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Comparing the Astros and Guardians pitchers

Can the Guardians’ pitching depth help them catch the AL’s best?

Wild Card Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Guardians - Game Two Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In the first of this series of articles, I took a look at how the Houston Astros and Cleveland Guardians’ hitting projections compare for the 2023 season. With the Astros established as the organization to beat in the American League, I think it’s helpful to take a look at how the projections systems see the Guardians matching up against them.

Of course, projections are not equal to results, but we can at least see where Guardians players will have to outperform expectations, and, based on our personal experience of their play, begin to hope for more than what the robots are able to predict.

Below, I have provided tables including FIP projections for Astros and Guardians starting pitchers in 2023. Think of FIP as ERA removed from the effects that the defensive performance and positioning behind a pitcher has on their performance. I chose FIP as the comparison point, also, because we are especially unable to measure the exact effects defense will have on pitching from 2022 to 2023 with the shift restrictions coming into play. S-FIP is Steamer’s FIP projection, and Z-FIP is ZiPS’ projection.

Astros 2023 starting pitcher projections

Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Framber Valdez 3.33 3.58
Cristian Javier 3.98 4.11
Lance McCullers 3.89 3.63
Luis Garcia 4.05 4.14
Hunter Brown 3.4 3.75
Jose Urquidy 4.55 4.27
Forrest Whitley 4.59 5.59
Shawn Dubin 3.88 4.48
Average Starting SP FIP 3.73 3.84
Top 8 Avg SP FIP 3.96 4.19

Guardians 2023 starting pitcher projections

Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Shane Bieber 3.37 3.24
Triston McKenzie 4.14 3.83
Cal Quantrill 4.56 4.4
Aaron Civale 4.1 4.18
Cody Morris 3.48 3.88
Zach Plesac 4.64 4.48
Konnor Pilkington 4.54 4.88
Joey Cantillo 4.38 4.22
Xzavion Curry 4.45 4.4
Hunter Gaddis 4.77 4.73
Tanner Bibee 4.41 4.26
Gavin Williams 4.53 4.44
Daniel Espino 4.15 4.32
Logan Allen 4.3 4.71
Average Starting SP FIP 3.93 3.91
Top 8 Avg SP FIP 4.24 4.23

The final lines are Steamer and ZiPS overall projections for the top five Astros and Guardians starters, and then for their top eight starters. So, the Astros are projected for a better starting five FIP via both systems than the Guardians, 3.73/3.93 to 3.84/3.91.

I am trying to be as reasonably optimistic as possible about the Guardians. So, I have put Cody Morris in the fifth starter role instead of Zach Plesac since Morris has a significantly better FIP projection than Plesac. I recognize that, if this happens, it may not happen right away. I also recognize that Morris has a significant injury history to worry about. I also made a similar switch for the Astros, choosing Hunter Brown as their fifth starter over José Urquidy.

Speaking of that, understand that every pitcher is an injury risk at some level or another. Lance McCullers is injury-prone. Aaron Civale and Morris have been injury prone. This is the area in which I would say the Guardians have a clear edge over the Astros, as they have a large number of young starting pitchers either in the majors or on the verge of the majors who are already projected to be serviceable as No. 4 or No. 5 starters.

Many of these young arms — like the Guardians’ blessed trinity of Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams, and Tanner Bibee — have the ceiling to be much more. For now, if there is an injury in the starting five of these two teams, both the projections and the scouting reports tell me that the Guardians are far more able to sustain it and maintain a top-10 staff in baseball. It will be interesting to see if both the Astros and Guardians are looking to upgrade their rotations with an additional arm in the summer and which organization is willing to do what it takes to get a deal for a No. 2 or No. 3 starter across the finish line.

Cal Quantrill has thrown 471 major league innings. His career ERA is 3.54. His career expected fielding independent pitching number is 4.43. This means his results have him as almost a run better per nine innings than what the math says he should be for his career. Other than possible shift restriction effects, it seems reasonable to expect Quantrill’s actual run prevention to continue to be better than his FIP and likely to beat both a 4.40 and 4.56 projected FIP in 2023.

