For One Night at Least, Justin Verlander Stops the Astros’ September Slide

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

If Houston has a problem, that notion was put on hold for at least one night. Having lost four straight three-game series, three to lousy teams, the Astros arrived in Seattle sporting just a half-game lead over the Mariners for the third AL Wild Card spot, 2.5 games behind the Rangers. Fortunately for the Astros — for whom quality starting pitching has suddenly been in short supply this month — Justin Verlander played the stopper, shutting out the Mariners on two hits over his first eight innings in a 5-1 win.

Facing a team that owns the majors’ second-highest wOBA against four-seamers (.377), the 40-year-old Verlander dialed down his fastball usage in favor of his curve, and retired the Mariners in order in seven of his innings. He struck out the side in the second and fourth innings, and got into trouble only in the third, when Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas hit back-to-back singles and J.P. Crawford followed with a walk. Verlander escaped that jam by inducing Julio Rodríguez to ground into a double play.

By that point, the Astros led 4-0, having banged out three second-inning runs against Luis Castillo via a trio of hard-hit balls from Mauricio Dubón, Martín Maldonado, and Jose Altuve, with Yordan Alvarez adding a fourth-inning homer. From the double-play ball through the end of the eighth, Verlander retired 16 straight Mariners. Given the intact shutout and a pitch count of just 91, manager Dusty Baker sent him out to start the ninth, but Rojas’ double into the right field corner ended Verlander’s night, and Bryan Abreu closed things out, though Rojas came around to score. Verlander struck out eight, benefited from a pair of diving stops by first baseman José Abreu, and allowed just six hard-hit balls out of 18 in play, none of them barrels.

The win gave the Astros (86-71) some much-needed breathing room in the Wild Card race, and kept their fading hopes of winning the AL West alive. They now lead the Mariners (84-72) — who have lost four straight — by 1.5 games for the third spot, but didn’t gain any ground on the Rangers (88-68), who beat the Angels to reduce their magic number to clinch the division to four.

That’s quite a change from three weeks ago, when the Astros put themselves in the drivers’ seat. Over the course of a three-game sweep at Globe Life Field, they trounced the Rangers by a combined score of 39-10 and took over first place. But while they held the top spot for another two weeks – increasing their lead to a maximum of 2.5 games over the Mariners and three games over the Rangers as of September 10 — the Astros fell into a slump.

Indeed, they’ve gone just 9-13 in September, putting them in danger of posting their worst September/October record of their recent run; they went 10-17 in 2020, and somehow made the playoffs with a 29-31 record, but aside from that they haven’t gone worse than 16-13 after August 31 since 2016, the last time they missed the playoffs. Their month so far:

  • Lost three straight games at home to the Yankees, who debuted prospects Jasson Domínguez and Austin Wells in what was essentially a concession that their playoff hopes were gone.
  • Won the aforementioned three straight in Arlington, during which they scored the third-highest total of runs across any three-game span this year (the Cubs scored 41 across two overlapping spans, from July 31–August 2, and August 1–3) and the second-highest run differential (the Braves outscored the Mets by 31 runs on August 11–12, the latter day of which included a doubleheader).
  • Took two of three from the Padres at home.
  • Lost two of three to the A’s at home; their lone victory gave Oakland its 100th loss of the season.
  • Lost two of three to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium; their victory gave Kansas City its 102nd loss of the season.
  • Lost two of three to the Orioles at home, with closer Ryan Pressly blowing a 7-5 lead by serving up a three-run homer to Cedric Mullins in the ninth inning of the opener.
  • Lost three straight to the Royals at home, running their skid to 3-9.

This weekend’s loss dropped the Astros to 39-42 at Minute Maid Park. Excluding the 2020 season, only one team has ever made the playoffs with a losing record at home, namely the 2001 Braves (40-41). There’s a reason for that, of course. With each successive expansion of the playoff field, the bar for team quality is lowered, so it’s inevitable that even if the Astros become just the second such team, a third one will come along soon enough.

