Houston is becoming in greater need of starters

Help wanted: Astros starting pitchers

Houston Astros/Facebook

With Brad Peacock experiencing a setback in his return from injury, and the Astros counting on his start and sending some recent journeymen back down to AAA, Houston is going to have a couple of intriguing nights in Anaheim to start the four-game series with the Angels.

They have already announced that for tonight's game, they will send Josh James out as an "opener" with the plan to then put in Framber Valdez, who has been downright terrible in his recent starts. With no other real options for Tuesday night, it appears that they will be forced to make that game a bullpen day which could play as a significant detriment to their chances in the series. If they have to expend their strong bullpen arms in the first two games, that may hurt their chances to support their regular starters properly later in the week.

What is the current rotation, exactly? 

Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Wade Miley are firmly in the rotation and the current 1-2-3 of that order, obviously, but is there a firm grasp past that? Brad Peacock appears to have ownership of the fourth spot, but he struggled mightily in June which doesn't exactly instill a lot of faith that he is a lock to stay in the rotation the rest of the season.

In June, Peacock went 1-4 with an ERA of 6.39 after allowing 18 runs over 25.1 innings of work. While some of his struggles may have been a result of his eventual injury which landed him in the IL, the question remains of if he can get back to his early season success to warrant a solidified spot in the rotation. To his credit, he looked good in his rehab assignment, going two scoreless innings while striking out four, but if the Astros end up making a trade, it would not be surprising to see him shift back to the bullpen, especially if the Astros want to be careful with his health.

Collin McHugh is in a weird spot as well. He started the year in the rotation, then went down with an injury before working his way back into a bullpen role. While he looks healthy and normal again, the Astros have not yet made a move to bring him back into a starting role.

Another possibility for Tuesday's game, which is currently up in the air, is that McHugh could make his ninth start of the season. While that may be a possibility, the decision to bring him out of the bullpen in the blowout game on Sunday against the Rangers seems suspicious, because if they had been considering having him start on Tuesday, why waste an inning out of him in that situation? Maybe it was an audition of sorts, to make sure he was ready, or perhaps the current condition of their pitching staff is still so fluid that they had to put in a fresh bullpen arm and he was the next up at the time. We'll find out on Tuesday.

Regardless, it's no question the current rotation is shaky at best in the fourth and fifth slots and gets even more questionable when you consider what could unfold if they add one, or maybe two, new starters into the mix via trade before the July 31st deadline.

Morton and Keuchel are missed

While at the time it was understandable that the Astros didn't shell out the money needed to bring back Charlie Morton, who would sign with the Rays, hindsight so far in 2019 is looking pretty disheartening. Morton is 11-2 so far this season and has the fourth-best ERA of qualified starters at 2.35.

He has been a terrific acquisition for Tampa Bay, and while it's great to see a former teammate succeeding, I'm sure Houston would love to have him behind Verlander and Cole in their rotation to solidify what would be the best rotation in baseball. Another pitcher whose time with Houston ended after 2018, Dallas Keuchel.

Keuchel didn't get picked up until June 7th by the Atlanta Braves and didn't get his first start in the rotation for the big-league team until June 21st. Unlike Morton where there was a more significant divide on if the Astros should have paid what it took to bring him back, Keuchel's demands in the offseason were too high to make sense for Houston.

Still, while it took a couple of games for him to knock the rust off and get up to speed, Keuchel has had three impressive starts in a row, going at least seven innings in each while allowing no more than two runs. He finds himself 3-2 and part of a surging Braves team who could ultimately face the Astros in the World Series, with both clubs on top of their divisions and towards the top of the power rankings.

Win now vs. the future

That leads us to the age-old question: what parts of your future team are you willing to give up to win now? Houston can't get Morton or Keuchel back, so that means they're likely going to be active buyers in the trade market this month. One of the most significant trade pieces the Astros could move, if they choose to make him available, is Kyle Tucker.

Moving Tucker would be the most drastic move and should earn Houston the most drastic reward for this season and beyond. The return should be someone, like Matt Boyd of the Tigers, that they could control for several years, balancing out the level of prospect they send over. If they are, understandably, unwilling to move Tucker, then you have to consider what it would take to get a rental. One such pitcher is Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, who will be in high demand.

It's no question that adding Bumgarner to this rotation would make them extremely dangerous, but it's all a matter of perspective. That would make them solidified for this year, but then what? As of now, with Gerrit Cole still set to be a free agent after this season, the only guarantee the Astros have in terms of reliably successful starters is Justin Verlander.

Sure, they will get Lance McCullers Jr. back next season and maybe the long-awaited call-up of Forrest Whitley, but those are by no means guarantees of a solid rotation. That makes the situation where they'd be willing to give up significant prospects for a rental hard to imagine.

But again, if the price is right, a rental to win this year could make the difference between an ALCS loss and a World Series win. One more thing to consider, though, is that Jeff Lunhow has made some masterful moves recently, both in the acquisitions of Verlander and Cole, which gave Houston a star pitcher while leaving their top prospect collection intact. Does Lunhow have another trade like that up his sleeve for 2019?

Maybe Monday and Tuesday nights' games will end up being great pitching performances for whoever Houston puts out there, and it ends up being a moot point, but even so, the fact remains that the pitching rotation for the rest of 2019, and beyond, has a few question marks to it that need answering.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome