Player Profiles 2020: Houston Astros Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the Houston Astros rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

These profiles will also be featured as an eBook exclusively for those signed up for PL+.

 

Astros At A Glance

With all the drama surrounding the Astros entering 2020 paired with the departure of Gerrit Colethe former hype associated with the Astros rotation has diminished a good amount. Nevertheless, a top two of Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke is sure to keep Houston among the best in the American League. The major questions come in the back half of the staff. Lance McCullers Jr. is returning from TJS but will be capped close to 120 frames, and the final two rotation spots are still up for grabs.

We could see Brad Peacock or Josh James jump back into a starting job, playoff success story Jose Urquidy may snag a hefty amount of frames, and the Astros have plenty of young arms who will likely shuffle in for significant frames through the season.

 

Justin VerlanderLocked Starter

Nickname: The Cut

 

2019 In Review

It was a Cy Young season, possibly stolen from his former teammate Gerrit Colebut, nevertheless, worthy of the award. A 2.58 ERA with a minuscule 0.80 WHIP paired with an elite 35% strikeout rate across 223 frames deserves accolades, even if it came with metrics showcasing a crumbling HOTEL — a .218 BABIP and 88.4% LOB rate. Still, there’s some poor luck as well, as Verlander held a 16% HR/FB rate that beat his previous career-high by over four points, but we should expect 2019 to be a little better than what we’ll get in 2020, not to mention the cliff will come at some point for Verlander as he enters his 37-year-old season.

 

Fastball (50% usage)

Verlander did something weird last season. After posting back-to-back 30+ pVal seasons with four-seamers, Verlander pulled back on its usage, dropping over 10 points in favor of sliders, curveballs, and a touch more changeups.

It was clearly the right call, especially as Verlander’s heater wasn’t quite as effective. That inflated homer rate? A significant amount came off his fastball, returning 24 gopherballs across 1,600+ four-seamers, backed by a 21.8% HR/FB. Verlander held an HR/FB above 10% just twice since 2007.

Regardless, it’s still a great pitch, one Verlander executes so well at the top of the strike zone. Expect more of the same with the pitch, if not an improvement in 2020 as the homers should come down.

 

Slider (28% usage)

While his fastball wasn’t quite as remarkable, his slider picked up the slack, boasting a phenomenal 31.4 pVal in 2019. Verlander did an incredible job boring sliders in the ankles of left-handers, inducing a fantastic 53% O-Swing on the pitch, helping raise its SwStr to a career-high 24% clip. BAA? Yeah, that was stupid low at .115, though a .167 BABIP is sure to rise a bit moving forward. Nevertheless, fastballs up, sliders down is a lovely mantra, and Verlander perfects it. This should continue, even if it comes with a few more hits.

 

Curveball (18% usage)

Verlander’s slider had a 40% zone rate, and he wanted something else to throw a bit more often inside the zone. This curveball does the trick, and was a solid #3 pitch. Not a stellar, back-breaking wowza pitch like other #3 options we’ve seen, but having this curveball to throw for strikes at a 47% zone rate and return a .190 BAA? Yeah, that’ll do just fine.

 

Changeup (4% usage)

And, hey, we even saw nearly triple the amount of changeups thrown by Verlander in 2019. Not a terrible pitch but definitely not as good as we’ve seen in the past, and he doesn’t really need it. With an elite fastball and slider paired with a strong deuce, this changeup doesn’t have much of a place save for the rare games when something is off.

 

2020 Outlook

There’s a lot of talk about Verlander’s BABIP and LOB rates pushing him close to a 3.00 ERA, but honestly I don’t see it. His fastball should perform better with plenty fewer home runs, while his slider/curveball complement is as good as you can hope for. Sure, the 0.80 WHIP won’t be repeated, but this is a bonafide ace across 200+ innings easily. The cliff will come eventually, but it’s out on the horizon for now.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 33% K rate in 180 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 37% K rate in 220 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Justin Verlander 2020 projection:

2.80 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 35% K rate in 210 IP

 

Zack GreinkeLocked Starter

Nickname: The Thinker

 

2019 In Review

You’re waiting for it to end, but the hits keep coming. After a pair of 3.20 ERA seasons, Greinke gave us yet another blissful campaign of a 2.93 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and a 23% K rate.

The declining strikeout is concerning, as well as his 90 mph velocity. But, while it may be the final sub 3.00 ERA of his career, Greinke’s skills are too good to consider him a candidate for fantasy irrelevancy in 2020. There may be steps back, but the freefall isn’t here yet.

