Sunday Update: Astros’ rotation could be the team’s downfall

After 63 games, the Astros have used 60 different batting lineups, seven cleanup hitters, four shortstops, seven left fielders, and 36 players overall.

Perhaps the most glaring number, however, is the number of starting pitchers A.J. Hinch has penciled into his lineup.

After 63 games, Houston has used 10 different pitchers to start a game, making pencil the operative word as half of those 10 starters have opened the game on the mound four or fewer times. In 2014, the team needed 11 for the entire season. The numbers were similar in 2013 (10), 2012 (11) and 2011 (9). So 10 for the first 63 games signals a huge problem for the club.

Where is Jason Lane when you really need him? Can Carlos Correa pitch and play shortstop at the same time?

Despite the inconsistent hitting, which seems to be coming around in some regards (e.g. George Springer, Evan Gattis, etc.), the success of the rotation portends a huge issue as the cool spring turns into hot summer and then the stretch.

Only Dallas Keuchel has provided consistent outings and his sidekick Collin McHugh has faded after a decent start, including that disastrous start Saturday. Many feared a regression from the two top-of-rotation pitchers but McHugh has regressed enough for both of them combined. Meanwhile, injuries and lack of performance have plagued the starting group for Houston.

Asher Wojciechowski began the season as the fan favorite fifth starter behind newly acquired Roberto Hernandez. Both Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock began the season on the disabled list.

Scott Feldman had a job when the spring started and Sam Deduno started the year as the long man/spot starter. Neither has contributed significantly and both are now on the disabled list.

Again, however, only Keuchel and a generally strong bullpen have saved the day. Houston starters are 22-19 with a 4.12 ERA over those 63 starts, though they have pitched more innings than any other team (382) for a 6 1/3 IP per start. Still, Houston starters are in the bottom half of the league in batting average (11), strikeouts (11), walks allowed (12) and hits allowed (15).

To be sure, the rotation is in disarray. Feldman is due back later this month or next. Peacock could be out all or much of the season after another setback this week. Hernandez is now in the bullpen. Furthermore, the two youngsters — Lance McCullers Jr and Vincent Velasquez — could be only stop gaps since they are likely on an innings count and the jury is still out on Oberholtzer who returned from the DL a second time just Friday night.

Yes, the rotation for the first place Astros is a mess.

The issue isn’t run support. Houston hitters have provided plenty for McHugh (5.87), Obie (5.40), Hernandez (4.23) and Feldman (4.20).  Wojo got 6 runs per his three starts and Keuchel manages to win with just 3.8 run support per game.

With little else waiting in the wings in Corpus Christi and Fresno, Jeff Luhnow may be assembling his prayer team while he works the phones in advance of the deadline. The crystal ball is even a mess and can’t possibly predict the outcome with so many injuries and up and down performances.

Here’s a quick recap for each of the pitchers.

Pitcher Starts Record ERA IP H K/BB Team Record QS
Keuchel 13 7-2           1.90 94.2 66 72-24 9-4 10
McHugh 13 6-3           5.08 79.2 90 62-16 8-4 7
Hernandez 11 2-5           4.89 70 78 36-20 5-6 5
Feldman 10 4-4           4.80 60 68 37-14 5-5 7
McCullers 5 2-1           2.32 31 22 36-6 2-3 3
Oberholtzer 4 1-1           2.25 20 21 13-9 3-1 0
Wojciechowski 3 0-1           7.31 16 23 16-7 2-1 0
Deduno 2 0-1           6.86 21 24 17-9 1-1 0
Peacock 1 0-1           5.40 5 5 3-2 0-1 0
Velasquez 1 0-0                – 5 3 5-4 0-1 0

Frankly, Keuchel may be the only current starter to finish the season in the rotation, barring injury. Feldman, Hernandez and McHugh have ERAs near or over 5 and could retain spots (Hernandez is in the bullpen presently) by default. At least for the time being.

Tommy Shirley and Brady Rodgers are stop-gap possibilities, but the Astros chose to leap-frog them with McCullers and Velasquez from Corpus Christi. How many rookie pitchers can you have in a rotation or on a pitching staff altogether and still be successful?

Most of the conversation about the trade front has focused on top of the rotation starters like Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels and others, but Luhnow could be focused on adding two or more mid-rotation replacements that one big splash starter.

