Some people may still need reminding, but the 1990s are over. Starting pitching no longer requires the volume it did two decades ago. The latest example: Baseball's best team is doing quite well after losing three pitchers who started more than half their games last year.
“It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different,” said Houston manager A.J. Hinch. “It’s going to be different for us this year. We’re going to be more like the Rays. I don’t mean with an opener. I mean getting a pitcher out at around 90 pitches. I can do that with [Brad] Peacock, [Wade] Miley and [Collin] McHugh, and we can just let [Justin] Verlander and [Gerrit] Cole do their thing.”
The Astros did not re-sign Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton and they don’t have Lance McCullers Jr., who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Those three pitchers started 86 games for Houston last year. Yet Houston has run off nine straight wins for an 11-5 start.
Peacock, Miley and McHugh are averaging just 88.5 pitches per start. And Houston is 6-2 in those starts. McHugh has become a huge weapon after developing a high-spin slider midway through 2017. It is now one of the best pitches in baseball. Hitters are 10 for 103 against the pitch since last year (.097). And here’s what you do in today’s analytical world if you throw a “secondary” pitch that is that nasty: you throw the tar out of it. McHugh is throwing his slider 43% of the time, third most among starters.
What’s so amazing about the pitch is hitters know it’s coming and they still can’t hit it. McHugh throws his slider with a release point three to seven inches lower than his other pitches. When he drops down, it’s always a slider.
“What we’ve found is that hitters don’t differentiate if the release points are within three or four inches,” Houston pitching coach Brent Strom said. “But what really matters is what the hitters tell you. And right now the hitters are having a hard time with it.”
The rise of McHugh and the unemployment of Keuchel help explain how the game has changed in the past few years. Teams want starting pitchers to miss bats two times through an order–maybe a third time if the lead is big enough. Keuchel’s two greatest skills–eating up innings and pitching to contact–have gone out of favor.
He would have been perfect in 1992. That's when eight of the 26 teams (31%) had at least four pitchers throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (162 over a full season). Over the past two seasons, only four of the combined 60 staffs (7%) relied on four pitchers for that much work. It’s more evidence of baseball’s gig economy at work.
As the season goes on, Houston will fold Josh James and Forrest Whitley into some starts, and Peacock, McHugh and Miley all can pitch out of the bullpen at times, especially in the postseason.
Here are some other reasons why Houston has won nine in a row and looks like the class of baseball:
• Jose Altuve is healthy. He played the second half with a fractured right kneecap. He underwent surgery right after the Astros were knocked out by Boston. He told me the biggest difference now is that he can once again load on his back leg to generate power. Last week he homered in five straight games. His average exit velocity has shot up from 82.9 after the injury last year to 88.2 this year.
• Carlos Correa is healthy. I wrote before the season that Correa, who played through a back injury in the second half, was able to hit this year with the full load of his hands, not the truncated swing he used last year. In 37 games after coming off the injured list last year, Correa did not hit a single pitch 108 mph. This year he already has hit three balls that hard.
• The bullpen is terrific (4-1, 2.70). Ryan Pressly has thrown a franchise-record 27 straight appearances without allowing a run. On Sunday, Hector Rondon, Pressly and Roberto Osuna retired all nine Seattle hitters they faced on 45 pitches–only one of which left the infield.
• Their pitchers spin the baseball faster than any team–and it’s not even close. They are No. 1 in average spin rate for a third straight year, and nobody is within 100 rpms of the Sultans of Spin in Houston.
• They know the two-seamer/sinker is a dying pitch in the Launch Angle Era. Hitters bat .292 against two-seamers and sinkers, so Houston pretty much quit throwing them. (Both Verlander and Cole were told to junk their two-seamers once they arrived from trades.) Astros pitchers average just seven such pitches per game, the fewest in baseball.
• Hinch challenged his team–with the help of Statcast. On Day 1 of spring training, when wondering how he could motivate a 103-win team to play better, Hinch challenged his players to be more aggressive on the bases. He pointed out that last year the Astros averaged 10 feet with their leads off first base, almost a foot and a half shorter than the major league average. That’s complacency. This year they have attempted a stolen base in 6.8% of their opportunities, up from 4.3% last year. Though Houston has a lousy success rate (8 of 15), the mindset of complacency is gone.