I’m not sure if Cristian Javier agrees with me or not, but I never liked that one quote that goes “luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” I prefer to think I can make my own luck in this crazy world. But whatever your personal ethos is, it’s clear how Javier should view his rapidly-approaching 2022: “Opportunity is where luck meets preparation.”
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After only a few pitches in the 2020 season, Astros stud pitcher Justin Verlander was lost for that short year and the following year to Tommy John surgery. He is, of course, now 39 years old, coming off a significant elbow injury, and has thrown six innings since 2019. He also has more than 3,000 career innings spanning the regular season and playoffs, second-most among all active pitchers. Our own Grey Albright’s projections for Verlander have him at 141 innings this year. That would be his lowest since an injury-plagued 2015 season and the second-lowest of his career.
Then there is Lance McCullers. He of the plummeting ADP. McCullers couldn’t make his way onto the Astros’ postseason roster with some sort of undiagnosed forearm injury, and recent reports from late February state that he is “behind” in his recovery from that injury. With no Spring Training, no medical consultations, and no official updates, we are left to speculate what actually is going on there. Grey conservatively predicts him at just 121 innings. I’m worried he won’t reach 100. Or even 10.
There certainly will be one, and perhaps two, starting slots open for Houston for large chunks of the season. It’s not what they wanted, but luck is on Javier’s side with these injury concerns.
Joining the Astros’ organization as a fresh 18-year old, Javier flew through their minor league system, never pitching more than 78 innings at any level in any season. After just 11 innings in AAA in 2019, where he produced a 1.64 ERA and 13.1 K/9, the Astros fast-tracked him to the majors as a 23-year-old in 2020. His first 54 innings in the big leagues were a good-not-great audition in the shortened season. But his 3.48 ERA (4.94 FIP), 8.94 K/9, and 2.98 BB/9 earned him a spot with the big club again in 2021.
In his 101 innings last season (including nine starts), he made tremendous gains across the board, except in one major category:
Even with a substantially higher BABIP (that was closer to league average), Javier produced fewer home runs, a lower ERA and FIP, and a lower batting average against. His WHIP ticked up from 1.00 to 1.18 because of those darn walks. Why did it jump when his BB/9 landed in the 2.75-3.5 range throughout the minors?
Even though his swinging strike rate jumped from 8.7% in 2020 to 13.1% in 2021, batters were able to lay off much of the junk he threw which caused a direct correlation to rising ERA throughout the season, according to Fangraphs.
But where Javier really made his money is with his slider. Fangraphs rated the pitch as the 11th best in the majors last year, and as a result, he began to use it substantially more throughout the season.
But the location is what caused Javier to often get into trouble. Hitters were able to lay off and not swing on his pitches outside the zone. Javier was almost exclusively fastball-slider so hitters could sit on one or the other. That must change in 2022 for the opportunity that is certainly coming.
Clicking back over to our projections for Javier this year, it looks like we are expecting around 120 innings with a 3.41 ERA and 149 strikeouts. If there is an opportunity for a starting spot most of the year and that ticks up to 140 innings and 170 strikeouts, is that a pitcher that should be going around pick 315 in average NFC drafts? I would think that ADP should jump about 100 spots higher.
I follow my hometown Astros quite closely, including all of the local beat reporters. There are zero signs of optimism around the recovery of McCullers and clearly, Verlander is a giant question mark considering the age and usage on his arm. It would not shock me one bit if Javier spent most of the year as a full-time starter and I’m taking the over on 24.5 starts this year and the (WAY) under on a 315 ADP.