Make no mistake. Luhnow’s heavy lifting this summer will be correcting the rotation. He could get lucky with Obie or Peacock or perhaps stretch out or get creative (tandem) with McCullers and Velasquez, but the sheer number of holes in the dam are growing.

Questions for your Sunday morning.

  • Is the rotation to the biggest challenge to a successful season?
  • Which of these is most likely to provide decent contributions down the stretch: Feldman, Hernandez or McHugh?
  • Should Luhnow focus on a top of rotation pitcher or two lesser, but solid, middle rotation guys?
  • Which of the starters — injury or otherwise — has been the biggest disappointment in the first 63 games?
  • If nothing changes with the roster except what is currently in the system, how would you advise Hinch to use the rotation?



54 comments on “Sunday Update: Astros’ rotation could be the team’s downfall

  1. Right now we have five starters. We could not afford to take McHugh out of the rotation any more than Seattle can afford to take Felix out. You have to let Collin pitch his way out of it. The starting pitchers have been a big strength of this team so far and the hitters who have been hitting .200 all year are still there. If you aren’t going to get rid of .200 hitters who have struggled all year, why would you abandon pitchers who have pitched well when they hit a bad spot. That’s nothing but panic.
    Why worry about Velasquez and McCullers innings now? That’s silly. cross that bridge when you come to it. Feldman’s gonna be back and somebody else down in the minors will be able to spot start a time or two.
    If you want to chase a pitcher, fine, but we still have pitchers on this team.


    • OP, I don’t think I suggested getting rid of McHugh. The bigger question I’m trying to ask if can he “pitch his way out it”. And..most people here have suggested getting rid of those .200 hitters.

      No, at this point, there isn’t a replacement for McHugh and Hinch has no choice but to run him out there.

      I’m only suggesting that with McCullers and Velasquez being short-term fixes (they can’t go beyond 130-150 IP I wouldn’t think) and Obie, Peacock and Feldman injuries, the rotation is razor thin. Oh my! Oh my! If Keuchel should go down.

      McHugh’s ERA over the past four games is 7.77 with a .333 batting average against. Bad stretch, perhaps, but it can’t continue. He has only five walks in those four games, so it’s the hits that are killing him…Included in those hits is six home runs.

      But, yes, I’ll agree — but wasn’t suggesting — that the Astros get rid of McHugh. But HE will determine if he stays in the rotation in late summer.


      • Pitching pitching, we need more pitching Period !!! Spin 2015-16-17 any way you like, but as of today we need better pitching, Kuechel will be fine, love LMJ and VV, but for 2015 if were going to make run at the playoffs, we better have more of a plan than plugging holes form the minors. A proven 2-3. IMHO


    • A .200 hitter doesn’t decide games, he goes 0 for 4 team might still win. Starter goes 3 and gives up 7 you probably lose. Luhnow can afford more patience with hitters. It probably is time to relook PT for Valbuena. That said McHugh earned his spot and this team isn’t going to contend without him pitching well.


  2. This is a crazy thought, but why not bring Appel up and challenge him to stay or go. The “young” man pitched through college and without the appendix issue, could have smoothly progressed to this point. He is struggling off and on in Corpus, but I attribute that more to the team’s changing his mechanics rather than his talent. Put him in the rotation and just tell him to pitch his a– off, using whatever motion he is comfortable with.
    Crazy stupid, I know, but why not. He can’t be worse than everyone else we’ve used except Keuchel. Likely significantly better.
    Let him loose.


    • edit my comment – last sentence does not refer to McCullers or Velasquez. OB has to prove himself, and McHugh is clearly struggling right now. Can’t keep throwing him out there in suddenly being 4,5 or 6 runs down early. If he finds his “magic” again, then absolutely he’s there. I just would like to see Appel and how he would respond. Me thinks his pride would show and bring him back to the #1 draft pick status.


    • Why not hand him the ball anywhere and tell him to pitch his a$$ off. They have never handed him the ball. He’s always been on a pitch count, an inning block. Why not send him to Fresno and hand him the ball there and tell him you want him to go until he’s gassed. He’s a Cal boy. send him out there and let him stretch it out there. He’s not on the 40-man. Lets see him fire the ball in AAA and quit babying him! Put him out there and let Heineman catch him.


