There are two well-known origin stories for the Houston Astros: The intentional, out-in-the-open period of tanking that gave birth to a behemoth under general manager Jeff Luhnow, and the sign-stealing scandal that branded that behemoth MLB’s chief villain.
Five years after winning that momentous 2017 World Series, the Astros remain baseball’s final boss — 106-win titans set to tackle the upstart Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series — but this team’s most terrifying strength has nothing to do with tanking or stealing signs.
These Astros still have many of the star hitters who were the face of their rise — and their fall into ignominy — but they blazed an undefeated October path to the World Series behind an army of homegrown pitchers who are laying the groundwork for yet another stage of the Astros’ arc: Dynastic rulers of the American League.
Houston’s staff smothered offenses all season (2.90 ERA, second-best in MLB) and has taken it to a different level in the playoffs, posting a 1.88 ERA thus far that ranks fifth since integration among teams that played at least five playoff games.
The front man in this band is 39-year-old Justin Verlander, who will probably win his third Cy Young this year on the way to the Hall of Fame. Just behind him, a huge chunk of those innings are coming from young pitchers developed — mostly from unheralded beginnings — in the Astros’ system. In the regular season, more than 57% of the Astros’ innings were thrown by homegrown arms. In their dominant postseason, the proportion is even higher: 63%.
How the Astros sprouted and grew a devastating pitching staff
You know their names now: Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown. Those five — at least two of whom will work out of the bullpen in the World Series — could easily form one of baseball’s best starting rotations next year.
Jose Urquidy, who provided 164 1/3 solid innings in the regular season and had a huge World Series moment in 2019, has not even pitched yet in these playoffs.
McCullers, the longest-tenured of this group, was a first-round draft pick, but missed most of the 2022 season recovering from injury. Brown, a fifth-round pick in 2019, debuted in September and will remain a rookie in 2023. He signed for a relatively modest $325,000 bonus.
Then there’s the quartet of Valdez, Javier, Garcia and Urquidy. Originally signed as international amateurs, the Astros acquired them all for a total of $140,000. The low bonuses were a boon for Houston, of course, but more importantly, they spoke to the minimal hype and expectations around these pitchers when they signed.
The vision and process that took them from unsung teenagers to world-beating major leaguers forms the foundation of Houston’s staying power. As detailed by Peter Gammons and others, the four pitchers all trace back to Astros executive Oz Ocampo.
Working as international scouting director under Luhnow between 2012 and 2017, Ocampo proved adept at spotting talent that could still be molded, abilities that coaches all the way up the ladder to former Astros pitching coach Brent Strom could develop. He wasn’t looking for just speed, but for traits in their deliveries that portended success in ways that were just cracking into the public consciousness.
Do their fastballs deceive hitters? Can they spin the ball? Are their deliveries conducive to building velocity? The answer for these crucial Astros pitchers was yes. It’s not that they’re all the same. Player development is perhaps more art than science. It’s finding the most exceptional abilities within each player.
For Valdez, who will almost certainly log a top-five Cy Young finish, it’s a sinking fastball and plunging curveball that allows him to induce a litany of easy ground balls.
For Javier, it’s a whiplash arm motion that renders his fastball “invisible” and gives his breaking ball its impossible-seeming mid-air veer.
For Garcia, a revelatory cutter held batters to a .151 average this year.
For Urquidy, a curveball and stellar command.
The list goes on for key relievers like Bryan Abreu, and for burgeoning arms like Brown, who might throw the majors’ hardest slider. McCullers, who may have the most visually arresting breaking balls in baseball, is a huge reason why the Astros throw more pitches with elite spin rates than any team in baseball.
Homegrown talent sets up Astros for more wins
Why does all this matter so much? Well, it’s one thing to be great, which this group is. It’s a whole other thing to be great AND set up for many more years of the same.
Those four arms raised from the international amateur ranks are all under team control through at least 2025, and Brown’s club control could stretch through 2028. Based on arbitration projections at Cot’s Contracts, and estimating salary increases based on 2022 agreements, the five potential starters figure to make something like $14.75 million combined in 2023. That’s less than McCullers will make — $15.95 million — on the extension that will keep him in Houston through 2026.
Injuries happen, etc., but that’s six good potential starters before you consider whether the Astros will again move to keep Verlander. He made $25 million for 2022, and could demand more after his wildly successful return from Tommy John surgery. However you look at that calculation, it turns into a positive. The bevy of young pitchers means the Astros will have plenty of financial heft to bring Verlander back, or it could mean they have such a strong pitching staff already set that they could invest in lineup improvements.
It’s fair to wonder whether the Astros can keep this kind of talent coming. Longtime assistant GM Pete Putila recently left for a promotion — the San Francisco Giants’ GM job. Ocampo, who left in 2017 and later returned to the organization, is a candidate for an assistant GM job with the Miami Marlins. Strom, the legendary pitching coach, left after last season and took a pitching coach job closer to home with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And there’s no guarantee that James Click, the GM who has maintained the success after Luhnow’s firing over the sign-stealing scandal, will return next year.
None of that uncertainty will be of much comfort to the Phillies when the World Series starts Friday. Or to the AL contenders who will have to deal with the Astros’ dynamic, dealing, fully developed pitching monster for the foreseeable future.