The Astros Rotation: Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel

The Astros rotation was surprisingly decent last year. As a staff they totaled 12.4 WAR which made them the 12th best rotation in the league by that metric. But I’m about 99.9% sure no Astros starter had an ADP that made him a regular selection in 12-team mixed leagues. Yet they ended up producing the 20th and 33rd most valuable fantasy starters. Insane. But drafters aren’t totally buying it as those same two pitchers currently have ADPs of 53 and 65. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this staff is that the five starters who threw the most innings for Houston last year may be the same five starters to begin the year with only one real threat to steal a rotation spot. For a rotation that no one thought was any good just a year ago on a team that is still rebuilding, it’s surprising not to see much, if any, turnover.

The two big surprises mentioned above were Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. In some ways the two were similar and in others they were very different. They’re alike in that they were both really bad before being really good last year. Prior to last year Keuchel had 239 major league innings of 5.20 ERA ball, and McHugh had 47.1 innings of 8.94 ERA ball. Woof! They’re also alike in that no one really expected them to go from really bad to really good because they’re not exactly young. Keuchel was 26 and McHugh 27 with McHugh not reaching the big leagues until age 26.

But they’re different in how they achieved their success last year.

Scott Strandberg did a pretty sweet write-up on Keuchel, and Keuchel’s success basically boils down to pounding the bottom of the zone and making his slider a not-terrible third pitch by throwing it harder with more horizontal break. Both of those adjustments allowed his two primary pitches, a two-seamer and change, to play way, way up. That means he was able to induce a veritable buttload of ground balls. Per the BP PITCHf/x leaderborads, Keuchel led the league with a 77% ground ball per ball in play rate on two-seamers among the the 139 starters who threw that pitch at least 200 times. He was also 11th in GB/BIP at 63% with his change. All in all he led qualified starters in ground ball rate with a 63.5% mark. Tyson Ross was second-best at a distant 57%.

Keuchel did a version of this in 2013, but he didn’t do it as well and got destroyed by tough luck. He had a .340 BABIP and 17.4% HR/FB rate. The ERA estimators obviously noticed the underlying improvements, and his SIERA was 3.63 in 2013. So to some degree we could have seen this coming. But Keuchel didn’t have bad luck again and further improved on the things he did well in 2013. No one could see those thing happening in conjunction and leading to a sub-3.00 ERA.

As for McHugh, he achieved his unexpected success not by generating favorable balls in play but by keeping batters from putting the ball in play. McHugh posted a 25.4% strikeout rate last year, which was the ninth best mark in the league among starters with 150 innings pitched or more. As Podhorzer noted back in September, McHugh wasn’t missing bats with a dominant fastball. His fastball velocity is below average, so he doesn’t throw it nearly as often as most pitchers do. But among the 105 starters who threw at least 200 curves last year, McHugh had the ninth best whiff rate of 39.5%. That’s his money pitch. Pod noted that he throws his lesser slider more often but that it’s possible the curve wouldn’t continue to be as effective if he threw it more frequently.

The two are also different in my expectations for them. Of the two, Keuchel seems to be the one with the easier path to repeating his performance. Continue throwing an average slider and keep throwing the ball down seem like repeatable tasks. At least a lot easier than continuing to throw one of the better curve balls in baseball while having a below average fastball. That said, drafters are taking McHugh ahead of Keuchel and the Steamer projections have McHugh ranked ahead of Keuchel. That’s because if Keuchel repeats he generates a lot of ground balls. If McHugh repeats, he generates a lot of strikeouts. Ground balls are nice and all, but they’re not as fantasy friendly as strikeouts.

In one last way they’re similar. Steamer likes both guys more than their ADP with McHugh having an ADP of 53 and a Steamer rank of 40 and Keuchel having an ADP of 65 and a Steamer rank of 60. They’re both going to regress, but Steamer is simply projecting regression to a more reasonable level of production, not falling off a cliff. McHugh is more likely to go off the egde, but he’ll have more fantasy value if he doesn’t.

The next three guys in the rotation per our depth charts are not very exciting. Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Brad Peacock are all projected to have ERAs in the mid-to-high 4.00’s, and only Peacock is projected to top six strikeouts per nine innings, though he’s also projected to walk four per nine. Their ADPs are 149 for Feldman, 166 for Oberholtzer, and 237 for Peacock. Obviously none of them are mixed-league relevant, and Feldman and Oberholtzer are only somewhat AL-only relevant given their draft position and projections. None of them have underlying numbers that indicate a possible Keuchel-esque improvement.

The one guy who could soon steal some starts away from that threesome is Dan Straily. As Eno pointed out last month when the Astros acquired Straily, he has three solid pitches and has been at least an average starter before. Steamer isn’t projecting his rate stats to be any better than the three guys he’s in competition with, so he’s only an AL-only play if and when he cracks the rotation. But if we find out before Opening Day that he’ll open the season in the rotation, he’s worth picking up late in the single league format.

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FYI: Nick Tropeano now plays for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.