      • Without question do this! I, while I don’t count, do not understand their treatment of him – how could he have been #1 pick for two consecutive years and then we have to change his whole delivery? Turn him loose SOMEWHERE! See what we have. He’s not a spring chicken.


  3. Very timely and right on point post, Chip.
    If you think of it this way – the front office went out and picked up solid bullpen arms – Neshek, Gregerson, Harris and even Thatcher. And the bullpen is much improved.
    They went out and picked up some additional help for the starting 9 – Lowrie, Rasmus, Gattis and though they are inconsistent the team is scoring more runs per game this season. On the other hand they traded away a lot of young starting or potential starting pitchers in the last year or so Lyles, Tropeano, Cosart and Folty and coming into this season only picked up a couple of shaky additions like Straily and Hernandez. And this part of the team did not improve.

    Obie looked good Friday, even in the first inning before all the scoring. Maybe he is turning a corner. LMJ and Velasquez have flashed talent, but we know they can’t be in the rotation to the end of the season without risking serious harm to their arms. They need to work McHugh out of the funk. It may be simple – yesterday someone (Mr. Bill?) was at the game and said he was tipping his pitches. Whatever he is not throwing like he did last season – looks uncertain on the mound and is up in the zone.
    I would not mind giving Appel a shot – what do we have to lose huh? Need to find out who he is and what he is going to be or not be.
    Just know we can’t Have Keuchel and Pray for four days of rain in a cycle…


  4. I’m not going to bring up a hat you all expect me to bring up. Beating the dead horse is getting old. You know what else is getting old? The tandem rotation. It’s midway through the milb season. Let the top 5 starters at each stop audition for a promotion by actually trying to go 7+. We have seen enough smoke and mirrors … Let’s see what they can really do.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I agree with OP (again!). Not to panic over the current pitching dilemma. I won’t question Chip’s run support statistics but I believe some of these games are all or nothing on run support. I hope we can hold our own until Lowrie returns and it wouldn’t hurt to see a few call ups (Appel). Give the guy a shot and let’s see what happens. I’m still cautiously optimistic about our team to do better than projected this year. We’ve had to put up with a down slide since 2005 and the last 3 disastrous seasons so a little more longer won’t kill us. We’ve seen huge improvement so let’s tweak where necessary but not get over zealous.


    • Zanuda, you think Lowrie is going to put this squad over the hump? Even if he plays meaningful innings late this year, he can’t help the rotation. And that kid Appel, if he can’t get AA bats out on a very regular basis, he’ll get eaten alive up here. That would be the worst thing that could happen to him.


  6. We all knew the rotation was the biggest question mark going in. Some of us figured Feldman would miss starts this year, due to his history. Hernandez was a question mark to all of us. I thought McHugh would continue on with his newfound talent. Wrong there. Buy certainly, we’ve got to hope the guy works his way through it, and he’ll get every chance. Thanks goodness for the two new kids. We’re going to get at least a couple of months out of them, unless some misfortune occurs. And hopefully Oberholtzer can do what he did last year. So it might not be all that bad.

    I don’t think we’re nearing the end of the world. But I do think Luhnow really needs to make a deal for a major league pitcher.

    Liked by 1 person

    • now i don’t wanna give away the farm to do it, but an at least solid #3 or better. if the starters continue to push larger numbers of innings onto the bullpen, the bullpen (our real strength all year long so far) gets taxed becomes average and that snowball is headed downhill. another reliable inning eating starter would make a big difference.


  7. Cole Hamels: won’t waive his no trade clause to come to Houston. If he did, he would want Houston to include his fourth year salary….NO QUESTIONS. $20 mill.
    Cueto: Free agent after this year, looking for a $200 million+ salary next year
    Kasmir: free agent after this year……would cost three or four HIGH prospects
    Harang: Could be had for a few bucks and one or two mid level prospects.
    Mike Leake: Same as Harang, for small money, but two or three TOP prospects.
    Take your pick……


  8. It would be worth it to see what the Phills want for Harang – solid workhorse and his age and his contract status should keep the price down.


  9. I was the guy at the game who noticed McHugh tipping. I don’t watch TV so it was my first time observing him this year but the tipping was obvious. McHugh finished 2014 on a dominant roll. Why did we tinker with his pitch selection profile? Seems like the fear of regression begat an adjustment that was probably not necessary. If it isn’t broken why fix it? It seems like Keuchel merely fine tuned his approach but he already had a strong foundation and his philosophy/execution got stronger last season and now this season as well. I don’t think McHugh had a similarly strong foundation but his performance last year was for real and not good luck or a mere flash in the pan. His approach worked. Unless he has forgotten how to spin the ball and bring his pitches out of the same pitch tunnel that he was doing last season he ought to be able to recapture the magic. We need him to recapture the magic.

