What Do The Astros Have in Cristian Javier?

We have now seen three big league starts out of Cristian Javier – two dominant, and one rough outing in Oakland. When Javier came into the starting rotation on September 29th as the organization’s #6 prospect, he did so with few in Houston aware of his name, and has quickly become a fan favorite due to his early success. Prospect writers such as myself had warned of the flaws in Javier’s game – hints of stamina issues, his 4.7 BB/9 indicating a weakness in command – but Javier has managed to work his way around them all. His eye opening debut featured a shocking line: 5.2 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, and 8 Ks against the vaunted Dodgers lineup. I will attempt to break down and go over exactly what has made Cristian Javier so effective in the past, and what to expect in the future.

Cristian Javier, via baseballsavant

I watched nearly 150 innings of Cristian Javier over his minor league career, and during that time he fit into a distinct pattern. He chewed his way through the minor leagues with an exceptional ERA combined with swing-and-miss stuff, but control issues were always prevalent. He would walk guys, and he would rely on flyball outs and strikeouts. Now that we have accurate numbers on his raw stuff, it’s a fun and useful exercise to predict how those minor league patterns can translate into Major League outings.

On a macro level, Javier’s repertoire fits the mold of the modern Houston Astros pitcher almost exactly. He is a high spin rate guy, with above average numbers in that department: 2400 RPM average on the fastball, and a demonic 2750 RPM on the curveball. He’s flashed curves reaching nearly 3000 RPM in his limited stints as a reliever previously. The fastball can run all the way up to 96 MPH, but more often sits 91-94, and has been referred to as an “invisiball”, due in part to the mechanics of his delivery. Hitters describe it as the ball looking like it’s “coming out of his chest”. All of his offspeed pitches have above-average horizontal movement (the curve heads east to west so much it’s often electronically categorized as a slider, for example. It is just a curve manipulated in different ways.) and the fastball has tremendous rise to it, among the league’s best in vertical movement. For reference, it is a fastball with comparable amounts of “drop” (or lack thereof) as 2019 Justin freaking Verlander.

With this repertoire in mind, we can examine his Dodgers outing. Javier flashed putaway ability in this performance that exceeded even his anticipated production, so I’ll be focusing on the strikeout pitches. We’ll begin with the very first AB of the game, ending with this (Underlined words/phrases link to video clips!) strikeout of Max Muncy, on an absolutely filthy 83 MPH breaking ball. Javier’s first two fastballs of the game clocked in at 94 and 95 MPH respectively, and Muncy was caught cheating from Javier’s deceptive delivery. Maldonado set up inside, Javier snapped one off, and Muncy was unable to hold up. The shape of the break looks a little Morton-esque, not quite as sharp though.

With the control issues prevalent in my mind, I was keyed in on Javier’s control for this start. A young rookie, amped up against a lineup of superstars in a bad-blood matchup. If there were ever a time for the walks to come, it would be now. In steps Mookie Betts, who Javier immediately gets ahead of with the breaking ball and then absolutely freezes via a firm 95 mph down the middle, in the bottom half of the zone. It’s worth noting here that Javier missed his spot by at least a foot (you can see Maldonado set up down and away, on the corner), but a combination of deception, stuff, and Betts relying on an outdated scouting report catches him very obviously unaware. Let’s see how many of those misses Javier can get away with. And in steps Cody Bellinger.

Cody gets locked up by the curveball, almost the exact same pitch that we saw Muncy unable to hold back on at the top of the inning. Javier hits his spot perfectly, and the ball was positively snapped off at more than 2700 RPM and some sharp break. There’s no excuse for Belli here as with the first two hitters: Cody had seen the curve earlier in the at-bat, knew Javier’s repertoire at this point, and had just spoken to Muncy about this exact punchout pitch. That’s just big league stuff, right there. Maybe this kid is legit. It’s not just the curveball, either. Watch him absolutely blow away Joc Pederson with that rising fastball, and do the same to Chris Taylor. It’s either high heat or snapping one off, which sounds familiar to Astros fans by now.

Two things continued to be apparent throughout the Dodgers outing: Javier appeared to have polished his command drastically from his minor league days but was still going to miss his spot occasionally, and he was going to get tired. Fast. Were either of these going to come back to bite him? Slated as a bullpen arm only 4 days ago, Javier was stretched out for a realistic 5 innings or so, and certainly not more. In the third inning, we see a strikeout of Matt Beaty on a beautiful curveball, once again. Here is evidence of Javier’s sheer swing-and-miss ability on his offspeed. He misses here, in a way he did not miss to Muncy or Bellinger when attempting to execute this exact pitch earlier. It leaks over the plate, dangerously close to Beaty’s happy zone, but has enough sheer break and deception to freeze the young lefty. It will certainly play, but some of those will get crushed sometimes.

Through Javier’s advancement in the minor leagues, there were always hints of stamina issues. The AA Hooks, where Javier spent most of his time earning the 2019 Astros MiLB Pitcher of the Year Award, employ a unique multi-inning relief strategy with their pitching staff. Starters rarely go more than 6 innings and relievers are often used in 2-and-3-inning bursts, a far cry from the way major-league bullpens operate. For that reason, Javier’s lack of ability to go extremely deep into game and run up a pitch count has never been relevant, until now. He probably wasn’t completely stretched out at this point, having been slated to be a reliever until Verlander’s injury, so the hook on him had to be quick.