 

Fastball (47% usage)

Yes, it’s getting slower, and you’ll see Greinke in the spring feature it a lot slower at first, but don’t be afraid. Despite its velocity, the pitch still held batters to a 89 wRC+ across 1,277 thrown, confidently pounding the zone at a 60% rate and finishing with a staggering 16.9 pVal. Yes, way higher than Verlander’s.

That’s the wild thing. Greinke’s heater doesn’t seem amazing, but he does a great job of commanding it around the plate and mixing his secondary stuff to keep batters guessing. It’s not the overpowering nature that we’re used to in this era of flamethrowers, but it sure works. And that’s wonderful.

 

Changeup (22% usage)

Between the fastball and changeup, which pitch do you think had the better pVal? Well, you’re wrong, because they were exactly the same at 16.9. This pitch did a great job getting chases at a 45% rate, often rolling over the pitch for outs, and he limited the damage to just a .540 OPS. Lovely stuff.

What’s crazy is how close it is in velocity to his fastball, coming in at 87.5 mph last season. It reminds of prime King Felix’s changeup, and I imagine it’ll continue to confound even as Greinke sits comfortably in the twilight of his career.

 

Slider (16% usage)

The biggest showcase of Greinke’s age has been the degradation of his slider as a whiff pitch. Despite hitting a 26% SwStr rate just two years, Grienke has since more than halved that mark on his slider, failing to hit any of the Money Pitch thresholds in 2019. Batters also had an easier time swatting sliders that fell in the zone, holding a .303 BAA while boasting a .300+ BABIP for the second straight year.

It’s why we saw a decrease in strikeout rate and he may need to turn to his deuce more if he’s to return to a 25%+ strikeout rate.

 

Curveball (15% usage)

While Greinke’s slider has fallen, his curveball may be the pitch to become the true #3 option. It saw a small uptick in usage last season and for good reason — it was a Money Pitch, with a 17% SwStr, 47% Zone, and 44% O-Swing metrics.

I don’t expect those numbers to stick through a full 2020, but there’s a chance he comes close to it, even if its usage raises significantly. It’s the best solution I see for Greinke to hint at 200 strikeouts.

 

2020 Outlook

While his slider is taking a step back and his velocity could fall further, don’t count out Greinke to be more of the same, if not slightly better in the strikeout department. An off-season with the Astros’ analytics could push for more curveballs and a raise in strikeout rate, though the ERA/WHIP are sure to come back to Earth after 2019’s wonderful season.

Let’s just hope this isn’t the year it all starts falling apart.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 21% K rate in 160 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 25% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Zack Greinke 2020 projection:

3.40 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 23% K rate in 190 IP

 

Lance McCullers Jr. – Locked Starter

Nickname: The Dragonmaster

 

2019 In Review

Well this is a whole lot of nothing. McCullers Jr. missed the entirety of 2019 with TJS, but now the team expects him to slide in at the rotation, with an innings cap close to 120 frames. Not the exact number we wanted, but they could be of quality as McCullers held a 27% strikeout rate with a 3.86 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 128 innings in 2018. Maybe it’ll be more of the same, despite the road to recovery.

 

Fastball (37% usage)

McCullers featured a heavy majority of sinkers in 2018, and they were a mixed bag. It was a low 19% O-Swing and 5.5% SwStr, though it found the zone over 55% of the time and held batters to just a .252 BAA.

But then it led to plenty of walks, fueling his 9.5% walk rate. I wonder if he’ll transition to introducing four-seamers once again with the current analytical shift in Houston and the gap year to consider it.

 

Curveball (47% usage)

This knuckle-curve is money and should continue to do so. It’s the pitch that has made McCullers a major leaguer, pushing a career 39% strikeout rate, .179 BAA, and 18% SwStr rate. Fantastic marks, especially when McCullers said “hey, this pitch is far and away from my best offering, I’ll just throw it nearly half the time.” There’s no real reason for McCullers to stop doing that now, though there is slight concern that it’ll take a moment for him to get the feel back for the pitch.

He’ll likely continue throwing it in any situation to get strikes (42% zone rate) and promote his strikeout lifestyle effortlessly.

 

Changeup (16% usage)

Believe it or not, this changeup was fantastic in 2018 after changing his grip and running away from the torment it presented in years past. It returned a wonderful 21% SwStr and 41% O-Swing, while keeping batters at bay with a stupid low 21 wRC+.