The Astros have gone 9-13 in September while outscoring opponents by 16 runs (123 to 107), but the aforementioned rout of the Rangers skews things. Set those games aside and they’re 6-13 while being outscored 97-84 in those other games, an average of 5.11 runs per game to 4.42, and they’ve gone just 1-4 in one-run games in that span. Their Playoff Odds have taken a hit:

Astros Change in Playoff Odds
Date W L W% GB Win Div Clinch Bye Clinch WC Make Playoffs Win WS
Aug 31 77 58 .570 0 52.8% 52.7% 41.7% 94.5% 13.4%
Sep 25 86 71 .548 2.5 11.0% 10.9% 64.6% 75.6% 9.4%
Change 9 13 -.022 +2.5 -41.8% -41.8% +22.9% -18.9% -4.0%

Much of the fault for the team’s recent struggles lies with the rotation, which entered Monday having collectively delivered a 5.51 ERA and 5.19 FIP this month while serving up 1.97 homers per nine. The rotation had been fairly solid through the first five months, ranking sixth in the AL in ERA (4.06) and WAR (10.2) though just ninth in FIP (4.35). In nine out of 22 games this month, Houston starters have allowed five runs or more, while only eight times have they delivered a quality start. Falling behind early has been a problem; Monday aside, the starters had posted a 7.71 ERA in the first inning in September, and a 6.00 ERA and 5.16 FIP in innings 1–3. They’ve gone just 3-9 this month when their opponents have scored first.

Of their starting five, Hunter Brown has struggled the most lately. The 25-year-old rookie has been rocked for a 9.14 ERA and a 7.46 FIP in 21.2 innings this month, and has fallen short of delivering five innings in three of his five turns, but his problems didn’t start when the calendar turned to September. Since the start of July, he’s pitched to a 7.01 ERA and 5.42 FIP in 67.2 innings while serving up 2.26 homers per nine, and in seven of those 14 starts, he failed to make it through five innings. It’s fair to wonder if he’s gassed, as his 154.2 innings are a career high, 24.2 more than last year (including the postseason). Not only is each of his pitches down an average of roughly 1 mph from the start of the season, but via both of our pitch modeling metrics, the quality of his stuff has fallen precipitously:

Hunter Brown via Stuff+ and PitchingBot
Period IP Stf+ FA Stf+ FS Stf+ SL Stf+ KC Stuff+ Location+ Pitching+
April-August 131.0 105 94 108 111 106 100 102
September 21.2 83 87 104 117 92 101 100
Period IP botOvr FA botOvr FS botOvr SL botOvr KC botStf botCmd botOvr
April-August 131.0 53 45 45 49 46 54 48
September 21.2 53 60 31 45 39 55 47
Stuff+ scores are normalized to an average of 100, PitchingBot scores are normalized to a 20–80 scouting scale.

In an organization with greater pitching depth, Brown might have been sent to the bullpen or Triple-A, but by early May, the Astros had lost three of their projected starters to injuries. Lance McCullers Jr. strained his forearm in mid-March and began the season on the 60-day injured list. He was shut down in late May, and by mid-June had undergone season-ending surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and remove a bone spur. Luis Garcia landed on the IL in early May due to elbow discomfort and was discovered to have torn his UCL; he underwent Tommy John surgery on May 19. The day before Garcia went down, José Urquidy left his start with shoulder discomfort; he avoided the operating table but missed three months due to inflammation, and has spent most of his time since returning in the bullpen due to inflammations of his ERA and FIP (5.84 and 5.52, respectively).

The rotation’s other rookie, 28-year-old J.P. France, hasn’t been as bad as Brown lately, but his 5.75 FIP and 6.26 ERA in four September starts are nothing to write home about. He’s walked 14.1% of hitters this month, double his April-August rate, while his already-meager strikeout rate has fallen from 17.6% to 16.3%.

