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Astros' Top 5 right-handers: McTaggart's take

@brianmctaggart
May 25, 2020

HOUSTON -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are

HOUSTON -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Brian McTaggart’s ranking of the top 5 right-handed starting pitchers in Astros history. Next week: Left-handed starters

Astros' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH

1. Roy Oswalt (2001-10)
Key fact: First in bWAR (45.7) and second in wins (143) in club history

This was tough. The Astros have a rich tradition of starting pitchers, especially right-handers. Any one of the five men on this list -- and even a few on the honorable mention below -- could have a case as the greatest right-handed starter in Astros history, but I’m going to with Oswalt because of his decade of quality in a Houston uniform.

Oswalt was the club’s ace in the early 2000s and didn’t take a back seat when Houston acquired Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte prior to the ‘04 season. Oswalt posted back-to-back 20-win seasons in ‘04-05 and helped the Astros go deep into the playoffs each time, including a clutch win in Game 6 of the ’05 NLCS in St. Louis to clinch Houston’s first pennant (he was 4-0 with a 3.66 ERA in the playoffs for Houston). Oswalt won 143 games in 10 seasons with the Astros, putting him one shy of Joe Niekro’s club record of 144.

A 23rd-round pick in the 1996 MLB Draft, Oswalt was pitching at Class A Kissimmee in 2000 when he was called up to Double-A Round Rock to make a spot start. “They called me up and said, ‘You’re going to pitch one game and you’re going back to A ball,’” said Oswalt, who struck out 15 batters that night and impressed Hall of Fame pitcher -- and Round Rock owner -- Nolan Ryan so much that he convinced the Astros to keep him in Double-A. “That night, I’m thinking I might just be able to stay up here,” Oswalt said.

The Astros canceled his return ticket to Florida, and Oswalt went 11-4 with a 1.94 ERA that year for Round Rock. He was in the big leagues a year later at 23 years old -- he went 14-3 with a 2.73 ERA as a rookie -- and became one of the NL’s best starting pitchers over the next decade, winning 19 games in ’02. The Astros traded him to the Phillies in ’10 in a deal that started the team’s massive rebuild. Only Dierker (320) and Niekro (301) have started more games for the Astros than Oswalt (291).

2. Larry Dierker (1964-76)
Key fact: Holds club record for complete games (106), shutouts (25) and innings (2,294 1/3).

Before was a popular broadcaster and a successful manager of the Astros, Dierker spent 13 seasons as a workhorse atop the Astros rotation, winning 137 games in that span. Signed as an amateur free agent by the Colt .45s, Dierker made his Major League debut at 18 years old on Sept. 22, 1964 and struck out Willie Mays looking to end his first outing.

Dierker became the franchise’s first 20-game winner by going 20-13 in ’69 and made the All-Star team en route to being named the team’s Most Valuable Player. During that season, he pitched 12 innings against the Braves in a 3-2 loss. “That was a momentous game for me because it was the first year in Astros history we were actually a contending team in September, and that one game blew us right out of contention and seemed to launch (the Braves) on a streak that took them to the NL West title,” he said.

Dierker threw a no-hitter on July 9, 1976 in the Astrodome against the Expos. He finished his career with the Cardinals in ’77 and returned to Houston to spend 18 years in the broadcast booth. From there, he was hired to manage the team in ‘97 and he led the Astros to four division titles in five years.

3. Nolan Ryan (1980-88)
Key fact: Holds club record with 1,866 strikeouts.

A Texas legend, Astros fans will fight you to this day if you disparage the name of Lynn Nolan Ryan. The “Ryan Express” pitched for 27 years in the big leagues, spending a third of that (nine years) with his hometown Astros. Ryan became the first player in big league history to make $1 million in a season when Houston signed him to a four-year, $4.5 million deal prior to the 1980 season, putting Ryan in the rotation with J.R. Richard and Niekro.

Ryan grew up just south of Houston in Alvin, Texas, and listened to Colt .45s games on the radio. Mets scout Red Murff discovered him at Alvin High School and he was drafted by the club in the 12th round in ‘65. He made his debut in ’66 for Mets and became a star with the California Angels in the 1970s. With a 100-mph fastball, Ryan won 138 games, struck out 2,416 batters in 1,281 1/3 innings and threw four no-hitters for the Angels.

While with the Astros, his Hall of Fame career continued. He went 106-94 with a 3.13 ERA in 282 starts but never received much run support. He threw his record-breaking fifth no-hitter with Houston on Sept. 26, 1981 in the Astrodome and broke Walter Johnson’s all-time strikeout record by whiffing Brad Mills on April 27, 1983 in Montreal for strikeout No. 3,509. Ryan made two All-Star teams with the Astros and won league ERA titles in 1981 (1.69) and ’87 (2.76).

In ’87, he led the league in strikeouts and ERA despite going 8-16 because of poor run support. “We just weren’t a team that scored a lot of runs,” he said. “But we were very competitive, so we had a couple of chances to get to the World Series (losing in NLCS in ’80, ’86) and didn’t quite get there.”

