Shortened season could benefit Astros' rotation

July 1st, 2020

HOUSTON -- The shortened Major League season stands to benefit the Astros’ starting pitching staff more than perhaps other teams, especially with a pair of older starters who ranked first and second in innings pitched among current players and another who’s coming off a 2019 season lost to Tommy John surgery.

Though they lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, the Astros’ rotation is solid. It’s led by 2019 American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and six-time All-Star Zack Greinke, with Lance McCullers Jr. returning from his injury. Then there’s José Uruidy, who burst onto scene last year and shut down the Nationals in the World Series, likely holding down the fourth spot in ’20.

All four stand to benefit from a shortened 60-game season in which they could make 12 or 13 starts at the most in the regular season, meaning they’ll throw fewer than 100 innings with a reduced workload. If they remain healthy and the Astros reach the playoffs, fatigue shouldn’t be an issue in October.

Here’s a closer look at how each of the Astros’ top four starters stand to benefit from a shortened season:

(21-6, 2.58 ERA, 300 strikeouts in ’19)

Verlander, 37, threw a Major League-best 223 innings in the regular season in ’19 and added 35 1/3 more in six postseason starts. He’s closing in on 3,000 innings in his career in the regular season and is coming off a groin injury suffered in the spring that required surgery. There were valid concerns about his health during Spring Training.

Verlander was set to miss eight weeks following the March 17 surgery but is expected to be 100 percent healthy when Summer Camp opens on Friday. He should have no restrictions short of building up his pitch count, so the delayed season will have a silver lining for him.

Last year, Verlander’s ERA rose by more than a run and a half in the playoffs (4.33) and his WHIP jumped from a minuscule to 0.80 in the regular season to 4.33. He allowed four earned runs in three of his six playoff starts, one of which came on short rest. It’s fair to note Verlander posted a 2.08 ERA in September last year and has gone 13-1 with a 1.44 ERA in 16 September starts with the Astros, with 18 walks and 150 strikeouts in 106 innings.

(18-5, 2.93 ERA with D-backs/Astros)

Acquired in a blockbuster deal at the Trade Deadline with the D-backs last year, Greinke delivered with the Astros (8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts with Houston) in the final two months of the season. In the playoffs, he posted a 4.68 ERA despite his Game 7 World Series gem against the Nationals when he carried a shutout into the seventh inning.

Greinke, 36, isn’t the power pitcher he once was, but has topped 200 innings pitched four times in the previous five seasons. Like Verlander, Greinke has yet to show any decline late in seasons (he has a career 3.00 ERA in September/October), but his 2,872 career regular-season innings are second-most in baseball among active players (behind Verlander).

(missed ’19 following Tommy John surgery)

The big question surrounding McCullers, who had completed his rehab from surgery entering the spring, was how may innings he would be able to pitch coming off a lost ’19 season. It would have been hard to imagine McCullers approaching 200 innings, though Matt Harvey threw 189 1/3 innings with the Mets in ’15 after missing all of ’14 following surgery and Adam Wainwright threw 198 2/3 innings in ’12 after sitting out the ’11 season following Tommy John surgery.

Regardless, the Astros won’t have to put any harnesses on McCullers this year and should have him ready to take the ball in the playoffs, barring any setbacks. McCullers has ace stuff -- he went 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA in his first 15 starts in ’17 and made the All-Star team -- but injuries have derailed him. If any pitcher was built for a 60-game sprint, it’s McCullers.

(3.95 ERA in nine regular-season games in ’19)

Urquidy, 25, began last season as the Opening Day starter for Double-A Corpus Christi and wound up as a key member of the Astros rotation, throwing five scoreless innings against Washington in Game 4 of the World Series. He’s expected to be the fourth starter in ’20.

The Astros tried to keep Urquidy on a loose innings limit last year, considering he underwent Tommy John surgery in ’16 and had never thrown more than 125 innings in a season. Out of necessity, they didn’t have that luxury. Urquidy threw 103 innings across two Minor League levels last year, added 41 innings for the Astros in the regular season and threw 10 more in the playoffs for a 154 total. He blew past the workload the Astros had hoped to keep him under, but he won’t approach that innings total this year under any circumstances.