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Astros find ways to maximize rotation's strengths

Analytics, environment, chemistry among factors contributing to success
MLB.com @RichardJustice

HOUSTON -- Charlie Morton telephoned his buddy even before the trade sending Gerrit Cole from the Pirates to the Astros had been finalized in January.

"He kind of gave me the down low," Cole said.

HOUSTON -- Charlie Morton telephoned his buddy even before the trade sending Gerrit Cole from the Pirates to the Astros had been finalized in January.

"He kind of gave me the down low," Cole said.

How's that?

"He talked about the changes he'd made," Cole said.

What did he say?

"Well, without giving away any competitive advantage …" Cole said. "Let's just say this has been an unbelievable opportunity. It's helped a lot of things."

Here's where this story gets vague. The Houston Astros aren't absolutely certain that their approach to pitching is unique. In terms of pitch usage, sequencing, location, spin rate and other factors, a dozen other teams may have the same information.

In fact, plenty of other teams with large analytics departments -- Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, etc. -- surely have a lot of the same information. On the other hand, there are places the Astros will not go in terms of discussing information. Catcher Brian McCann says he'll reveal everything when we get together for dinner someday a couple of decades down the road.

McCann also says it would be a mistake to overcomplicate the larger picture. The Astros are the gold standard for starting pitching in Major League Baseball at the moment because they have five extraordinarily gifted pitchers: Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Cole and Morton.

Video: Cole shoulders load, K's 16 in shutout of D-backs

Here are the areas in which that rotation leads the Major Leagues:

• 2.56 ERA

• 1.00 WHIP

• .198 batting average

• .588 OPS

• 10.35 strikeouts per nine innings

Verlander (1.21), Cole (1.43) and Morton (2.16) are first, second and fifth among American League ERA leaders.

"When you have the weapons that these guys have and you know the league and you know where you need to go for outs [in terms of location], they just have the ingredients, the repertoire," McCann said. "They have everything you need to attack the hitters' weakness."

He mentions Verlander, whose acquisition by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow last Aug. 31 gave the team the final push it needed to win the franchise's first World Series. He was 9-1 with a 1.66 ERA after the deal.

Beyond the performance was the preparation and competitive fire that impacted pretty much everyone.

Video: TEX@HOU: Verlander strikes out 7 over 6-plus innings

"With Verlander coming here, he's changed the way people think," McCann said. "When you watch him go about his start day, he's as intense and as focused as I've ever seen a player.

"When you see all the little things he does in the course of a game -- things no one else sees -- as a catcher, I'm blown away a lot of the time."

And there's Cole, acquired from the Pirates last offseason.

"I knew from the first minute I met him in Spring Training -- before he even threw a pitch -- that he had the mindset you look for," McCann said. "He and Verlander have very similar stuff, very similar mindsets. Who better to learn from?"

Beyond that is the chemistry and competition of the entire group.

"There's a team within a team there, especially with the starting rotation," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "They want to one-up each other. They want to dominate like the guy before them did. They take a lot of responsibility for setting the tone for a team that expects to win. The guy everyone looks to is the starting pitcher."

Video: OAK@HOU: McCullers completes five perfect innings

Some of what they do and what they believe can be tracked by Statcast™:

• Astros starters throw the third-lowest percentages of changeups in the Majors.

• Astros starters throw the fourth-highest percentage of curveballs, and opposing hitters are batting .192 again those breaking balls.

• The Astros throw hard. Their average fastball is 94.2 mph, tops in the Majors.

• Opposing hitters bat .188 against those fastballs, also the best in the Majors.

Verlander, Morton and Cole are especially interesting cases because their performances got better after joining the Astros.

How?

• Verlander is throwing his slider more often and holding hitters to a .115 batting average with it.

• Cole is throwing his slider 21.8 percent of the time, up from 17.5 percent in 2016-17.

• Morton is throwing more curveballs, but the dramatic difference is in velocity. His fastball is averaging 96 mph, way up from 92.5 mph in 2015.

Video: NYY@HOU: Morton strikes out 10 over 7 2/3 frames

Morton said some of that uptick is from being healthy. In recent seasons, he has undergone surgeries to both hips and his right elbow.

"I have a window here where I'm healthy, I'm strong," he said. "I changed my workouts. I lost 15-20 pounds. My mentality has changed from a sinkerball guy to a thrower. As I increase my usage of a four-seamer, I got stronger.

"I was throwing hard at the end of 2015 and 2016. But never like this. I think that's just reps. It's because of the work I've put in."

But he also benefited from the data the Astros track that help in exploiting weaknesses.

"It was mainly sequencing," he said. "I think the biggest thing was getting me to throw my curveball more and throw more four-seamers."

Video: HOU@OAK: Keuchel tosses eight frames, allows one run

Like McCann, Morton said it's important to consider the environment, youth and energy that drives the Astros.

"I think it's more about the quality of people," he said. That's something that makes the season hard when the dynamics of the team aren't right. It makes for a really long year. That's not the case here."

For his part, Hinch said it's a little bit of all of that.

"I don't think it's necessarily a philosophy as much as it's trying to maximize the strengths," he said. "If we have a guy who has a really good fastball, we're going to try to get him to execute it in the strike zone in the area that we want with the spin that we want at the time that we want.

"I think the openness whether it's to information or constructive criticism or change or all of the above is important. We leave no stone unturned. Our organization is deep into the research and development. Our pitching department led by [pitching coach] Brent Strom is intellectually curious to the highest degree, and we ask that out of our players. In return, we show 'em everything we can and why we draw conclusions and what we hope to do for them. When you have a player who is open minded and will try to maximize his pitching, it's a great match."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers Jr., Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander