BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
With Houston enjoying a 9.5 game lead over the A’s and rolling to a third straight division title as they arrive in Oakland for a four game weekend series, the Astros pitching philosophy has become the cornerstone of their sustained success in the AL West. But what does their organization know about the art of throwing a baseball that the rest of the league has yet to figure out?
Righthander Aaron Sanchez was traded on deadline day this year from Toronto to Houston, jumping from a team that was 27 games out of first place to one with the best record in the American League. He had other reasons to be excited about his change in employers. The Astros organization has developed a well-earned reputation for taking talented pitchers and immediately making them better, sometimes dramatically so. If ever a pitcher required such a makeover, it was Sanchez, who had the worst ERA (6.07) and most losses (14) among all hurlers who had thrown at least 100 innings in 2019. Surely, the Houston magic would be put to the test trying to turn Sanchez around.
In his first start as an Astro, Sanchez threw six hitless innings against Seattle, striking out six and allowing only two base-runners, both on walks. His new teammates completed the final three innings without allowing any hits, and Sanchez was a part of history: the 12th no-hitter for the Astro franchise, and just the 14th such event (a combined no-hitter) in baseball since 1901.
It’s only a single start, and that’s not nearly enough to draw any rational conclusions. If Sanchez feat were an isolated occurrence, it would be chalked up to random variation-a professional pitcher who had all the stars align for a single glorious night. The Astros, however, have achieved incredible results with newly acquired pitchers of all types and levels of skill. How are they doing it ?
When the Astros trade for a pitcher, or sign one as a free agent, they have a formal meeting with him. The franchise presents reams of data, high speed video, heat maps and mechanical optimization suggestions designed to maximize the unique gifts and skills of that particular player. There is no cookie cutter approach in Houston. The pitcher still has to take the ball and make it dance, but the Astros make sure they are using the best weapons they’ve got, and minimizing those that have proven less effective. Each pitcher gets his own plan, and starting from the lowest rungs of the organization, that approach has led to unprecedented success on the mound in Houston.
Here’s a look at a number of pitchers that have seen huge leaps in performance upon being acquired by the Astros, as well as one who came up through their organization and saw similar transformations:
Collin McHugh was struggling. The Mets had drafted McHugh in the 18th round in 2008, then traded him to Colorado for Eric Young Jr. in 2013. The Rockies put him on waivers that winter, and the Astros scooped him up in December 2013.
In his four years with the Mets and Rockies, the righthander didn’t fare well, but the Astros saw something in his skill set, and they thought they could mold his arsenal and yield far better outcomes. They were right.
In McHugh’s case, the Astros asked him to stop throwing his fastball quite so much, and to feature his curve and slider more frequently. In his time with the Mets and Rockies, McHugh would throw his fastball 52% of the time, and his slider and curve a combined 38% of the time. The Astros got him spinning breaking balls 55% of the time, dropping his fastball usage to 40%. They also were able to coax more heat from McHugh when he did feature his fastball. In his final year before being waived by the Rockies, McHugh averaged 91.0 MPH with his fastball. In 2014, his first with Houston, that same pitch was coming in at 92.4 MPH. That season McHugh went 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA, finishing fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
The following year, he would go 19-7, 3.89, and finish eighth in Cy Young balloting. The Astros waiver claim turned into a true ace-caliber starting pitcher by flipping his pitch usage and featuring his breaking pitches more than his fastball, and by adding velocity to all his offerings. He began striking out significantly more hitters, and was more effective across the board.
Charlie Morton’s career was at a crossroads. Following the 2016 season, his ninth in the big leagues, the 32 year-old righthanded starting pitcher was a free agent. In April of that year, he had torn his hamstring running to first base, and had surgery to repair the injury, missing the rest of the season. Still, the Astros believed that his best days were yet ahead of him, despite his age and the hamstring issue. Once again, they were right.
Morton’s velocity increased from 95.4 to 96.0 in 2017, but it was his power curve that the Astros really focused on. In his years in the National League, Morton couldn’t get lefties out, and he had allowed the highest batting average against lefties (.301) of any right-handed starter in all of baseball. By increasing his velocity and changing the shape of his curveball, the Astros reaped a significant benefit. In 2017, Morton allowed lefties to hit .172 against him, the best in the major leagues among right-handed starters. In Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, it was Charlie Morton closing out the game for Houston, throwing the last four frames in his team’s title clinching 5-1 victory against the Dodgers. He was on the mound when the franchise won its first championship, a year after wondering if his career might be over.
Righthander Gerrit Cole was the top overall pick in the draft by the Pirates in 2011 out of UCLA. He was a scout’s dream, featuring premium velocity, great control and durability. The 6’4” righty would debut in the majors with Pittsburgh two short years later, pitching at a very high level during his five years with the club. In January 2018, he would be traded to Houston for a package of young players. The Astros were banking on their ability to maximize pitching potential, even in a player who had already excelled in the majors. They were not disappointed.
The Astros turned a great starting pitcher into an elite one. The Astros believed Cole should rely more upon his breaking pitches than his fastball to gain effectiveness and deception. His pitch mix changed from throwing 60% fastballs and 30% breaking pitches to 56% fastballs and 40% curves and sliders. Under the Astros tutelage, his fastball velocity ticked up from 96.3 in his last year with the Pirates to its current 97.3, and Cole began striking out hitters at a career high level. His 276 whiffs in 2018 were a career best, and second in the American League. In 2019, Cole is striking out 12.9 hitters/9 innings, good for the fifth best rate in baseball history. He finished fifth in 2018 Cy Young voting, and is a safe bet to match or improve that performance this year.