    We could certainly use some more starting pitching but I hope it does not involve a lot of our prospects. One thing about our prospects that no one seems to comment on much is that they are coming out of a culture of winning in our minor league system. Springer,Tucker, Correa, McCullers, and Velazquez have known nothing but winning in their professional careers. OK, its the minor leagues and so much of the minor league experience is personal player development. but any athlete who aspires to WIN and not merely collect a nice pay check will become impatient with mediocre results. Our veterans unfortunately have grown up in a culture of losing. Even Altuve has wilted a little when confronted with team success. That’s one reason a guy like Lowrie who came out of the Boston and Oakland environments will probably thrive and perform when he comes back but guys like Valbuena or Carter may continue to fade and flounder. Some folks don’t do well in the spotlight of winning.

    Because of that I would be more inclined to continue to leapfrog some of our younger pitchers over the AAA retreads. Perhaps now is the time to trim some 40 man roster space by getting rid of marginal guys like Grossman, Hoes, Cruz etc. so that guys like Devenski and even Musgrove can be available on short notice.


  10. I listened to the game on radio yesterday and the radio team mentioned the tipping off of pitches. If so, that should be immediately correctable.


  11. The Astros need their collective eyes checked. They did not notice Seattle started a lefty today and scored 3 runs in the first.


  12. All our under-performers are performing today. Well, except for one.

    And out of curiosity, where is Preston Tucker? Is he the big league team’s version of Joe Sclafani, or what?


    • Here’s my thinking on Tucker, Mr. Bill. Tucker is Luhnow’s guy, heck, they even drafted his lil bro at #5. Now, if you were gonna trade somebody in July, would you be sitting him down in June? Nope. If you wanted to trade some guys in July, you want everybody seeing them play in June. Who’s playing and who’s sitting? I think Tucker is going to stay an Astro until they have hitters/fielders who make him obsolete and I don’t see that happening soon. The Astros are playing some of the future and they are showcasing some of their other players.


      • Either that or Verducci has now rendered an opinion that there is a statistical likelihood that a hitter who swings the bat more 5 times in a year than he did in the previous year is a increased risk of an injury to his big toe.


  13. But Hinch pulls McCullers after 5. My dear wife even complained about that without any input from me. He pitched that complete game earlier…


    • Over 90 pitches thru 5 and a ten run lead. LMJ was never going to get his nono with that pitch count, but four one-inning relievers did preserve the shutout and the bullpen really needed that booster shot in the arm.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That was actually the perfect time to pull him. They want to limit his IPs and they had a big lead and he had gone the qualified innings to get the win. I completely agree with Hinch pulling LMJ after the 5th inning.


  14. McCullers’ sure did his job today. A no-no through 5. Just a shame his pitch count was up there. And no I don’t think Lowrie is going to make us invincible but I’m hoping he will boost a somewhat sagging offense. Reading the blog, McHugh has a correctable issue but as Becky so astutely pointed out, a TOR pitcher is going to be EXPENSIVE. I would not want to see us make a deal like that right now. I just feel that we are close to achieving the “plan” ahead of schedule.

    I’m not ready to push the panic button just yet. If we could run off a nice winning streak we’d be back in the drivers seat. When we hit HR’s we tend to win, when we don’t we just don’t seem to hit, period. Maybe we can find a happy medium. I think we have some decent pitching in the minors so let’s give them a shot. I haven’t been disappointed at the AA call ups yet so lets see what they can do.


  15. Good Heavens – I just took a close look at today’s Lancaster Jet Hawks line-up. Brett Phillips, Derek Fisher [just hit a grand slam to give the Jethawks an 8-0 lead], J.D Davis, A.J. Reed, Jack Mayfield, Alfredo Gonzalez, Mott Hyde, Ronnie Mitchell, and James Ramsay. That is one fantastic line-up! The future looks pretty bright, folks!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Right now, for the day in the system it’s:
    Astros 13 – 0 over Seattle;
    Fresno 12-0 over Salt Lake;
    Corpus rained out
    Lancaster 8-0 over Lake Elsinore; and
    Quad Cities 5-0 over Great Lakes.

