The Astros have had an interesting offseason thus far. They’ve signed Josh Reddick to play the outfield, claimed Nori Aoki off waivers, rolled the dice on Charlie Morton to beef up their rotation, and doled out perhaps a bit too much to acquire Brian McCann. They just signed Carlos Beltran to be their DH, too. If nothing else, we may very well figure out if there’s a critical mass for dingers, given that Houston also employs George Springer, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Evan Gattis (and not for nothing, but Alex Bregman is projected to hit 20 bombs too). Our projections love the Astros. We have them winning 91 games, the most in the AL, and tied for second most in the bigs (with the Dodgers), behind only the Cubs. That’s not bad!
However, there’s a reasonable chance that they could come up short of that projection. Of course, there’s a reasonable chance that any team could come up short of (or exceed or exactly meet) their projections, but the Astros are the franchise du jour right now, so let’s focus on them. We know Houston will probably hit the ball pretty well. They might catch the ball pretty well, too. Their position players are good, and they’ve got a fair amount of depth. It’s their starting pitching that interests me.
Pitching was a strength of the 2015 Astros. Scott Feldman, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh backed a Cy Young-winning breakout effort from Dallas Keuchel. The Houston rotation threw the third-most innings in the big leagues that year. They produced the ninth-highest WAR by the FIP version of that metric placed fifth by the sort calculated with runs allowed. They were pretty good. Not world-beating, Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez-Porcello good — or Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz good, for that matter — but good enough.
That changed in 2016. Houston finished in the middle of the pack in terms of total starter innings, 13th overall by FIP-WAR and 13th by RA9-WAR, too. At the center of their merely average production was the regression of Keuchel. The Houston ace saw his strikeout rate grow worse. And his walk rate. And his home-run rate. And his ERA and DRA, too. Keuchel also threw just 168 innings before getting shut down with shoulder inflammation. The projection systems think Keuchel will return to his previous role as an effective piece, one worth roughly four wins. The Astros would gladly sign up for that.
What exactly changed for Keuchel in 2015? Here’s how he attacked hitters in 2015:
And here’s where he worked in 2016:
These are from the catcher’s perspective, and courtesy of the wonderful PITCHf/x resource Brooks Baseball. Keuchel lived on the edges in his Cy Young year. He operated down and away both to right-handed and left-handed batters. Lefties were pitched almost entirely down and away both years, while righties saw a more balanced approach in 2015. However, in 2016, right-handed batters stopped swinging and missing on pitches away from Keuchel. His WHIP against righties shot up from 1.10 to 1.36.
Keuchel will need to regain his form against righties if the Astros are going to rely on him to anchor the rotation. His 2016 wasn’t all bad, of course. He brought his FIP down to 3.52 following the All-Star break and limited baserunners. The sample of work isn’t as large as we would like because of his shoulder issues, and second-half results aren’t necessarily more predictive of performance the following season than first-half ones. But what Keuchel did in the second half looked something like what he’d been doing in the past. It wasn’t that he had a new trick, it was that he was regressing back to his normalcy.
Is Keuchel going to contend for another Cy Young in 2017? We’ll see. But Houston won’t need him to if he can just be good. If guys like McCullers, McHugh and Morton can contribute solid innings, the Astros will be in business. The AL West is an interesting place to be right now. Houston has made a clear investment in offense to bring them to the top of the standings. That said, a strong Keuchel could be the difference for Houston not only in the regular season, but in the playoffs. We all saw how deadly he was two years ago. Jeff Luhnow is betting on him being deadly once more.