Houston, We Might Need a Fourth Starter

The great starting pitching of these two teams was the headlining feature heading into this edition of the World Series. The matchup of two historically good rotations promised a fiercely competitive series with runs at an even higher premium than they already are in the postseason. We are two games in and the Astros’ two best starters have allowed a combined nine runs while the bullpen has allowed an additional eight. It’s been an ugly start for the Houston pitching staff.

The Astros will hand the ball to Zack Greinke in Game 3 while the Nationals counter with Aníbal Sánchez. ZiPS gives the Astros an overwhelming 58.3% chance to claw their way back into the series in Game 3. After his relief appearance in Game 1, Patrick Corbin draws the start on Saturday in Game 4. While Sánchez doesn’t approach the level of the Nats’ top three starters, his presence on the roster gives them the flexibility to rest their best pitchers should the series stretch longer than five games. And to Sánchez’s credit, he held the Cardinals scoreless and nearly hitless in his Game 1 start in the NLCS.

After Greinke, the Astros’ plan is a little less clear. When Houston needed to call on a fourth starter in the ALCS, they instead leaned on their bullpen, using seven different pitchers in the deciding Game 6. At that point in the series, they held a 3-2 advantage over the Yankees and were coming off an off day in the schedule. If they had lost Game 6, they had a rested Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole available for Game 7. They don’t have that luxury in the World Series.

A.J. Hinch hasn’t announced a Game 4 starter, and the assumption is that he’ll turn to his bullpen again. But Game 4 falls in the middle of a three-game stretch in Washington, giving the Astros bullpen no time to rest if heavy usage is required in Game 3. The Astros could call on Cole and Verlander on short rest for Games 4 and 5 in Washington, but that would still leave them in a pickle should the series return to Houston.

In the ALCS, the Yankees ran their bullpen into the ground. Their relievers accounted for 56.7% of their innings pitched during that six-game series — the Astros bullpen accounted for 43.6% of their innings. As Zack Britton suggested in an interview with Marc Carig of The Athletic, that kind of attrition takes a toll on a pitching staff:

“I think everyone was running on fumes there at the end. The more times you face guys, obviously, as relievers, you get uber-exposed. It’s the one thing I always say. That’s why we’re relievers, not starters. You overexpose guys, it’s inevitable that eventually, they’re going to get got a little bit.”

The Astros could be on the verge of facing the same problem that was the downfall of the Yankees, but they have an option on their postseason roster that could help them alleviate their bullpen attrition in Game 4: José Urquidy.

In Game 6 of the ALCS, Urquidy was the bulk starter after Brad Peacock’s stint as an opener. He threw 2.2 innings, allowing just a solo home run and three other baserunners while striking out five. A rookie who started the season in Double-A, Urquidy quickly made his way up to the majors after posting a solid 6.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio across two minor league stops. He made his major league debut on July 2 and wound up making seven starts and nine appearances for the Astros down the stretch. He allowed more than two runs in just two of those nine appearances and was particularly good in his four appearances in September (three runs allowed in 18 IP).

The key to Urquidy’s success is a plus changeup and precise command of his four pitches. Not only does his changeup have a great velocity differential off his fastball (8–9 mph), it also possesses a tremendous amount of fade. The pitch’s horizontal movement sits in the 71st percentile for major league changeups and has three inches more of break than changeups thrown at a similar speed.

Against left-handed batters, he leans on the pitch’s natural fade to help him locate on the outer half of the plate. Because he’s able to throw his changeup with an arm action consistent with his fastball, batters have a tough time picking up the pitch. This strikeout of Aaron Hicks is a great example of a perfectly executed changeup:

While his changeup is far more effective against opposite-handed batters (32.4% whiff rate vs LHB, 16.0% whiff rate vs RHB), he’s not afraid to use his changeup against same-handed batters if necessary. But instead of using it as an out pitch like he does against lefties, he’ll use it as a true change-of-pace pitch against righties, throwing it in almost any count. Still, if he’s able to locate it well, it can be a deadly pitch, as this strikeout of Aaron Judge shows us:

His changeup also plays well off the movement of his fastball. He throws his heater around 93 mph with a good amount of ride and some armside run. With similar arm action, the movement path of both pitches looks the same until the changeup breaks down and further to the armside. When he’s able to locate his fastball up in the zone, he’s been successful at generating whiffs. When he’s able to hit his spot up and in to righties, that armside run makes it nearly impossible to make contact with the pitch. Gary Sánchez learned this the hard way in Game 6:

Urquidy has struggled a bit against right-handed batters because his two breaking balls are merely mediocre. That’s given him a pretty significant reverse platoon split in his limited exposure to major league hitting. He’s held lefties to a paltry .224 wOBA while righties have torched him to the tune of a .344 wOBA. In Game 6 of the ALCS, pairing Urquidy with Peacock as the opener made sense with four of the first five Yankees batting from the right side. But the Nationals lineup features two potent lefties in the first four spots, Adam Eaton and Juan Soto. Peacock owns a significant traditional platoon split since he relies so heavily on his fastball-slider combo. The Astros certainly could follow the script they used against the Yankees, but it just might make more sense to start Urquidy outright and see how many innings he can go before turning to the bullpen.

The sample is pretty limited, but Urquidy didn’t seem to be hampered when he faced a lineup the second time through. His .328 wOBA allowed the second time through the order aligns perfectly with the league-average second-time-through-the-order penalty. He struggled even more when he faced a lineup a third time. If Houston hands the ball to Urquidy to start Game 4, an ideal outing would hopefully go four or five innings with 18 to 20 batters faced. Then the Astros could turn to their bullpen to finish the game. That would help them alleviate the strain on their relievers and give their best starters time to rest. Of course, if they lose Game 3, then this plan is likely thrown right out the window.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Joe Joemember
2 years ago

So who are the possible 4th starter options for FanGraphs?

Monsignor Martinez
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

According to some random dude who comments on this site, it’s gonna be a mediocre SS prospect for the Twins.