Justin Verlander’s career was already on a Hall of Fame trajectory in the summer of 2017. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2006, and was a six time All Star. He had claimed a Cy Young Award and an MVP in 2011 with the Tigers, but had never won a championship. In late August of 2017, the Tigers called to inform their 34 year-old ace they had a trade in place to send him to Houston. His contract allowed him to veto any deal, but with minutes to go at the August 31st deadline for postseason roster eligibility, he reluctantly agreed to accept the move to the Astros. The righty would make five regular season starts for the Astros, winning each of them (5-0, 1.06), after going 10-8, 3.82 for Detroit. He would go 4-0, 1.46 in the ALDS and ALCS, and was named the MVP of the latter series, leading the Astros into the World Series against the Dodgers. Though he was 0-1, 3.75 in the Fall Classic, he celebrated a championship with the Astros, watching fellow teammate Charlie Morton close out Los Angeles before mobbing him on the mound.
The Astros managed to refine Verlander’s repertoire, and, in his age 34 and 35 seasons, have seen him post career best WHIP, walk rate and strikeout rates. Unlike McHugh, Morton and Cole, however, there isn’t an obvious change in Verlander’s pitch utilization. According to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, the Astros used super high-speed camera work to isolate how his grip on his slider could be optimized, creating more tilt. Verlander increased his slider usage slightly, from 18.3% before the trade to 22.2% since. The results speak for themselves. The franchise helped him improve markedly at an age when most pitchers, even the elite ones, are running out of gas.
Ryan Pressly had enjoyed a consistent, at times dominant, career as a reliever for the Twins. On July 27th, 2018, the righthander was traded by Minnesota to the Astros for a pair of low-level minor league prospects. From that date on, Pressly has been one of the best bullpen arms in the American League.
The Astros asked him to do two things: pitch up in the zone, and throw his high spin rate slider even more than he ever had. He increased his use of his slider from 18% to 28% of his pitch mix, and threw his fastball far less often, but it was elevated when he did utilize it. The Astros had done it again.They made a good pitcher an outstanding one by simply coaching him according to what their analysis said would be best for him.
It would appear that the Astros can take established major league pitching talent and, using their processes, coax better results from those players than they’ve ever produced. If the franchise can do that with the pitchers that it imports, it would seem logical to postulate that the team would be able to scout, draft, and develop its own minor league talent with similar success. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what’s happening. Their minor league pitchers (from rookie ball through AAA) have more strikeouts than the hurlers of any other franchise in baseball. Of their top six minor league affiliates, four (AA Corpus Christi, A+ Fayetteville, A Quad Cities, Short Season A Tri City) lead their leagues in pitching strikeouts. At Fayetteville, the pitchers there have struck out 231 more batters than the second place staff. This is a system wide trend, and those players eventually matriculate towards the majors, or are used as trade chips (like the ones that netted Zack Greinke from Arizona) partially because they have gaudy minor league strikeout and velocity figures that are coveted by rival organizations.
One final story: Righthander Josh James was a 34th round pick by the Astros in 2014 out of Western Oklahoma State College. Over his first four minor league seasons, James featured 88-91 MPH fastballs, and reached AA Corpus Christi in 2017, where he had a 4.38 ERA and struck out 8.5/9. During that season, he began to use a CPAP machine for treatment of sleep apnea, and began feeling less tired, more able to work out, and healthier in general. In 2018, his fastball was regularly clocked in the high 90’s, and he rocketed through the Astros system, making his major league debut in September last year, a game in which he threw several pitches at 100 MPH or more. The Astros might rely upon complex data and modern motion capture video technology, but they also know their pitchers personally and professionally, and sometimes the key that unlocks major league potential is as simple as a good night’s sleep.
The Astros have figured out something that the rest of baseball has yet to master: How to develop and optimize pitchers. They have a few foundational pillars that seem to recur in their success stories. They get their pitchers to throw with better velocity. They encourage pitchers to use their breaking pitches more, and their fastballs less. When they do have pitchers throw their fastballs, they usually want them to target the upper parts of the strike zone. They teach their draftees how to increase the spin rate on their breaking pitches, and they prioritize that metric when drafting or trading for pitchers. Quite simply, they ask their pitchers to use the best and most effective pitches they throw more frequently, and use the ones that aren’t as good less often. They communicate that information very directly to their mound corps, and they back up the suggestions that they make with high-end proprietary data. The proof of the efficacy of their methods is all over the pitching leader-boards and standings.
Making these deductions may demystify the Astros wizardry to some degree, but the glory is in the details. How the Astros develop better spin rate and velocity throughout their minor league system and among their major league staff is not at all apparent, and they aren’t likely to share their secrets any time soon. Until such time that their methodology comes to light, and is copied throughout the game, it is left for their opponents to adjust to these new pitching paradigms and to render them less befuddling. The Astros will continue to outperform the competition in the meantime, leveraging their advantage on the mound into first place finishes-leaving the A’s and the rest of the AL West gasping in their vapor trail.