Tanker?  Steal signs?  No, the story of this Astros World Series race begins with a prodigious pitch pipeline

Tanker? Steal signs? No, the story of this Astros World Series race begins with a prodigious pitch pipeline

There are two well-known origin stories for the Houston Astros: the intentional, overt period of tanking that spawned a juggernaut under general manager Jeff Luhnow, and the sign-stealing scandal that scarred that juggernaut from the past. MLB’s main villain.

Five years after winning that momentous 2017 World Series, the Astros remain baseball’s latest boss – 106-win titans ready to take on the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series – but this team’s most terrifying strength has never nothing to do with tanking or stealing signs.

These Astros still have plenty of star hitters who have been the face of their rise — and fall to ignominy — but they blazed an undefeated October path to the World Series behind an army of homegrown pitchers who are laying the groundwork. Another Step in the Astros Arc: Dynastic Leaders of the American League.

Houston’s staff have stifled offenses all season (2.90 ERA, second-best in MLB) and taken it to a different level in the playoffs, posting a 1.88 ERA so far that ranks fifth since integration among teams that have played at least five playoff games.

The leader of this group is Justin Verlander, 39, who will likely win his third Cy Young this year on his way to the Hall of Fame. Right behind him, a lot of those innings come from young pitchers developed — mostly from unheralded starts — in the Astros’ system. In the regular season, more than 57% of the Astros’ innings were pitched by homegrown weapons. In their dominant post-season, the proportion is even higher: 63%.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 23: Framber Valdez #59 and Cristian Javier #53 of the Houston Astros react in the dugout during the third inning against the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 23, 2022 in the borough of the Bronx in New York.  (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Framber Valdez, left, and Cristian Javier helped produce plenty of smiles for the Astros in October with their golden arms. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

How the Astros sprouted and developed a devastating pitching staff

Now you know their names: Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown. These 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 strong innings in the regular season and had a huge World Series moment in 2019, hasn’t even pitched in this playoff yet.

McCullers, the oldest in that group, was a first-round pick but missed most of the 2022 season recovering from injury. Brown, a fifth-round pick in 2019, made his debut in September and will remain a rookie in 2023. He signed for a relatively modest bonus of $325,000.

Then there is 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, sure, but more importantly, they’re a testament to the hype and low expectations around those pitchers when they signed.

The vision and process that took them from unsung teenagers to world-class major leaguers is the foundation of Houston’s endurance. As detailed by Peter Gammons and others, the four pitchers all trace back to Astros executive Oz Ocampo.

Working as director of international scouting under Luhnow between 2012 and 2017, Ocampo proved adept at spotting talent that could still be shaped, abilities that coaches all the way up the ladder to former coach Astros pitcher Brent Strom could develop. He wasn’t just looking for speed, but traits in their deliveries that portended success in a way that only entered the public consciousness.

Do their fastballs fool hitters? Can they spin the ball? Are their deliveries conducive to building speed? The answer for those crucial Astros pitchers was yes. It’s not that they’re all the same. Player development is perhaps more of an art than a science. It’s about finding the most exceptional abilities in each player.

For Valdez, who will almost certainly save a top-five finish from Cy Young, it’s flowing fastball and dipping curveball that allow him to induce a litany of easy ground balls.

For Javier, it’s a whipping arm move that makes his fastball “invisible” and gives his breaking ball its impossible mid-air turn.

For Garcia, a telltale cutter has kept batters averaging .151 this year.

For Urquidy, a curved and stellar command.

The list goes on for key relievers like Bryan Abreu and booming arms like Brown, who could throw the hardest slider in the majors. McCullers, who might have the most visually striking baseballs in baseball, is a huge reason 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 awesome, what this band is. It’s a whole other thing to be awesome AND settle for many years the same way.

These four arms raised in the international amateur ranks are all under the team’s control until at least 2025, and Brown’s club control could extend well into 2028. Based on officiating projections from Cot’s Contracts and the estimate of salary increases based on the 2022 agreements, the five potential starters figure to earn something like $14.75 million combined in 2023. That’s less than what McCullers will earn – 15 $.95 million – on the extension that will keep him in Houston until 2026.

Injuries happen, etc., but that’s six good potential starters before wondering if the Astros will move again to keep Verlander. He earned $25 million for 2022 and could demand more after his hugely successful comeback from Tommy John surgery. Whichever way you view this calculation, it turns into a positive. The multitude of young pitchers means the Astros will have plenty of financial clout to bring Verlander back, or it could mean they already have such a strong pitching staff that they could invest in roster improvements.

It’s fair to wonder if the Astros can keep that kind of talent coming. Longtime assistant general manager Pete Putila recently left for a promotion – the job of general manager of the San Francisco Giants. Ocampo, who left in 2017 and later returned to the organization, is a candidate for an assistant general manager position with the Miami Marlins. Strom, the legendary pitching coach, left after last season and took a pitching coaching job closer to home with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And there’s no guarantee that James Click, the managing director who kept the success going after Luhnow was fired over the sign-stealing scandal, will return next year.

None of that uncertainty will be much comfort to the Phillies when the World Series begins on Friday. Or the AL contenders who will face the Astros’ dynamic, dealing, and fully developed pitching monster for the foreseeable future.

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