One of the points of discussion for the Astros entering the 2021 season is that at least on paper they have a set 5 man rotation based on the 2020 stretch run and the playoffs. Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy may not have the star power that some of the Astro rotations of the recent past, but if they do stay together it will be a change of pace from the recent past.
This is a quick look at the top 6 starters for the Astros in each season, since the last season of the depression (2013) up to last season. In general, except for 2018 when 5 pitchers took the mound for a staggering 152 starts, the Astros depended on at least 6 starters for the vast majority of their starts. Here is a list with rankings from Pitcher #1 to #6 based solely on this writer’s opinion. It is amazing how much change there is from season to season.
|Season||Pitcher #1||Pitcher #2||Pitcher #3||Pitcher #4||Pitcher #5||Pitcher #6|
|2013||Bud Norris 6-9 3.93 ERA||Erik Bedard 4-12 4.59 ERA||Dallas Keuchel
6-10 5.15 ERA
|Brad Peacock 5-6 5.18 ERA||Jordan Lyles 7-9 5.59 ERA||Lucas Harrell 6-17 5.86 ERA|
|2014||Dallas Keuchel 12-9 2.93 ERA||Collin McHugh 11-9 2.73 ERA||Scott Feldman 8-12 3.74 ERA||Jarred Cosart 9-7 4.41 ERA||Brett Oberholtzer 5-13 4.39 ERA||Brad Peacock 4-9 4.72 ERA|
|2015||Dallas Keuchel 20-8 2.48 ERA||Collin McHugh 19-7 3.89 ERA||Lance McCullers 6-7 3.22 ERA||Scott Feldman 5-5 3.90 ERA||Scott Kazmir 2-6 4.17 ERA||Mike Fiers 2-1 3.32 ERA|
|2016||Collin McHugh 13-10 4.34 ERA||Mike Fiers 11-8 4.48 ERA||Dallas Keuchel 9-12 4.55 ERA||Doug Fister 12-13 4.64 ERA||Lance McCullers 6-5 3.22 ERA||Joe Musgrove 4-4 4.06 ERA|
|2017||Justin Verlander 5-0 1.06 ERA||Dallas Keuchel 14-5 2.90 ERA||Charlie Morton 14-7 3.62 ERA||*Brad Peacock 10-2 3.22 ERA||Lance McCullers 7-4 4.25 ERA||Mike Fiers 8-10 5.22 ERA|
|2018||Justin Verlander 16-9 2.52 ERA||Gerrit Cole 15-5 2.88 ERA||Charlie Morton 15-3 3.13 ERA||Dallas Keuchel 12-11 3.74 ERA||Lance McCullers 10-6 3.86 ERA|
|2019||Justin Verlander 21-6 2.58 ERA||Gerrit Cole 20-5 2.50 ERA||Zack Greinke 8-1 3.02 ERA||Wade Miley 14-6 3.08 ERA||*Brad Peacock 5-6 4.24 ERA||Jose Urquidy 2-1 3.95 ERA|
|2020||Framber Valdez 5-3 3.57 ERA||Zack Greinke 3-3 4.03 ERA||Lance McCullers 3-3 3.93 ERA||Cristian Javier 5-2 3.48 ERA||Jose Urquidy 1-1 2.73 ERA||Brandon Bielak 3-3 6.75 ERA|
While a big part of the Astros recent success has been based upon gathering a core of positional studs (George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, etc.), the key to their improvement as a team has been their pitching, especially their starting rotations. Let’s take a look at how that changed over the years:
2013 – This was the nadir for the franchise, a 51-111 season that meant they had hit bottom or else there was no bottom. The rotation was bad like the rest of the team and heading towards a big transition. They traded Bud Norris at the trade deadline. They traded Jordan Lyles in the off-season. They let Erik Bedard hit free agency after the season. They traded Lucas Harrell (how the heck did he get enough starts to lose 17 games) in April 2014. They held on to Dallas Keuchel and Brad Peacock. That was a smart move.
