Houston (Still) Has a Rotation Problem

If the Houston Astros win tonight, they’ll go to the World Series. That’s in line with what they expected to be doing before the season — this is the fifth straight year the Astros have played in the ALCS, and they’ve been to the World Series in two of those four years. But if they make it three out of five this year, they’ll do so despite pitching injuries that have left the team rebuilding their rotation on the fly, much as they’ve been doing since the start of the year.

Yesterday, Dusty Baker intimated that Lance McCullers Jr. is out for the remainder of the postseason. Given that he was left off the ALCS roster, that’s hardly a surprise, but it does mean that the Astros need to plan for how their rotation will work without him going forward.

With their presumptive ace gone, the top of the rotation now starts with Framber Valdez. I’d argue that it might have started with him in any case, but with McCullers out, he’s clearly the best option. That lines him up to start a World Series opener if they make it that far, but does make him mostly unavailable before then. Easy enough, here’s the rotation through one spot:

Astros Playoff Rotation
Rotation Spot Pitcher First Game
1 Framber Valdez WS G1

Next up is Luis Garcia. Garcia started the third game of the ALCS (McCullers and Valdez started the first two), and he’s been a valuable performer all year. The team is surely concerned, though. In Game 2 of the ALCS, Garcia gave up a grand slam in the first inning, then walked the first batter he faced in the second. It’s even worse than that generic description: Garcia’s fastball velocity dipped by nearly 4 mph on the four fastballs he threw in the second. One trainer’s visit later, Jake Odorizzi was warming up to replace him.

The injury is to his knee; he experienced discomfort pushing off the mound, which explains the velocity drop and the control issues. He’s scheduled to pitch tonight, but Houston will be watching him with bated breath. If his knee isn’t up to the task, the Astros will face a tough decision: remove Garcia from the roster or face the same uncertainty as before.

For now, Houston appears to be hedging with Odorizzi. He hasn’t pitched since his emergency appearance, which means he’s now on the same rest schedule as Garcia. If Garcia can’t go — whether he’s a pre-game scratch or aggravates his injury during the game — the Astros will plug in Odorizzi. Here, then, are the top two rotation spots:

Astros Playoff Rotation
Rotation Spot Pitcher First Game
1 Framber Valdez WS G1
2 Garcia/Odorizzi ALCS G6

What’s next? The Astros will turn to José Urquidy, a perfectly competent starter who is nonetheless a cut below the Astros’ top trio. He didn’t appear at all in their four-game series with the White Sox, much less make a start. That’s largely because a rain delay let McCullers make the Game 4 start on regular rest, but in any case, he’s now a lock for the rotation. He lines up as the likely starter if the current series goes seven games, something the Astros are likely fretting given his ineffective start earlier this series (13 batters faced, six runs allowed). The top three:

Astros Playoff Rotation
Rotation Spot Pitcher First Game
1 Framber Valdez WS G1
2 Garcia/Odorizzi ALCS G6
3 José Urquidy ALCS G7/WS G3

Finally, there’s Zack Greinke. He looked shaky in his brief appearance in the ALCS (nine batters faced, three walks), and the team seems bent on avoiding him if possible. He barely pitched in September, first landing on the COVID-19 IL and then the regular IL due to neck soreness. When he did pitch, he didn’t last long — the last time he completed more than five innings was August 23. The other three members of the rotation are sliding up; Greinke is switching lanes from playoff long reliever to starter. Here’s the tenuous plan for the rest of the year:

Astros Playoff Rotation
Rotation Spot Pitcher First Game
1 Framber Valdez WS G1
2 Garcia/Odorizzi ALCS G6
3 José Urquidy ALCS G7/WS G3
4 Zack Greinke WS G3/G4

If Garcia looks unbothered by his injury, that changes things. Houston could mix and match with Odorizzi and Greinke, either selecting one of the two to start based on the matchup and saving the other for relief, or perhaps using them in tandem to form some kind of strange approximation of a bullpen game. Likewise, if Garcia can’t go, Odorizzi plugs right into the rotation, but someone like Brandon Bielak or Peter Solomon could slide into a long relief role in his place, or perhaps displace Greinke if the team isn’t sold on him as a starter anymore.

However the rotation ends up, Dusty Baker will need to be ready to go to the bullpen on short notice. So far, he’s absolutely been up to the task: due to a rash of short starts, he’s leaned on several relievers for multi-inning stints with great success. Cristian Javier has made three appearances totaling 7.2 innings — I nearly included him on the list of possible starters to replace Greinke. Kendall Graveman has averaged just over an inning per outing. Ryne Stanek has appeared in seven games, while Phil Maton has appeared in six.

In total, Houston has six relievers (Blake Taylor, Maton, Javier, Stanek, Graveman, and closer Ryan Pressly) with ERAs below two this postseason. Want to know why the Astros are prospering despite their makeshift rotation? Look no further than the guys coming in after the starter departs. The Red Sox are scoring more than five runs per game in the series — but if you count Odorizzi as a de facto part of the rotation, the rest of the bullpen is allowing fewer than 2.5 runs per nine innings pitched.

Can the Astros keep getting away with it? They might not have to. If they keep scoring seven runs per game, as they have this postseason, they might be able to get away with a rotation that replaces Greinke with a ham sandwich. But even if their offense slows down, the sampler platter of starters and hard-working bullpen provide a model for success for the rest of the playoffs.





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

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If only the Sox didn’t face Houston the first round, we wouldn’t have had to face McCullers twice.