The Houston Astros improved 19 games in 2014 from the depths of hell season that was 2013. A reasonable breakdown of the areas that led to this improvement might go as follows:
- Improved Starting rotation – 60%
- Improved Hitting – 20%
- Improved Defense – 15%
- Barely improved bullpen – 5%
There are a lot of stats that show the improvement of the starting staff from 2013 to 2014
|2013||Rank in AL||2014||Rank in AL|
|Complete Games||2||T 13th||7||T 1st|
|Innings Pitched||906||13th||970||T 5th|
A very telling under-the-radar stat is the following. In 2013, 95 of the Astros’ games (59%) were started by pitchers with ERAs over 5.00. In 2014, only four games – 3 by the long gone Lucas Harrell and 1 substitution start by Rudy Owens – were started by folks with ERAs over 5.00. There is no doubt that the improved starting pitching gave the team a chance in many more games in 2014, chances that were usually handed away by inconsistent hitting and a poor bullpen.
So what drove the improvement in 2014 and what does it mean for 2015.
Two stars rising
The biggest differences from the 2013 to the 2014 staff were two-fold. First Dallas Keuchel morphed from a marginal fifth starter/long man to a control freak stud. Second was the transition of Collin McHugh from a waiver slag pile inhabitant to a breaking ball diva.
Keuchel had struggled in two stints in the starting rotation with ERAs over 5 in 2012 and 2013. He was a marginal candidate to make the fifth spot in the rotation for 2014, but once he did, he had a rip-roaring good season.
He tied for the lead in the AL for complete games with 5, put up a seventh best (among qualifiers) ERA of 2.93, had a twelfth best WHIP of 1.18 and OPS against of .655 and a very solid K / BB ratio of 3.04. His nearly 7 innings per start was easily the best on the staff.
But Keuchel has one stat that is absolutely amazing. He led the league in GO/AO which is the ratio of outs by ground balls to outs by balls in the air with 2.83. The next best number among starting pitchers was 1.85. That is an unbelievably huge differential and showed how effective he was in making the batters hit his pitch and pound it into the ground.
McHugh had a couple very weak cups of coffee with the Mets and the Rockies where his 2012 ERA of 7.59 was the better number. He was picked up by the Astros for nothing, told to throw more curveballs and had a great 2014. He fell eight innings short of being a qualifier, but if he had made it, his 2.73 ERA would have been sixth in the AL, his 1.022 WHIP would have been third, and his OPS against of .588 would have been fourth in the league. Considering how many breaking balls he throws on every count, his 2.4 BB/9 IP was very good.
Bud Norris 2.0
The Astros brought in Scott Feldman as a veteran free agent starter to solidify the rotation. He did – he basically gave the team very similar production to what Bud Norris provided before he was traded last season. So, it can be argued that it might have been cheaper to hang on to Bud than bring in Feldman. Hey, if Josh Hader is the real deal…no one will care.
Feldman put out a decent 3.74 ERA over 180 innings (6 IP/start) with a 1.303 WHIP. Norris prior to his trade put out a decent 3.93 ERA over 126 innings (6 IP/start) with a 1.413 WHIP.
The good news is that while Norris was the Astros best long term starter in 2013, Feldman was clearly the third best in 2014 with very similar numbers.
Dallas Keuchel 2.0?
Brett Oberholtzer had decent numbers as a starter – 4.39 ERA / 143.2 IP / 1.378 WHIP / 3.36 K per BB. Certainly these numbers do not seem to equate to a 5-13 record. Oberholtzer’s numbers are definitely superior to what Keuchel (another medium-hard tossing lefty) put up in 2013 before he blossomed in 2014.
So could Oberholtzer be set up for a kick butt 2015 like Keuchel did last season? Well, while a solid pitcher he has never really put up TOR type of numbers even in the minors.
It may be blasphemous, but Obie might improve if his control got a little worse. He pitches to contact and walks less than any other starter on the staff (1.8 BB/9 IP), but he gives up more hits (10.6 / 9 IP) than any other starter on the staff. Perhaps he just has to have better location near the zone but not in the zone to improve his lot in 2015.
There can be little argument that these first four men will be in the starting rotation when the season starts….if they are all still with the club.
Well after a good stretch of pitching down the stretch after learning he was tipping pitches, Brad Peacock is totally set to step up and take over the 5th slot in the rotation. Huh? What? Peacock had hip surgery and will miss the start and perhaps all of Spring Training?
OK, OK, OK. After a four solid starts down the stretch, young Nick Tropeano is ready to grab hold of that 5th slot in….. Whaaaat? Gone to LAA? For Hank Conger? And we had to send along Carlos Perez, who seems to have skills like or better than Conger?? (Wait a minute, the topic is starting pitching and Tropeano is gone from that discussion).
So, stating the obvious…the fifth starter is either with the organization right now or he is not.
Are the Astros thinking they have the next fireballing Yordano Ventura in young Micheal Foltynewicz? The 23 year old had his moments – like when he struck out 4 in 1-1/3 inning, but he also had moments when he looked like he needed more seasoning.
Are the Astros thinking they picked up another McHugh, when they picked up Sam Deduno, who had one nice, short emergency start after being picked up from the Twins? Note – he did start 18 games with a 3.83 ERA in 2013.
Are they ready to take a leap of faith and promote Mark Appel?
Or more likely, did they love how Asher Wojciechowski pitched down the stretch and are saying his time has finally come this spring?
Well maybe. Or maybe the 5th starter is actually someone they will pick up by trade or free agent signing in the off-season.
- How much fall-off if any do you expect from Keuchel and /or McHugh?
- Does the Tropeano trade and Peacock injury tell you that neither Feldman or Oberholtzer are getting moved?
- Who within the organization would you like to see them promote to the rotation?
- Any good free agent you think the Astros would pursue who would also be interested in helping this staff? James Shields, Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana, Edinson Volquez, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy and Jason Hammels are among many out there (and yes Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are too – you dreamers).
- Would you trade some prospects for someone else? Who would that be?
- Is Brad Peacock going to return in time to grab a starting spot or is he going to be a lowly paid version of Jesse Crain?