I believe Bieber may very well find a little more velocity on his fastball a year removed from shoulder surgery. For what it’s worth, his average four-seam velocity went up from 90.9 mph in the first half of 2022 to 91.7 mph in the second half of the season. Even if his velocity doesn’t tick up, Bieber now has a year of learning how to adjust his repertoire to compensate for lower fastball velocity to rely on for a knowledge base from which he can attack hitters in 2023.

Aaron Civale had the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2022, and if he can maintain his health in 2023, I like his chances of refining his pitch mix and reaching new levels of effectiveness in the season ahead.

Finally, I believe Steamer needs to do a serious recalculation on Triston McKenzie because their projection of 4.14 feels high. From July 4 onwards, McKenzie had a 2.76 FIP. I like his chances to beat the computers as well as any pitcher on this roster.

Astros 2023 bullpen projections

Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Ryan Pressly 3.01 2.62
Rafael Montero 3.63 3.58
Bryan Abreu 3.37 3.86
Hector Neris 3.72 3.55
Ryne Stanek 3.96 4.35
Phil Maton 4.14 3.78
Seth Martinez 4.28 3.86
Brandon Bielak 4.35 4.26
Blake Taylor 4.71 5.18
Parker Mushinski 4.07 4.34
Ronel Blanco 4.04 4.38
Enoli Paredes 4.21 4.44
Average 8 BP Arm FIP 3.81 3.73
Total BP Arm FIP 3.96 4.02

Guardians 2023 bullpen projections

Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Player S-FIP Z-FIP
Sam Hentges 3.3 3.26
Nick Mikolajchak 4.15 4.26
Enyel De Los Santos 3.75 4.04
Tim Herrin 4.01 4.25
Eli Morgan 4 4.56
Trevor Stephan 3.51 3.77
James Karinchak 3.65 3.45
Emmanuel Clase 2.69 2.35
Nick Sandlin 4.15 4.21
Andrew Misiaszek 4.7 4.32
Logan Allen 4.3 4.81
Peyton Battenfield 4.5 4.51
Average 8 BP Arm FIP 3.63 3.73
Total BP Arm FIP 3.89 3.98

I have given an average projected FIP for both Steamer and ZiPS for the top eight bullpen arms for both teams as well as for their top 12 relief options as suggested by FanGraphs’ Depth Charts. By Steamer, the Guardians are projected to have a slightly better bullpen than the Astros, 3.63 to 3.81 FIP and an equal FIP of 3.73 in ZiPS. Overall, both teams’ bullpens look to be good collections of talent.

I substituted Nick Mikolajchak for Nick Sandlin in the top eight of the Guardians’ pitchers because I was unsure if Sandlin would be ready for spring training. However, I saw Sandlin lobbing pitches to kids at Guards Fest, which would seem to be a positive sign for his availability and the quality of the Guardians’ pen.

Projections systems are somewhat skeptical of the gains Trevor Stephan and Enyel De Los Santos made in 2022. I think it’s fair to look at how the Guardians have helped Emmanuel Clase refine his control and cautiously project Stephan’s drop from a 4.41 BB/9 to a 2.54 BB/9 in 2022 to continue and De Los Santos’ lowering of his BB/9 from 4.58 to 2.87 to be more sustainable than what the computers are buying so far.

As a final observation, I am interested to see how pitchers like James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase adjust to the new pitch clock as both were among the league leaders in time taken between pitches in 2022. I am optimistic about both pitchers adjusting to the new restrictions.

Bottom line, the Houston Astros starting pitching is something like an average of 0.2 of a run per game better than the Guardians’ according to the projections. Their bullpens are even closer, with the Guardians having the slightest of edges. With the additional factor of Cleveland having more major league-ready pitching depth than Houston, I like the chances of the Guardians hanging with the Astros in terms of pitching in 2023 as the rosters are currently constructed.