2014 – While not quite respectable in 2014, the Astros rose to a less stinky 70-92. The focus point for most of their improvement was the starting rotation, which was a definite bright spot. This was the season when Dallas Keuchel turned the corner and became the ace of the staff. The Astros also had brought in Scott Feldman as a workhorse innings eater and had installed young Jarred Cosart in the rotation, temporarily, before being traded away at the deadline. But the big addition was picking up Collin McHugh off of waivers for nada and installing him and his big spin curve in the 2nd spot in the rotation.
2015 – This season was a giant leap forward for the team as they put up an 86-76 record and made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Cy Young winner Keuchel and 19 game winner McHugh led the staff. Lance McCullers was brought up and grabbed a spot in the rotation. Feldman pitched blah early, went out with an injury and pitched much better in July and August. Feldman would shift mostly to the bullpen in 2016. The team went out and picked up more pitching during the season with Scott Kazmir and Mike (Spit!!) Fiers. In the end the team outperformed expectations and fell to the eventual World Champion Royals
2016 – Expectations were high headed into 2016, but the team regressed slightly to 84-78 and this was reflected in a large regression with the pitching staff. Keuchel had the biggest drop off, which was tied to an injury he was secretly trying to pitch through. McHugh and Fiers were both pitching worse in 2016 and the Astros added Doug Fister through free agency, who was pretty mediocre. McCullers and Joe Musgrove did solid jobs at the back of the rotation.
2017 – McHugh missed most of the season with injury. Keuchel looked like he wanted another Cy Young until an injury slowed him down. Morton and Peacock were very strong throughout the season with Peacock also putting in some good support in the bullpen. Fiers (Spit!!) was bad, except…..when the Astros had multiple starters out with injury. During that time he pitched like someone was signaling him whether the hitters were swinging or taking the pitches. But nothing mattered until the Astros made the biggest waiver deadline trade in history to reel in the white whale, Justin Verlander. He immediately became the ace and the team rolled through September after that huge trade and all the way to a World Series win.
2018 – In the off-season, the Astros went out and got what turned out to be their book end matching set stud in Gerrit Cole in a trade almost as big as the JV trade. This was not the sure thing it seems in retrospect as he was coming off a very so-so 2017 season with Pittsburgh. Cole and Verlander became twin aces for the team with Morton just a step behind and Keuchel and McCullers representing the best 4th and 5th starters in the game. These five pitchers carried the load as the Astros made the playoffs and were derailed by the Boston (we really did not cheat) Red Sox.
2019 – The Astros lost both Keuchel and Morton to free agency after the 2018 season. They brought in Wade Miley before the season and Zack Greinke during the season, who both did great things for the team (ignoring Miley’s complete collapse down the stretch). McCullers missed the whole year after Tommy John surgery and some of his load was picked up by both Brad Peacock and rookie Jose Urquidy, who gave the team a great start in the World Series. The starters helped lead the team to the ultimately long playoff run that left them a handful of outs short of their second title.
2020 – The year 2020 was the most disrupted and odd feeling year in Astro’s history. The Astros lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees. Wade Miley left via free agency, too. COVID delayed and then shortened the season to about 40% of a normal year. Verlander pitched six innings and then was done for the year and probably for the Astros’ portion of his career. Peacock was injured and returned for a cameo out of the bullpen. Jose Urquidy was likely out most of the season due to COVID and then returned for only five (though strong) starts. Austin Pruitt was brought in before the season to contend for an end of the rotation spot and/or long relief and due to injury never pitched for the big club. The rotation was saved by the workman like inning eating by Greinke and McCullers, the total control makeover by Framber Valdez and the brilliant MLB debut of Cristian Javier. Behind them there were some very good and very bad starts from Brandon Bielak and a strong spot start from Luis Garcia. The usage of some of the staff (Valdez, Javier) out of the bullpen in the playoffs helped the team go much farther than anyone could possibly have believed.
Over the last 8 seasons the Astros fortunes year to year seemed tied to the starting rotation, rising and falling in rhythm to those tides. The 6 top spots each year were filled by 24 different pitchers, who came and went – chasing money, pitching their way out of the league, falling out of favor, being used as trade bait, etc. Will the same six pitchers from 2020 be the main rotation components for 2021? History would tell us to expect the unexpected.