    In other words, so far today we have an organizational shut-out going!


    • Is it any wonder why I drool thinking about a Spring 2017 Astros lineup? I posted a 2016 one the other day but 2017 is like Bomb!! and I don’t dare. I do know that I did one last fall here and my backup shortstop was Alex Bregman.


      • Alas, OP1, after we reach a certain age drooling is considered normal, and the polite thing is to pretend we don’t notice. 🙂

        But if this is handled half-way right, my friend, this could be one heck of a powerhouse team in 2017 and beyond!


  17. Excellent column, Chip.
    I think McHugh will straighten out and that we should not forget how well he pitched earlier this season. Strom is good, & we need to be patient. It will happen.

    The BA’s are improving and I firmly believe Valbuenna is next in line. He is way below what he should be.

    I know alot is said about innings limitations for young starters. But are there any good, long term studies to support that? Since so many pitchers break down regardless of pitch counts and innings pitched, how does anyone know what the problem is? I would be in favor of extending McCullers and Velasquez and not trade for any TOR pitchers, whose acquistion would decimate the farm. My guess is that they will acquire a mid quality veteran starter. Harang sounds reasonable.
    I would keep Tucker at all costs, but I would trade Rasmus.


    • I think the Astros plan of keeping McCullers and Velasquez a rather short leash as the season progresses because neither has pitched a full season worth of innings as a pro as of yet. Too many innings this soon in their major league careers could lead to arm problems before they get too many seasons under their belts.

      Part of the problem with having too much talent in the minors (albeit a good problem to have) is you can only keep so many. One way to thin the ranks is by trade, in this case, hopefully, for proven big league pitching. As a result, there is room for more talent to be brought to the farm.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Roger, you won’t find any studies, but any GM will err on the side of caution with his very valuable young commodities. No GM is going to flaunt the established procedure for young arms, scientific or not, bacuse if a McCullers or a Velasquez blows out an arm while strict inning counts are being ignored, that GM might not have a job much longer.


  18. I am in the corner of trading for a starting pitcher. I am not too keen on a Cueto only because he is a free agent at the end of the year and I don’t see Crane ponying up the dough to sign him. The Reds will want top prospects. This is why I am more open to acquriing Hamels, depending on the prospects needed to pull of the trade. All things being equal I would prefer Cueto, but things are not equal and Hamels provides team control for 3 more years, possibly 4, after this season. However, I would not be disappointed if it was just a MOR starter like Harang. I just am not comfortable allowing our young, studly prospects like LMJ and VV to pitch more than 150 total IPs this year and then trust them to possibly pitch in the playoffs. The Astros have a very bright future and I don’t want to dampen it by over-throwing our best, young pitchers. It just isn’t worth the risk.


    • Yeah, I don’t want to go ‘full bopert’ on anyone, but have serious doubts Crane will dip into the vault and bring in a TOR by free agency. When someone says Hamels is too expensive I assume they are focused on his contract…but the cost in prospects is my only concern for such a deal. If Philly wants the cream of the crop they need to partner with someone else. If they want a lot of quality players we can give them guys in our 10-20 range that would make their top 5 prospect list. I doubt Luhnow can pull that off though.

      As for Harang or other back of the rotation guys, I wouldn’t go after them unless it’s a deal where we give up guys who won’t get a chance here or will be exposed to the Rule V this winter.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I am at a loss as to understand how a team that had struggled to score more than two runs for over a week (disregarding Seattle) would benefit from a TOR, MOR or BOR … what are going for, someone with a sub 1.00 ERA? There are still strong pitching candidates in the minor league system, so how ’bout we trade for a .300+ batter or two … or maybe bring up Hoes for a little while. We’re being killed by left-handers, which is strange considering the right-handed hitters in the line-up … but until they begin to handle lefties routinely as they did Sunday we’re gonna struggle. And no TOR, MOR or BOR acquisition is going to change that fact.


  20. Wallee, Hoes might get another chance, especially if Marisnick does not come out of his funk, although there were signs of life this weekend. But Hoes is a tease, regularly posting strong AAA stats and then coming back to earth as soon as he sees ML pitching. And at this point, the next guy to get a shot out there might end up being Kemp. I’d much rather see what he can do.


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