Nevertheless, a 337-pitch sample size isn’t the largest, and this may be an anomaly of a season for the slow ball. Still, it should return better levels than in the past and help McCullers as a #3 offering, just not one that he can confidently throw over the plate. If he’s struggling with his curveball on a given day, this changeup isn’t going to be the answer, and that’s worrisome.

 

2020 Outlook

We’re going to get roughly 120 frames from McCullers this year, but we don’t know of what quality. With time to consider moving on from a sinker in favor of welcoming a four-seamer, there could be room for improvement from his 4.00 ERA hovering days, though if his changeup takes a step back, there may not be enough in his repertoire to support his excellent curveball.

The strikeouts will be there, but the ratios may not.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.30 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 25% K rate in 110 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 30% K rate in 140 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Lance McCullers Jr. 2020 projection:

3.90 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 27% K rate in 120 IP

 

Jose UrquidyLikely Starter

Nickname: The Gloves

 

2019 In Review

After an impressive 2019 season in Triple-A where he held a 16%+ SwStr rate across 100+ frames, Urquidy was gifted an opportunity to start briefly in the regular season, but more importantly a critical Game 4 of the World Series. He took full advantage, showcasing his talents across five shutout frames and earning a win for the Astros, propelling him into many conversations for fantasy drafts.

The Astros are likely to extend a starting opportunity to Urquidy out of the gate after losing Cole and Wade Mileyand it’s possible we see the near strikeout-per-inning, low walk and decent ratio arm across a full season. Or we could see the normal bumps of a young arm trying to get established in the majors.

 

Fastball (47% usage)

I wonder if we’re going to see a bit of regression for Urquidy with this fastball. It came in at a middling 93 mph — not bad, but not great — found the zone an absurd 62% of the time, leading to a decent amount of good contact, ultimately leading to a .800+ OPS. It wasn’t detrimental to Urquidy, but I do wonder if a larger sample than the 328 we saw will showcase a pitch that finds the zone too often without enough whiffs (7% SwStr) nor chases (23% O-Swing is OK but far from exceptional) to justify it.

It’s not a pitch with spectacular command either — not terribly, just not a level to suggest he deserves success with a slightly above-average heater.

 

Changeup (26% usage)

I do really like this changeup, though. While it didn’t get the whiffs or chases we’d want (just 34% O-Swing and 14% SwStr!), Urquidy featured it in the zone a ton and was often rewarded for it, with a .163 BAA and .563 OPS.

There were three longballs on 176 changeups thrown, but I’m more inclined to suggest it was more a product of small sample than an indication of an inconsistent offering. This changeup is Urquidy’s best pitch, and if he’s to maintain a 23%+ strikeout rate, it’ll be on the back of throwing this changeup with confidence.

 

Slider (17% usage)

I wonder what we’ll see of Urquidy’s slider this season. It’s shown that it can be a strong offering at times with a crazy good 52% whiff rate across its small 106 pitch sample, but it wasn’t polished as a chase pitch (25% O-Swing) or a breaker to land inside the zone (33% Zone rate).

I like it more than his curveball currently, but the thing to watch early is how this slider is getting used and if it can keep up the 39% strikeout rate. Urqiudy needs this kind of breaker to pair with his changeup and if the slow ball is doing its thing, this slider needs to be the final blow.

 

Curveball (10% usage)

There’s a chance that wipeout pitch is this curveball instead of the slider, though Urquidy wasn’t as consistent with the pitch last season. It’s still very early and I’m sure we’ll see games where the curveball gets the focus over the slider and vice versa, so I’m not counting it out.

I have more hope in one of these breakers becoming a strong #3 as the strikeout pitch than typical young arms, and we’ll just have to wait and see how he develops.

 

2020 Outlook

It’s a huge risk at the moment. There’s a lot of polish left to add with Urquidy from his overall command to approach with changeup/breakers and developing a consistent strikeout offering.

This could go poorly early, resulting in an early pull from the rotation, or he can coast through the full year and produce across ~160 frames after his 100+ campaign last season.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.75 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 21% K rate in 80 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.70 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 26% K rate in 160 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Jose Urquidy 2020 projection:

4.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 24% K rate in 140 IP

 

Josh JamesFringe Starter

Nickname: Not Abrahms

 

2020 Outlook

At first, we didn’t consider James as an option for the 2020 rotation, but with Peacock’s injury and not a single FA signing in sight, James suddenly could make a major impact as a starting pitcher.

