Houston Has a Rotation Problem

Framber Valdez was a revelation in 2020. After a forgettable debut in 2019, he threw 70.2 innings of pure excellence last season, the highest total on the team. His emergence buttressed a rotation that lost Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander from the last time we’d seen them. Even with Lance McCullers Jr. recovered, no Astros starter had a better projected ERA in 2021 than Valdez. Unfortunately, he fractured the ring finger on his pitching hand on Tuesday, and his availability this season is now in doubt after doctors recommended surgery.

The play where he hurt himself was nothing out of the ordinary:

A comebacker, a reflexive stab, a quick grimace: you see it all the time. With Valdez awaiting further medical guidance, though, it’s worth both considering his rapid ascent and wondering what Houston will do to replace his innings in an already-shaky rotation.

Let’s talk about Houston’s rotation first, because it’s the more pressing concern. Before Valdez’s injury, the depth chart looked like this:

Astros Rotation Depth
Pitcher 2020 ERA 2020 FIP 2021 Proj ERA
Zack Greinke 4.03 2.80 4.00
Framber Valdez 3.57 2.85 3.80
Lance McCullers Jr. 3.93 3.7 3.84
Jose Urquidy 2.73 4.71 4.72
Cristian Javier 3.48 4.94 5.13
Luis Garcia 2.92 4.25 4.81
Forrest Whitley n/a n/a 5.14
Brandon Bielak 6.75 7.00 5.16

That’s a solid top three, but the backfill after that is much dicier. Urquidy is the closest thing to a proven quantity there, and he’s thrown all of 70.2 innings in the majors. Javier is exciting but miscast; the multi-inning relief role he assumed during the playoffs seems like the most likely eventuality for him. His two-pitch repertoire works better in relief, and he added 1.5 mph to his deceptive four-seamer out of the bullpen. His role as a starter was already a concession to Verlander’s uncertain recovery timetable.

Beyond that, we’re dealing in guesses. Garcia hadn’t pitched above Hi-A before throwing 12.1 innings in the majors last year. Like Javier, he has the stuff to succeed right now in a bullpen role; a mid-90s fastball, mid-80’s cutter/slider, and an improved changeup that he threw nearly 30% of the time against lefty batters. He’s certainly interesting, but he’s also a complete cipher who struck out only 18.4% of his opponents while walking 10.2%. Houston would likely prefer to use him in relief for at least most of this year while he acclimates further to the majors.

Whitley, who recently spoke with our David Laurila, might have the highest ceiling in the group, but he’s been wildly inconsistent in his career so far. His performance has been uneven, and he’s been particularly hurt by a series of nagging injuries, including forearm tightness that sidelined him in 2020. Anything he can give the team this year is merely a bonus.

Bielak had a nightmare 2020, allowing nine homers in 32 innings while walking 11.5% of his opponents. He has the pitch mix of a back-end starter, and his home run luck almost has to improve, but he’s another starter the Astros would prefer to see more of in the minors before trusting him to throw bulk innings in a playoff race.

In a perfect world, most of that depth would be unnecessary. Javier was already ticketed for the rotation this year. There’s no getting around using Garcia as a spot starter, but a swingman role would suit him well. Whitley and Bielak could work at the alternate site and in Triple A, ready to provide starts as injury replacements.

Injuries were already a worry for Houston before Valdez’s unfortunate fracture. McCullers has never thrown more than 160 innings in a season as a professional, and has only eclipsed 150 in 2015. He’s dealt with a sampler platter of injuries — he missed time due to his shoulder in 2016, his lower back in 2017, and had Tommy John surgery in 2018. Expecting 160 innings in 2021 — our current projection — feels optimistic.

Greinke hasn’t made less than 25 starts since 2007 (if you exclude 2020, where he never missed a turn in the truncated season). That’s a tremendous health record, but he’s also 37, and his fastball velocity declined by nearly 2 mph last year. Greinke is no more likely to get hurt than any pitcher, but pitching is a dangerous profession — there’s always some risk there.

The Astros surely hoped that both Greinke and Valdez would pitch a full season, leaving the next six pitchers to cobble together three starters’ worth of appearances. That’s obviously out the door, but they might still be able to cobble together enough starts to make the math work if no one else gets hurt.

But pitching is a battle of attrition. Losing Valdez doesn’t change any of the other starters’ injury risks. It also lowers their margin for error; instead of having Garcia operate as a swingman, he’s now their fifth starter, leaving one of Whitley or Bielak to chip in when a sixth starter is necessary.

Another injury would leave them starting from an even lower point in terms of depth, and every extra arm they need in the rotation is a bad sign for their already-sketchy bullpen. We see them as the seventh-worst relief group in the game, but that assumes no innings from any of the aforementioned starters. Every extra inning they can coax out of any of that group would be a boon.

Houston likely needs to look outside the organization for additional pitching depth. Per our Free Agent Tracker, the best pitchers still on the market are Jake Odorizzi, Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello, and Aníbal Sánchez. Trevor Cahill is on the list, but he’s likely in line for a relief or swingman role, which makes him a worse fit.

Odorizzi has multiple potential suitors, which makes landing him uncertain, but he’d likely be the Astros’ first choice on talent alone. Given their injury situation, however, he’s hardly ideal; he made only four starts in 2020, missing time with an intercostal strain, a bruised chest suffered on a comebacker, and blister problems.

