Results vs Process
Astros fans were intensely scrutinizing MiLB’s 2019 Pitcher of the Year Cristian Javier‘s first MLB start on Wednesday from the comfort (and safety) of their couches. Thrusting an unproven rookie into the starting rotation on short notice against a top 3 lineup is a dubious proposition. Javier rose to the occasion and then some, delivering an exceptional 5 2/3 IP with 1ER/2H/8K just two days after pitching his first inning in the Big Leagues. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising for the man who was so methodical and deliberate when dismantling opponents he earned the Spanish nickname “Reptil” from coaches in High A. His traditional slash line indicates true potential as a future starter, but the advanced metrics cast him more in the light of a reliever. The results of his performance were exceptional, but the process that got him there is flawed and Javier was the recipient of multiple lucky breaks.
I already mentioned Javier’s impressive slash line of 1ER/2H/8K in his start on Wednesday. He was the first pitcher for either team in an Astros game since Justin Verlander‘s opening day start to make it out of the 4th inning. This means that if you head to Fox Sports team stats tracker Javier leads the team in 5 of the 7 listed pitching stats. These stats do include Javier’s one previous inning of relief work earlier in the week, but I think the point still stands. Cristian carved through the Dodger lineup with primarily two pitches, a pedestrian velocity but exceptionally deceptive four-seam fastball(4SFB) and a sideways leaning curveball (CB), while occasionally featuring a changeup (CH).
Javier does not light up radar guns, averaging 92-93 MPH with his fastball, while ironically throwing a pretty hard changeup at 87-88 MPH. That’s not an issue if you’re Jacob Degrom and throw the hard stuff at an average of 98.6 MPH and also have a slider that may as well be whiffleball at 93 MPH. Javier’s average FB comes in at an exceptionally average 92.8 MPH. However, his delivery excels at hiding the pitch from batters for so long that it has incredible deception, tricking hitters whether it is delivered up in the zone or more rarely down around the knees. This pitch is so perplexing in the disconnect between its speed and whiff potential that players and coaches in the MiLB system nicknamed it the “invisiball” according to a report by the Athletic’s Jake Kaplan. Just look at this gif. If you can get a batter of Joc Pederson‘s caliber to take an embarrassing hack at a slow FB that high above the zone, you are cooking with the secret sauce.
Statcast’s advanced metrics further illuminate the disparity between Javier’s stuff and his results. His FB has -2.3 inches of horizontal break compared to the average, or 30% less side-to-side run than other fastballs thrown within + 2MPH and + 0.5 feet from his release point. Some explanation for his seemingly paradoxical not-so-fastball arises from the vertical break on the pitch, measuring +3.7 inches from league average. This would rank 3rd in the MLB in 2019, slotting Javier in between Nick Anderson and Sean Doolittle, both of whom feature respectable whiff% despite throwing the pitch 60 and 80% of the time. Having that much “rise” on a fastball tricks hitters eyes as they track it into home plate, leading to batters swinging under the pitch. Javier’s batted ball profile shows 57.1% of BABIP eligible events are classified as under, supporting the case that hitters swing below this pitch.
Disclaimer: Savant classifies his breaking ball as a curveball as of 8/2/20, even though his scouting report says he throws a slider and a curveball. His breaking pitch has much more 3-9 movement than 12-6, so it could be reclassified as a slider in the future.
His fastball hides its reason for success, but Javier’s curveball is both aesthetically and statistically pleasing. Rob Freidman, the Pitching Ninja himself has declared the pitch to be “pretty.” The vertical break relative to average of -9.4 inches is firmly below league average, but it makes up for it with 4.3 extra inches of horizontal break. Those two numbers are 18% below and 42% above league average respectively.
This kind of movement isn’t common, but actually compares well to Noah Syndergaard‘s CB which features -7.1 inches of vertical break from average and +4.3 inches of horizontal break from average. How about velocity? Javeric clocks in at 79, Syndergaard at 80. The whiff% on the Syndergaard curve is an eye-popping 45.7%. Javier hasn’t thrown enough pitches in the majors for Statcast to have whiff% for each pitch, but his overall sits at 30%.
Before anyone gets too excited, there are multiple reasons why it is unlikely for Javier’s CB to reach the same levels as Thor’s. First, Syndergaard has to make hitters respect a 97.5 MPH fastball/sinker and a slider/changeup combo that sits in the low 90’s. Speaking of that arsenal, Syndergaard has 5 devastating pitches to Javier’s 3 total pitches. Finally, Javier goes to the curve more than three times as often as Syndergaard, which reduces its surprise potential and therefore putaway potential. To summarize, Javier likely has a good, not great off-speed pitch. If deployed with the proper location and timing, it could be elevated to great. All those caveats aside, it is really pretty to watch when executed properly.
There isn’t much data on this pitch as he has only thrown it 10 times at the major league level. What little evidence we have gathered on it isn’t promising though. He sits 86-88 with the pitch, and gets -6.1 inches of vertical break (-19%) compared to league average. Much like his curveball though, it gets extra horizontal break. Or at least that is what Statcast says because watching it fly to the plate in a seemingly straight line leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
The ONLY reason that first pitch didn’t end up next Yordan’s orange chair in the 3rd deck at Minute Maid is it is the second inning and Javier is throwing this pitch for the very first time. Joc Pederson only has some vague information from a minor league scouting report and one inning of relief work to plan his at-bats on. Throwing 88 belt high over the heart of the plate is an offering even Chris Davis could do some damage to. Changeups either need big velocity gaps or 12-6 sink to be effective, and this has neither. Now hitters know about it, it’s too close to his 4SFB in velocity to causing timing problems and has no movement so it can’t generate weak grounders or whiffs .