Ryan signed with Rangers prior to the ’89 season after Astros owner John McMullen wanted him to take a pay cut. That infuriated Astros fans, who watched Ryan win his 300th game, record his 5,000th strikeout and throw two more no-hitters in Rangers gear.

“My thought and hopes and intent when I signed with Houston were that I would retire as a Houston Astro,” Ryan said. “John McMullen wanted me to take a 20-percent pay cut because he felt like the salaries were getting out of hand and thought I wouldn’t leave as a free agent because it was my home and I was at end of my career. I went to Arlington … and enjoyed it so much up there that I just stayed and ended up playing five years up there.”

4. Justin Verlander (2017-present)
Key fact: Only Astros right-hander to win AL Cy Young award.

In only 2 1/2 seasons in an Astros uniform, Verlander has been remarkable. He’s won a World Series title (’17), collected his second Cy Young (’19), won the ’17 ALCS MVP, reached 225 career wins and 3,000 strikeouts, threw his third career no-hitter and reached 300 strikeouts in a season for the first time (’19). In 73 career regular-season starts with Houston, he’s 42-15 with a 2.45 ERA.

The Astros acquired Verlander from the Tigers in the moments before the Aug. 31 Trade Deadline in ’17, a move which helped propel the Astros to their first World Series title. Verlander went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five starts in September ’17 and was named Most Valuable Player of the ’17 ALCS after going 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two starts against the Yankees.

He finished a close second in the ’18 Cy Young race after going 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA and followed that up in ’19 with one of his best seasons yet. He went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA in 34 starts. He led the Majors in opponent batting average (.172), WHIP (0.80) and innings pitched (223).

5. J.R. Richard (1971-80)
Key fact: Only Astros pitcher with multiple 300-strikeout seasons.

One of the most intimidating pitchers of his era, James Rodney Richard dominated the late 1970s with his 100-mph fastball and imposing frame. He went 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts while pitching for Houston and was putting together a Hall of Fame resume before a stroke cut short his career in ’80.

Richard stuck out 15 batters in his Major League debut on Sept. 5, 1971 in San Francisco and bounced between the Majors and Minors the next three seasons before making the rotation in ’75. He went 12-10 with a 4.39 ERA that year before his career took off. He won 20 games in ’76 and then posted three consecutive 18-win seasons, striking out 303 batters in ’78 and 313 in ’79, which was good enough for a couple of top 5 Cy Young finishes.

With Ryan coming aboard the rotation in ’80, the Astros had World Series aspirations. Richard went 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA in the first half and started the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. He pitched in only one more game in his career, though, after suffering a stroke on July 30, 1980. That likely derailed the Astros from going to the World Series.

“If he wasn’t so big and strong he probably would have died,” teammate Enos Cabell said. “It’s a tribute to him. At that time, he was one of the leaders on our team, and when he pitched, we knew we were going to win. They weren’t going to beat us. It was devastating for the franchise, too, because it put us back. In ’81, we got to the playoffs, but it was a few years before they won again. If J.R. would have been there, he would be in the Hall of Fame.”

Honorable mention

Roger Clemens (2004-06) went 38-18 with a 2.40 ERA in 84 starts with the hometown Astros, winning the ’04 Cy Young after going 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA. He led the NL in ERA in ’05 (1.87).

Gerrit Cole (2018-19) only pitched two seasons in Houston, but they were dominant. He was 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA and finished a close second to Verlander in the ’19 Cy Young vote after going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts, which led the AL.

Darryl Kile (1991-97) used his tremendous curveball to go 71-65 in seven years with the Astros, making the All-Star team in ’93, when he won 15 games and threw a no-hitter, and ’97, when he won 19 games.

José Lima (1997-01) became a fan favorite when he came out of nowhere to go 16-8 with a 3.70 ERA in ‘98 and 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA in ‘99 while making the NL All-Star team.

Joe Niekro (1975-85), known as “Knucksie,” was the first Astros pitcher to win 20 games in consecutive seasons, winning 21 during his only All-Star season in ’79 and 20 in ’80, when he clinched the NL West title by beating the Dodgers in a one-game playoff in L.A. Niekro’s 144 wins are a club record.

Mike Scott (1983-91) turned his career around after learning the split-fingered fastball from Roger Craig and put up five terrific seasons for the Astros, winning the ’86 NL Cy Young and posting a 20-win season in ’89. Acquired from the Mets for Danny Heep in December 1982, Scott put himself on the map by going 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA in ’85. The next season, he went 18-10 and led the league in ERA (2.22), shutouts (five), innings (275 1/3) and strikeouts (306) and threw a no-hitter to clinch the ’86 NL West division title.

Shane Reynolds (1992-02) was a workhorse starter that anchored division-winning rotations in 1997-99, ’01, winning 103 games in 11 years in Houston, including a 19-8 season in ’98.

Don Wilson (1966-74) was a hard-throwing pitcher who won double-digit games for the Astros for eight consecutive years (’67-74), including 16 games twice. He went 104-92 in 266 games for the Astros and threw two no-hitters.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.