Hamels, too, hardly pitched in 2020. In his case, a shoulder injury also darkens his prognosis for 2021 significantly. The Astros might be interested in a vacuum, but given how thin their rotation already is, adding another pitcher with injury risk seems like an unlikely eventuality.

That leaves Sánchez and Porcello, and neither are without blemishes. Sánchez just finished the worst season of his career, a 6.62 ERA, 5.46 FIP, and 5.30 xFIP disaster. He also just turned 37, and has had intermittent injury issues throughout the years. That leaves Porcello, and while he still projects decently enough, the warning lights are everywhere. He just completed a season where he ran a swinging strike rate of only 6.4%, one of the worst rates in baseball, and he doesn’t exactly have a history of excelling despite not missing bats.

Plugging in any of these pitchers will push the Astros right up to the competitive balance tax line, but that feels unavoidable at this point. A greater concern is whether they’ll be able to find someone healthy and effective, because both are necessary given the state of the pitching staff. It does no one any good to bring in a pitcher who misses the bulk of the season with injury. This isn’t a lottery ticket, if-he-gets-right-it’s-gravy situation; the Astros need things to work.

While their rotation is a shambles, they’ll be highly incentivized to let Valdez take his time, because the form he showed in 2020 makes him look like a rotation mainstay for years to come. The Astros have spent the last decade cultivating and trading for a very particular type of pitcher: four-seam spin machines who pepper the top of the zone with fastballs and snap off high-spin breaking balls to complement them. Think Verlander or Cole, and you’re looking in the right direction.

That’s not the only skillset they’ll accept — McCullers sports a sinker as his primary fastball, and Greinke attacks low in the zone with fastballs and changeups. But when they can, they go after spin monsters, and it’s easy to see why; they’ve excelled at acquiring and developing exactly that skillset.

That’s not Valdez’s game, though. If riding, transverse-spin-efficient fastballs were the previous major advance in pitch design, Valdez represents the new hotness: he builds his entire arsenal off of a seam-shifted sinker that absolutely bamboozles opposing hitters. If you want to think of it as a clock face, he releases his sinker with spin pointing at 10:45, but its movement points towards 9:45, a huge amount of deviation.

His changeup builds off of that sinker. He releases it with near-identical tilt, and it too dives off the map. Both of those pitches look more vertical out of his hand than they end up, and that sets up his third pitch, a devastating curveball that has near-perfect spin mirroring to his sinker and changeup but moves wholly differently. In Baseball Savant’s handy spin visualization tool, you can see how well the three pitches play off of each other:

That’s neat in theory, and even better news: it works well in practice. Rob Arthur recently showed that more deviation means more grounders, and Valdez delivers on that front: his 60% groundball rate in 2020 led baseball. Both his sinker and changeup individually coaxed a groundball rate above 60%, at least when batters could hit the changeup, as it also boasted a 34% whiff rate.

If he wants a whiff instead of a grounder, Valdez turns to his curveball, and it’s a thing of beauty. I could drone on all day about its metrics, but instead, let’s just watch one. Here he is taking no chances against Cody Bellinger, with a pitch that was going to get him either looking or swinging:

Andrelton Simmons basically never strikes out — unless he has to deal with Framber’s curveball, that is:

Marcus Semien can’t handle the hook either, though you have to respect the decision to simply stop his swing after realizing he’s been had:

I’ve got more where those came from, but in the interest of finishing this article, I’ll give you the gist of it. He was one of only four pitchers to throw 300 curveballs in 2020. Hitters knew it was coming — and they still swung and missed at 19.1% of the curves he threw, seventh-best among pitchers who threw even 150 curves.

Is he a curveball-first pitcher? He has the whiff rates and flashy highlights to look like one. Is he the next iteration of Dallas Keuchel? The sinker and changeup think so, and it’s not like this is some new development; he ran a 62.9% groundball rate in his 2019 stint in the majors, and a preposterous 74.7% in his 44 innings of Triple-A.

In his brief inning of pitching on Tuesday, he showed more of the same. Three batters, three groundouts, with his third pitch of the game hitting 93.8 mph on the gun. It wasn’t some joke lineup, either: the Mets ran out Brandon Nimmo, Francisco Lindor, and Michael Conforto.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Astros will be missing. It hurts to discover someone so effective, then see them get hurt at the first opportunity the following year. The AL West won’t be as competitive as it was last year, but the A’s literally won the division in 2020 and the Angels aren’t far behind. Houston is in a tight race, and they’re going to have to do it without their new star pitcher.

The worst case is even worse than a missed season. Valdez has always gotten grounders, but before 2020, he’d sometimes struggled with command. He walked 13.4% of batters in his 2019 major league stint, and 15.6% in a shorter turn in 2018. He fixed that issue in 2020 — his walk rate fell to 5.6% and he threw strikes far more frequently. Missing a year of development time is worrisome for someone who so recently fixed their greatest weakness.

Pitcher injuries are always cruel. This one hits particularly hard, though. A young exciting pitcher broke a bone in his pitching hand, and until he’s fully recovered, all Astros fans can do is hope the rest of the rotation holds together and fret about whether Valdez can hold onto his 2020 gains. It wouldn’t be spring training without a frustrating pitching injury, but this one hurts.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Should have led with Odorizzi, this is the type of insight that makes people listen so I hope it happens 🙂

Jason Bmember
1 year ago

I don’t know that the Houston Front Office was channeling FanGraphs, but Odorizzi: IN