Four Reasons Why Houston’s Pitching Is in Excellent Shape

It’s not a question of whether the Astros are good. There’s near-unanimous agreement that the Astros are good, and the only people who disagree haven’t been paying attention. It’s more a question of how good the Astros really are. Are they as good as a wild-card contender? Are they as good as a runaway division favorite? I don’t know! Nobody does. But like any team, the Astros could be improved. And over the past several months, rumors circled around a similar theme: The Astros could use an ace.

Reports linked them to Chris Archer. Reports linked them — and continue to link them! — to Jose Quintana. Reports linked them to Chris Sale. And so on, and so on. A great starting pitcher could improve any team, but the idea implied has been that the Astros pitching staff could be some kind of vulnerability. The offensive depth is there. The group of pitchers? More question marks.

The Astros haven’t pulled the trigger on a pitching trade. They still could, and any number of things could go wrong. But the team has steadfastly believed its pitching is just fine. In the early going, there have been four positive signs in particular. Or, if not that, four positive reminders. Let’s run through some big reasons why the Astros probably count as one of the best teams around.

(1) Dallas Keuchel

Keuchel was sort of Kyle Hendricks before Kyle Hendricks. He had his command-fueled breakout in 2014, and that carried over for another year. Then, last season, Keuchel’s ERA- ballooned to 111. He didn’t generate those ace-like results, and he revealed well after the fact that he pitched nearly the entire season through uncomfortable inflammation in his shoulder. It’s not good news for a pitcher to reveal shoulder inflammation.

But, to take some of the edge off — it couldn’t have been *too* bad, since Keuchel still made 26 starts. Earlier in the spring, Keuchel said he’d made a full recovery. And even with the shoulder issue, Keuchel’s peripherals were promising; his FIP- was 92, and his xFIP- was 83. Even the beat-up version of Dallas Keuchel looked mostly like a good starting pitcher.

Like everyone else who’s started in 2017, Keuchel is now one game in. He turned in seven shutout innings against a good lineup in a small ballpark. Keuchel’s velocity was just fine, if not up a tiny bit, and of the 16 balls in play he allowed, 11 were grounders, and zero were line drives or homers. Keuchel rolled in the way that he used to, so all the indicators here look strong. It’s reasonable to worry about a potential inflammation recurrence, but if Keuchel can avoid that, well, remember that he beat Hendricks to widespread Cy Young support.

(2) Lance McCullers

The issue with injury-prone pitchers is you never really know if or when said injury-proneness has been conquered. Reputations develop early, and then they’re tough to escape. Last April, McCullers went on the DL with a shoulder problem. Last August, he went on the DL with an elbow problem. He’s going to have to re-earn our trust, and that might take a few healthy years.

A couple years back, though, McCullers started 27 times. It’s not like his body simply won’t let him pitch, and it’s important to remember that, when McCullers has been able to pitch, he’s been almost unhittable. His career big-league strikeout rate is 27%. His run-value estimators are all about 20% better than average. McCullers has been great! And he was great in his 2017 debut.

Six innings, seven strikeouts, and only two walks, one of which was intentional. And there was no sign of trouble. McCullers was still throwing his fastball around 93-94. Critically, he also threw nearly 60% curveballs. McCullers has always thrown a ton of curveballs, as sort of a younger Rich Hill, but a curveball reduction could hint at McCullers trying to play it safe. No such effort was made, with McCullers going breaking-ball heavy. Maybe my favorite fun fact out of the start: McCullers threw roughly half his pitches in the zone. Mariners hitters swung at 53% of would-be strikes, and they swung at 50% of would-be balls. McCullers pitched freely and effectively, and as long as he can do the former, he’s going to do the latter.

(3) Charlie Morton

Morton was kind of a sneaky pick-up in what was seen as a terrible market for starting pitchers. At 33, he isn’t young, and he’s never once reached 30 big-league starts in a season. Last year, he started all of four games before missing the remainder because of a severe injury to his leg. There were and are question marks regarding Morton’s durability, and you can’t prove much of anything with one game, but Morton did clear up one particular issue. The thing that was most promising about 2016 Charlie Morton is apparently still there.

Morton’s career average fastball has clocked in at 91.6. Two years back, he finished at 92.0. Last year, he finished at 94.3. Morton gained a couple of ticks, and in his debut this year, that held up, with Morton once getting even beyond 96. I know that league-wide velocity readings these days are a little hot, but even controlling for that, Morton’s officially in the mid-90s. That’s going to make him better, because it would make anyone better, and just in case there was any doubt, Morton also threw the cutter that he briefly folded in with the Phillies. His stuff is both new and better. And grounders have always been there for him.

I liked the Morton signing, because I thought it was worth a chance. Now it looks for sure like the velocity gain was real. One can never know when Morton might start feeling discomfort somewhere in his body, and I can’t imagine the Astros are counting on 200 innings, but injuries are the thing we understand the least. These days, Morton can pitch, and he’s equipped to do so quite well.

(4) Chris Devenski

The Mariners and Astros just played 13 innings on Wednesday. Devenski entered in the eighth, in relief of Michael Feliz. He was the Astros’ fourth pitcher. By that point, the Mariners had used four pitchers. By the time Devenski was done, the Mariners had used eight pitchers. Devenski worked four no-hit innings of important relief, striking out seven while throwing a total of 60 pitches. He whiffed Robinson Cano twice. Although Devenski gets his fastball into the mid-90s, on Wednesday he barely even used it, throwing changeups nearly half of the time. This is why he did that.

Quietly, in last year’s second half, Devenski was one of the very best pitchers in baseball. That was the case because Devenski possesses one of the very best changeups in baseball, and he can command it like few others. That doesn’t make Devenski a finesse-y type — again, he has a fine heater. The changeup is just that special. And although Devenski might perhaps be of greater use in the rotation, that’s arguable. He’s elite now as a multi-inning reliever, and he’s working behind a rotation that’s probably better at getting outs than it is at getting deep. Teams dream about having this sort of bridge. Devenski can be unfair for not one inning, but more than that, plus he’s rotation insurance in case something goes awry. Devenski didn’t draw enough attention as a rookie. That’s almost certainly about to change.

You can’t know very much when you’re three games in, and the Astros won’t be able to get away from their durability questions. One still can’t quite trust McCullers. One still can’t quite trust Morton. Collin McHugh is presently on the DL, working through a dead-arm phase. But McHugh is getting built back up, and the team doesn’t seem so concerned. That’ll boost the depth, and when you look at the various signs, for the moment they’re pretty much all positive. Keuchel looks healthy. McCullers looks healthy. Morton looks sharp. Devenski looks perfect. Mix in the rest of the staff, which includes a dynamite back end of the bullpen, and this group doesn’t need an improvement. Not now. Maybe an opening will develop between now and the trade deadline, but for as long as the Astros get to use the pitchers they want, I don’t know how another team in the AL West keeps up.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

I’m much more excited about Joe Musgrove than uncle Charlie.