The velocity ticked down as the pitch count increased – Javier was in the 91-92 MPH range towards the end of his outing – and the Dodgers began barreling balls, some luck directing them at the Houston outfielders. Javier’s day was done at 82 pitches of shutting down an incredibly dangerous lineup.

Still, a fantastic debut, a fantastic outing, and followed up by another dominant performance against the Diamondbacks the following week at home. Javier pitched much more to contact in this start, tallying a final line of 6.0 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, and only 2 Ks. He relied almost entirely on the fly ball for his outs in this outing, more in line with his aggregate flyball% in 2019 of 49.6%. Still, the walks did not show up, and for all intents and purposes he looks like a polished starter. So, what made his approach any different in this game?

To begin, I want to discuss the game plan for Javier when attacking right-handed batters and how it differs from left-handed batters. We’ve gone over the fastball and curve in terms of raw numbers, but I haven’t yet discussed his changeup. It is very much a complimentary pitch, not a putaway or one that he has tremendous confidence in yet. He uses it against left-handed batters almost exclusively. Against Arizona especially, he began using it to play off his fastball far more often. Look at these charts, with the first being his pitch distribution to AZ’s righties, and the second to the lefties:

Cristian Javier vs. ARI RHH

     

Cristian Javier vs. ARI LHH

The green dots you’re seeing there are the changeup, and the red are fastballs. You’ll notice the change was only used against left-handed batters, and not once against a righty. It has a fading action armside, and away from a lefties’ barrel. It’s also a hard changeup, at 86-88 mph, not too far off from his fastball. He tunnels it well (look at how many up and away fastballs there are to lefties, above where his changeup would break down towards), and it’s something he did not throw often in the minors.

Watch how he uses it to get ahead of Ketel Marte here, another NL MVP candidate from a year ago. He started Marte off with a fastball in his first AB, and knew he couldn’t do it a second time. The spin axis freezes the lefty hitter, and locks him up when he would have unloaded on a 92 mph fastball in that location. The simple progression of a third pitch in his arsenal will do wonders for making the second time through an order less of a painful ordeal, especially against lefties who are less susceptible than righties in falling victim to his high-spin curveball. Simply put, Javier’s control was immaculate in this start, and something I do not expect to be repeated often. AZ’s offense was sputtering going into this game, and he was able to attack their hitters with confidence and allow his defense to play behind him. When are the walks going to come?

Enter the red-hot Oakland Athletics. Look, as much as I have enjoyed watching Cristian Javier the last year, control issues don’t just magically go away the second you reach the big leagues, and there were some mistake pitches left uncapitalized on in his first two starts. An ERA below 2 is unsustainable, and we knew something like this was going to happen. Javier’s actual stuff in this game was as good as it’s ever been: watch him break off this ridiculous curveball to strike out Mark Canha in the first, registering over 3000(!) RPM in spin rate. That’s more than elite, that’s league-leading stuff right there. He was sitting 94-95 MPH in the first two innings, as he did in his first two starts, and looked to be cruising. Perhaps he could even build off his previous outings and maintain his velocity deep into this game!

The control issues finally, finally showed up. In the second inning, Javier fell behind Robbie Grossman 2-0, with neither pitch being particularly competitive. That set up this absolute cookie of a pitch, knowing he had to put it in the zone. 92 down the middle in a hitters’s count gets out of here in a hurry. To Javier’s credit, he rebounded nicely after the solo shot and finished the inning with no more drama.

In the third inning, though, things devolved in a hurry. Javier walked two Oakland hitters in a row to face Matt Olson, with both players battling extremely well in a long sequence that eventually ran the count full. Matt Olson takes Javier’s 87 MPH changeup below the zone and demolishes it to center field for a 3 run homer. 2 hits, 4 runs. That’s what walks do. Javier is now sitting at 56 pitches as well, due to his spotty command. Someone with his lack of ability to go deep into the game simply cannot afford to fall behind batters or walk them if he wants to log a quality start.

Now, in that specific instance, that changeup was actually a pretty good pitch. It started in the zone and finished out, and a great hitter in Matt Olson simply went down and got all of it in a full count. He didn’t even miss a spot, the ball ends up almost precisely where Maldonado’s glove was set up. What’s notable is the lack of armside run on the pitch though, much different than even the get-me-over change he threw to Ketel in his last outing. Pressure may have caused him to grip the ball too hard, effecting its horizontal movement.

Matt Chapman followed up Olson’s bomb with one of his own, going back-to-back and ambushing the young righty as he was attempting to regroup. Javier’s day ended there, and we saw the first example of how his weaknesses can play out at the Major League level.

So, what do the Astros have in Cristian Javier? At the very worst, they have an electric multi-inning reliever with tremendous stuff and a penchant for getting flyball outs due to deceptive rise on his fastball. More realistically, they may have a backend starter that can give you 5 good innings as long as he limits the walks and pitches to his strengths.

It’s the “what-if’s” with Javier that are most interesting, though. What if the young 23 year old who has barely pitched above AA can work on his stamina to carry 94 MPH deeper into ball games? Can he improve that changeup to be a legitimate third pitch like Lance McCullers Jr. has done, and throw it to right-handed batters as well? What if he can brush up on his control and command as he seems to already have done, dotting his invisiball on the corners of the strike zone? If Brent Strom can devote the time to work with Cristian Javier on these weaknesses, I have no doubt he can become a lethal weapon towards the frontlines of an MLB rotation sooner rather than later.

Thank you for reading.

– Ben (@CorreaVeneers)

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