Location, Location, Location
It’s a mantra repeated by real estate agents and pitching coaches alike. Elite pitchers like Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Jacob DeGrom wield both devastating power and pinpoint precision on the mound. Being exceptional in one regard can allow a pitcher to be average or even bad in the other. Zack Greinke is my favorite example of this, rarely breaking 90 MPH but with Greg Maddux type command, he is still an extremely effective weapon in the starting rotation. Cristian Javier falls near the middle in both categories, with better than average pitches but worse than average command. His start on Wednesday showed both of these things well.
Looking at the heat-maps of his pitch locations gives us a general idea of his command for each pitch (additional sample size caveat, particularly for the change-up).
Even though he lacks the high velocity of usually seen on fastballs that dominate up in the zone, the 4SFB clearly is being directed towards the letters so far. This is typical of the Astros’ overall pitching philosophy, which has led to amazing results for several pitchers. The CB and CH display some worrying features though. Any pitch traveling less than 80 MPH on average has no business being located in the middle and upper portions of the zone as much as Javier’s has been so far. That absolute meatball in the middle there? It somehow ended up as a slow roller in front of the pitcher’s mound.
Just for fun, this ball was hit at 40 MPH and traveled a whole 4 feet before hitting the ground. That makes the second pitch I’ve shown here that ordinarily would be barreled up and launched into low earth orbit being missed or tapped into the ground. This leads to a deceptively low xBA, wOBA, xERA, and other advanced metrics that would ordinarily indicate a rousing success. Even with those two pitches breaking his way, Javier still sits in the 40th percentile for barrels allowed, indicating even more underlying instability to his gaudy metrics.
To drag the change-up through the mud a little bit more, the locations that pitch has been put in horrifies me. Eight of the ten are well outside or high in the zone. This pitch has no movement on it, leaving it in those locations will result in easy takes or easy extra base hits going forwards. Its a shame too, as a changeup that falls out the bottom of the zone would be extremely complementary to his other two pitches. His 4SFB has great perceived rise, so a pitch with similar velocity but an opposite break could give batters fits. Mix in the east-to-west CB and now you have pitches moving in three different directions. Go look at this overlay of FB and CB from Pitching Ninja, and imagine what a sinking changeup would do added to those two pitches. Brent Strom hasn’t had much time to work with this kid, so I’m not ruling the possibility out. Unless this pitch is drastically developed, it should make extremely infrequent appearances in-game.
The Long Game
As I discussed in my last article about the Astros’ suddenly tenuous pitching situation, the organization desperately needs reliable starting pitching. Even if Justin Verlander comes back healthy in the next two weeks, he is only under contract for another year and is not getting any younger. The same goes for Zack Greinke. The front office is probably pushing for Javier to be a SP moving forward, especially given Forrest Whitley‘s conspicuous absence from the roster. However, Cristian Javier has some definite limitations that may preclude him from assuming that role.
The first is stamina. Javier hasn’t been consistently used as a starter through the entire farm system. Fangraphs had him pegged as either back end starter or right-on-right reliever back in 2017. For a pitcher with better than average stuff but less than ideal control, fatigue can lead to erroneously pitch locations. It also leads to decreased velocity, which clearly affected Javier in his start.
Looking at his pitch velocity over the course of the game, a clear downward trend is present for all three pitches. (Ignore the dot that says “Two Seam” Savant sometimes misclassifies pitches based on spin, even with Hawkeye. After the data is washed the errors will be removed from the system.) In an incredibly gutsy effort, he was able to boost the fastball back to 91-92 MPH in the 6th, but he clearly struggles to maintain velocity past 50 pitches. His average FB velocity dropped from 93.7 MPH in his relief appearance to 92.5 MPH in his start. Narrowing the gap any further between the fastball and changeup will hamper an already weak pitch as well, which brings up the second issue.
More Pitches, Less Problems
I touched on this topic earlier when discussing why Javier’s CB likely won’t reach the level of Syndergaard’s. For all pitchers not named Mariano Rivera, having multiple pitches is extremely important to their success. Javier in his current state only has two he can reliably go to. If his command is off with either one of those, now he’s down to a single pitch. No starter can survive like that. How many starting pitchers only throw two pitches consistently? Not many that I can think of. Most skew in the direction of Yu Darvish and his variety hour special approach. This coupled with lower stamina means that Javier is best suited for a bullpen position. Coming in as a MRP in long relief scenarios is the role he seems best suited for. A pitcher can survive, even thrive for 2-3 innnings with two good pitches.
Cristian Javier blew my expectations out of the water last Wednesday. Starting the game out at 95 MPH, only allowing one walk, surviving the brutal gauntlet of the Dodger’s lineup in his first start was extremely impressive. The fastball, even when losing velocity has great deception and the curveball can cut like a frisbee. He still has a lot to prove, particularly when it comes to lowering his BB/9 stat from what it was in the minors. The Astros’ fans and organization want him to be the answer to the current (and future) SP woes, but I don’t see that being his long term position. Carving out a defined role for himself as a relief pitcher in non-pandemic seasons will likely lead to a good career in the majors.