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2021 World Series Preview: Astros starters are a question mark

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With Lance McCullers out, the Astros have plenty of question marks for their starting rotation.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves are in the World Series for the first time in a long time and they get to face the Houston Astros in the Fall Classic. While the Astros have potentially the best offense in baseball, their pitching is...less good, especially with their best starter Lance McCullers rules out for the series. Let’s take a look at the available options for Houston in this series.

Framber Valdez

Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Framber Valdez has been named the Astros’ starter for Game 1, so it only makes sense to look at him first. Valdez has a sparkly 3.14 ERA on the season, but this number isn’t backed up by his FIP, xFIP, and xERA, which all float between 3.58 and 4.01, which is still solid, but not exactly what a team wants in a Game 1 starter for the World Series. Valdez pitches off of his sinker fastball, which he throws about 50% of the time. His fastball is below league average in velocity, sitting around 92 MPH, and is also below league average in spin rate. Hitters have had decent success off of his sinker as well according to Statcast. Where Valdez really finds his success is his curveball, which has a spin rate in the 92nd percentile and hitters have really struggled against. Valdez throws his signature weapon about 30% of the time. He also has a changeup that is pretty good but unspectacular that he throws around 12% of the time and a four seam fastball that he sprinkles in, but has been hit very hard. Valdez has neither an impressive strikeout nor walk rate, but has a high ground ball rate, around 70%.

Luis Garcia

Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Luis Garcia is a 24-year old rookie who was a well regarded prospect in the Astros system and can be reasonably expected to start a game for the Astros this series, likely in Game 2 and a potential game later in the series. Garcia has fairly similar slash-line stats to Valdez this season, with an ERA in the low 3s (3.30) and peripherals around the upper 3s (3.63 FIP-3.98 xERA). He does have an extra tick of velocity over Valdez, sitting around 93 MPH, but also has actual good fastball spin rates, in the 77th percentile. Garcia throws his four seamer around 45% of the time and his cutter around 23% of the time. Hitters pretty much crushed his four seamer this season, with an xSLG of .499 and a .387 xwOBA. The cutter was much more effective, with a .313 xSLG against. Garcia has a very good slider and pretty good curveball and changeup that he mixes in around 10% of the time each, keeping hitters from being able to sit on one pitch. Garcia, unlike Valdez, has pretty good strikeout and walk rates, at 9.68 K/9 and 2.90 BB/9. He is much less of a ground ball pitcher than Valdez though, with only a 38.5% ground ball rate.

Jose Urquidy

Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Jose Urquidy is expected to take the mound in Game 3 for the Astros. He is now 26 years old and has been a highly regarded prospect, but hasn’t really been much more than solid in his career so far. This season he pitched more MLB innings than he had in the rest of his career combined with 107.0 in the regular season. His ERA is a solid 3.62, but his FIP, xFIP, and xERA float between 3.87 and 4.38. His fastball, which he throws around 50% of the time sits around 92-93 and has below average spin. He also has a slider and changeup, which he throws just under 20% of the time each, and a curveball that he sprinkles in occasionally. Opposing hitters have a .480 xSLG against his fastball, so it is very hittable, and while his other pitches are much more effective, none are particularly dominant. Urquidy only strikes out 7.57 per 9 innings and has a low ground ball rate at around 32%. Where Urquidy succeeds is that he barely walks anyone, only giving up 1.60 BB/9. He is a solid pitcher, but certainly not one that the Braves should be afraid of.

Zach Greinke and Jake Odorizzi

Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Zach Greinke is probably going to end up in the Hall of Fame after an extremely long and successful career. With that being said, he has not been particularly good this season, with a 4.17 ERA and peripherals between 4.21 and 4.71. I’m not going to do a full breakdown of him because he very well may not pitch in this series, but essentially he has a good changeup and everything else has been extremely hittable. Perhaps I’m tempting fate by saying this, but I hope we see Greinke starting in Game 4, because I think he would be a soft target for the Atlanta offense, although with his pedigree, you never know what he can pull out of his hat when the lights are the brightest. Jake Odorizzi is also an option to start or come out of the bullpen, but has been similarly unimpressive to Greinke without the same pedigree.

The Bullpen

Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros bullpen is not a particularly scary one. They have one guy who is legitimately good, in Ryan Pressly, one guy who has had a good season without particularly impressive prior resumes, in Kendall Graveman, and a bunch of guys who vary from passable to really bad. Pressly is one of the best relievers in baseball and has an ERA, xERA, FIP, xFIP slash line of 2.25/2.57/2.06/2.43 this season, although his fastball is fairly hittable. Kendall Graveman has an awesome name and has an incredible 1.77 regular season ERA, although with more good-not-great peripherals ranging from 3.19-3.65. Brooks Raley, Josh James, Ryan Stanek, who some may remember from recent Marlins teams, and Cristian Javier are some of the better options in the rest of the bullpen, but none have been particularly good. To give you an idea, there were multiple pitchers with numbers north of 6 in the Astros’ ALCS bullpen, granted that those are unlikely to get used in moments with any real leverage.

On the whole, this pitching staff doesn’t seem particularly impressive, although it certainly isn’t a disaster. Hopefully the Atlanta offense can take advantage of not facing a Rotation of Death like they have in their first two playoff series this year.