In 162 regular season games in 2019, the Astros allowed fewer runs than any other American League team – 640, or 3.95 per game. Through 15 games in 2020, the Astros now sit near the bottom (12th of 15 teams) in the American League, allowing 5 runs per game – more than a full run more.
Everyone knew losing Gerrit Cole would hurt, but this is a near-collapse in one year. What happened?
Well, let’s start with the fact that Gerrit Cole wasn’t the only departure from the 2019 squad. Via trade or free agency, the Astros also lost Wade Miley, Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon, Will Harris, Corbin Martin, and Aaron Sanchez. These pitchers combined for 611 IP and 11.0 bWAR in 2019; while Cole’s 212 innings and 7.4 bWAR made a good portion of that, it still left 400 innings to fill – not to mention hoping that a full season of Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. could make up for the loss of Cole. Even in the best-case scenario, the Astros faced a big hit to their pitching depth.
Unfortunately, 2020 has presented far from a best-case scenario. Among the 2019 Astros that appeared in any game, the following cannot currently pitch:
- Justin Verlander – forearm strain; reportedly “behind” in his recovery
- Brad Peacock – shoulder; yet to appear this season
- Chris Devenski – arm; went on 10-day IL on Aug. 1
- Roberto Osuna – reportedly out for the season and will require Tommy John surgery
- Jose Urquidy – did not report for the start of summer camp, presumably due to COVID; yet to appear this season
- Joe Smith – opted out of 2020 due to COVID related concerns
- Joe Biagini – shoulder; went on 10-day IL July 28
- Rogelio Armenteros – eblow; yet to appear this season
- Cionel Perez – not cleared to start throwing until July 25; yet to appear this season
So there’s another 555 innings pitched in 2019, accounting for 10.6 bWAR, all lost to the team since the start of the season. The Astros braced themselves for this possibility by adding exactly one pitcher in the offseason with any major league experience: Austin Pruitt, acquired via trade with Tampa Bay, who had two decent years under him, then injured his arm this spring and looks unlikely to pitch this season.
That leaves the Astros with exactly six healthy pitchers that appeared with the team in 2019: Zack Greinke, Ryan Pressly, Josh James, Framber Valdez, Cy Sneed, and Bryan Abreu – and both Sneed and Abreu still qualify as rookies. Of the 1462 innings pitched by 2019 Astros, these six pitchers accounted for only 277 innings – and only 2.3 of the team’s 24 bWAR from pitching. To put it another way: the Astros currently lack 80-90% of their pitching from last season.
I guess that might make a difference.
You’d think that calling up nine different rookies would cause horrific problems in the bullpen. In the immortal words of Lee Corso – “Not so fast, my friend!” Astros relievers currently rank 11th in the majors with a 3.48 ERA – not too shabby, with nine rookies in the mix. No, the major problem lies with the starting pitchers, who currently sit at 17th in MLB with a 4.46 ERA. And if we want to think about the root problems facing the Astros, you have to look back at those returning pitchers, plus “returning” Lance McCullers Jr.:
- Zack Greinke: 15 IP, 3.00 ERA
- Lance McCullers Jr.: 13 2/3 IP, 9.22 ERA
- Ryan Pressly: 1 2/3 IP, 16.20 ERA
- Josh James: 7 IP, 10.29 ERA
- Framber Valdez: 17 2/3 IP, 2.04 ERA
- Cy Sneed: 6 IP, 7.50 ERA
- Bryan Abreu: 3 1/3 IP, 2.70 ERA, 2.40 WHIP
Essentially, the Astros counted on sixteen different returning pitchers to either break camp in the big leagues or to provide quality depth; nine are injured, five have flamed out spectacularly, and that leaves only Zack Greinke and Framber Valdez with quality contributions.
To look on the bright side, the Astros get a look at a lot of prospects in a major league setting in a season that may or may not finish. Obviously not every rookie you call up will succeed immediately, but several of these young pitchers have shown promise:
- Christian Javier jumped to MLB after only two AAA games in his career, and despite Sunday’s loss to the Athletics, has posted a 4.02 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP with a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio. You could make a fair argument that he’s currently the second most reliable starting pitcher on the squad. (You might go cry after recognizing that as an Astros fan, but you’d still accept the argument.)
- Brandon Bielak followed two long relief appearances by replacing Josh James in the rotation and a start of 5 shutout innings. His 0.87 ERA and 1.17 WHIP look great but he will need to get his walks under control to stick.
- Blake Taylor, acquired from the Mets for Jake Marisnick in the offseason, has been a revelation in the bullpen. In six appearances, he has thrown 8 2/3 innings of 0.00 ERA ball with a 0.92 WHIP and gives the Astros a left-handed weapon in their bullpen that they have lacked even in their World Series runs.
- Enoli Paredes has displayed an electric fastball over 6 2/3 innings, allowing only a 2.70 ERA. Bad outings against the Dodgers and Angels inflated his other stats, but his two innings of shutout ball in Oakland – getting out of the runner on second situation created in extra innings – demonstrated his potential.
Look, if your team signs 43-year old Fernando Rodney, no one can pretend your pitching is in a good spot. But if you want to think of a formula for the Astros turning around this bad start, then you would look for the above pitchers to continue their impressive debuts, the experienced pitchers to pull things together (yes, that means you, Mr. McCullers), and for Verlander, Peacock, and Urquidy to all come back healthy and effective.
Well, you’d have to have that formula, plus consistency from the bats – but that’s a topic for another day.