He featured 97 mph velocity as a reliever, with an excellent slider and changeup to back it up. As he’s stretched out in spring training, consider how the Astros are playing their cards and consider a pickup at the end of drafts to see how it plays out. This could be a steal across 140-160 frames if he gets a start a week, hinting a 25%-30% strikeout rate. This isn’t a volume starter, though, his control problems and general inefficiency don’t speak to a consistent six-frames.

 

 

Brad PeacockFringe Starter

Nickname: The Feather

 

2020 Outlook

The fifth rotation spot is wide open and there’s a chance Peacock slides back into the role after grabbing 15 starts in 2019 and 21 in 2017. He held a grasp on the spot across 13 games last year before injury, when he returned a 4.17 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 25% strikeout rate. There’s production in there, I do wonder how consistent it can be. Peacock is nearly two-pitch with four-seamers and sinkers diving back over the plate glove-side ad nauseam, while his slider starts middle of the plate and often ends in the same spot as his fastball or a bit off the plate.

There’s a mix of changeups and curveballs in there as well, but they are more afterthoughts than legit weapons for batters to consider.

It’s not an approach that I think can sustain success like we saw briefly in 2017, and I’d preach caution to those chasing him. Peacock not only needs to squeeze the most out of his repertoire, but he also needs to stave off the massive pool of fringe candidates behind him to hold on to the spot. Not the worst flier early in the year if he gets the job, but be quick with the hook.

 

Framber ValdezFringe Starter

Nickname: Voice Box

 

2020 Outlook

I know he’s had his moments, but I really just don’t buy the fastball/curveball combination from Valdez carrying out well across a full season in the rotation. It’s possible you can snag him for a strong stream here and there, but even then he could burn you like he did last year for 6 earned runs against the Blue Jays and Pirates two months apart.

There needs to be a significant change in his approach to make me reconsider Valdez.

 

Austin PruittFringe Starter

Nickname: The Notary

 

2020 Outlook

 

It’s unclear what kind of role Pruitt will have with Astros after getting opportunities as the long reliever in Rays and the occasional start, but there’s a chance he steals a rotation spot. His slider is an excellent offering and it’ll come down to his curveball or changeup coming through as a strong #3 for Pruitt to get there. I’m not a big believer in his fastball, but it’s good enough to return a possible streamer if he gets his deuce/changeup in order. That slider can do some work.

 

Forrest WhitleyFringe Starter

Nickname: The Trees

 

2020 Outlook

We wondered if Whitley would arrive early last season and a mix of injury and overall poor performance created a lost year for the prized prospect. Now healthy and a possible fluctuating spot in the Astros rotation, there’s hope Whitley can show up and make an impact in 2020. I’d be a little skeptical if he’s worth an early investment in 12-teamers, though. With Whitely’s horrific Triple-A numbers last year, the Astros are sure to give him time to get his confidence up in the minors before granting him the leap to the rotation.

The upside is there with fantastic SwStr and strikeout metrics, I question if his command is good enough to take full advantage of a cup of coffee when he gets his shot this year.

 

Rogelio ArmenterosFringe Starter

Nickname: Arlert

 

2020 Outlook

We saw Rogelio briefly last year and while it wasn’t poor by any means, it wasn’t the impressive stuff that I was hoping for given his solid SwStr rates in the minors. It’s a low 90s heater with a good changeup and serviceable breaker. Nothing for you to go chasing in fantasy save for the desperate stream.

 

 

Nickname explanations:

Justin VerlanderThe Cut. If you play JV, it’s likely that you were cut from varsity.

Zack GreinkeThe Thinker. He’s such an intriguing guy.

Lance McCullers Jr. The Dragonmaster. Lance was the Dragonmaster boss in the OG Pokemon.

Jose UrquidyThe Gloves. It’s time to take off the Ur-kiddie gloves. Guys, it’s hard to come up with ~250 nicknames.

Brad PeacockThe Feather. Peacocks have wonderful feathers.

Framber Valdes: Voice Box. When I see Framber, all I think of is “Frampton Comes Alive.”

Austin Pruitt: The Notary. “A. Pruitt” sounds like “Approve it.” That’s where I’m at right now.

Forrest WhitleyThe Trees. Don’t you dare miss the Forrest for the trees.

Rogelio Armenteros: Arlert. Armin Arlert from “Attack on Titan.”

Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire| Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm)

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Worked with MSG, FanGraphs, CBS Sports, and Washington Post. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum. Wants every pitcher to be dope.

Account / Login
>