Of their other starters, Framber Valdez has been their best and most consistent, delivering a 3.39 ERA and 3.43 FIP overall and very similar numbers in September; crucially, the 29-year-old groundball machine is the only one of the starting five who’s kept his home run rate below 1.0 per nine this month. Cristian Javier, like Brown, struggled for a long stretch, posting a 6.71 ERA and 6.26 FIP in 13 starts from June 9 through August 28 as his strikeout and walk rates (16.2% and 12.1%, respectively) converged like reckless drivers playing chicken. Lately, he’s been missing bats again, with a 35.3% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate in four starts this month en route to a 4.50 ERA and 3.76 FIP, but he needs to do a better job of keeping it in the park.

As for Verlander, even with Monday’s gem he’s carrying a 4.24 ERA and 4.58 FIP this month while striking out just 21.3% of hitters. His overall strikeout rate, just 0.1 points above that, is his lowest since 2015, and since straining his teres major in spring training with the Mets, he’s rarely looked like a reigning Cy Young winner. Still, his overall 3.32 ERA ranks 11th in the majors, with both his 3.87 FIP and 3.1 WAR 24th. He’s found a way to get the job done — sometimes in spectacular fashion (his 85 Game Score v2 on Monday was a season high), and sometimes in a more workmanlike way.

As for the Astros’ bullpen, the unit’s 3.18 ERA this month is down from its 3.71 mark through August, with its FIP rising only a bit, from 4.15 to 4.33. Pressly has blown two of his last four save chances dating back to August 25, allowing nine runs in 7.2 innings in that span. Of the majors’ 12 closers with at least 30 saves, his 3.71 ERA is the highest, his 3.59 xERA the second-highest, and his 28% strikeout rate the second-lowest. Abreu and fellow setup manHector Neris have been good, but this isn’t the strongest late-inning unit of the Astros’ run.

One reassuring facet of their September funk is that the Astros’ offense ranks second with a 127 wRC+ (.264/.340/.490), and tied for eight with a 110 mark since September 7 — which is to say, not including that onslaught against the Rangers. Alvarez (.315/.469/.685, 212 wRC+) and Altuve (.302/.375/.593, 165 wRC+) have been on fire, each homering seven times this month, and Abreu (.221/.291/.532, 119 wRC+) has been a whole lot better than his full-season numbers. On the other hand, Jeremy Peña (.217/.340/.337, 78 wRC+), Alex Bregman (.217/.340/.337, 95 wRC+) and Kyle Tucker (.213/.318/.493, 116 wRC+) have scuffled of late, though Tucker’s sixth-inning homer on Monday was his 29th, putting him within one homer and one steal of the 30-30 club.

The Astros play two more games in Seattle, and they’ve lined up Javier and Valdez to go against George Kirby and Bryce Miller, respectively. These games remain crucial even though they’ve already lost the season series. Seattle has beaten them eight out of 11 times, which could mean the difference between a playoff berth and an October vacation if the two teams wind up tied for the third spot. The Astros have also lost the season series to the Blue Jays, 4-3, and are 1.5 games behind them, so any three-way tiebreaker scenario involving those two teams is no good for them, either.

Still, they have a chance to deliver a figurative (if not literal) knockout blow to to the Mariners before heading to Arizona to close out with three games against the 82-74 Diamondbacks, who are themselves battling for a Wild Card spot. While this is not the strongest Astros team of the past seven seasons, they control their destiny, and at this time of year, that’s as much as they can ask for.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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8 months ago

According to FG’s playoff odds charts, this one game resulted in a +32% net increase in the Astros chances for the playoffs relative to the Mariners (+15% for Houston, -17% for Seattle). Really important win.

8 months ago
Reply to  ScottyB

Those odds get really volatile in the last couple weeks of the season when things are close. You can talk all you want about how every game is equal, but winning or losing 8 in a row in June probably wouldn’t affect any teams odds that much.