so well because they do not have any mediocre pitchers; they really have more than they know what to do with. (Urquidy, who started 28 games this year and has six postseason starts as an Astro, hasn’t been able to get on the mound. Martinez had a 2.09 ERA in 29 games this year; he hasn’t pitched in October. Taylor, who has held lefties to a miniscule .159/.260/.258 career line, also hasn’t made it in, though he might be more useful against Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber in the World Series.)

As the Dodgers, Yankees and Padres had to scramble to cover back-end postseason innings, to often ruinous effect, the Astros laughed off a champagne bottle mishap. They simply called on Javier, the 3.4 WAR fifth starter.

If there is a weakness thus far, it’s been that the Astros' lineup has been … fine. But not more than fine. Yordan Alvarez looked unstoppable for two games against Seattle, yet he’s done very little in five games since. Jose Altuve is in the midst of a dreadful 3-for-32 October. Kyle Tucker has barely been better. Almost all of Houston's offense has come from Alex Bregman and Jeremy Peña, plus, improbably, Chas McCormick. As a group, the Astros' lineup has hit only .227/.295/.408.

But how do you know when a pitching staff is really humming? Earlier, we said the pitchers had allowed the fifth-lowest OPS in a postseason of at least seven games, and they have. Meanwhile, the lineup has merely the 101st-best postseason OPS, because it's hardly firing on all cylinders.

Yet the Astros, on their way to the World Series, have yet to lose a postseason game this year. You know which side of the ball to thank for that.