‘These Guys Are Nasty’: Houston Thrives With Unexpected Stars

‘These Guys Are Nasty’: Houston Thrives With Unexpected Stars

PHILADELPHIA — Morgan Ensberg saw this four years ago, from the batter’s box in the bullpen in Buies Creek, N.C. A former All-Star third baseman, Ensberg would sometimes stand there to get a closer look at the pitchers he managed for the Houston Astros’ Class A farm team. There was plenty to admire.

“There were guys coming through that weren’t on any prospect lists,” Ensberg said, “but if you were there and you were watching, there were constantly arms.”

Ensberg spoke late Wednesday night from his home in California after watching one of those pitchers, Cristian Javier, start the second no-hitter in World Series history. Javier and three relievers overwhelmed the Philadelphia Phillies, 5-0, to even the World Series in Game 4 at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies, who smashed five homers on Tuesday, felt the same helplessness Ensberg sensed in those bullpen sessions in the Carolina League. Javier’s fastball spins so much, Bryce Harper said, that it seems like it is traveling 97 miles an hour when it’s really 93.

“It’s almost like it’s on delay,” Ensberg said. “You see it a tick late, and it’s by you.”

That is a fitting description of Houston’s flood of pitching talent: by the time most folks noticed how deep it was, the Astros had passed their rivals. Five years after their only championship, the franchise has continued to thrive with a groundswell of pitching that has never been better.

The Astros had the lowest earned run average in team history this season, at 2.90, while holding opponents to a .212 average, also a club record. Javier and the Game 4 relievers — Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly — combined to average 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings this season. They fanned 14 in the no-hitter.

Javier, 25, was never going to finish it; his career high for innings is seven, and he needed 97 pitches to work six innings on Wednesday. But he is clearly miscast as a No. 4 starter.

“Javy goes out there and does what he does,” Pressly, the closer, said nonchalantly, “and honestly, I think he’s the most underrated pitcher in the league.”

Javier switched from outfielder to pitcher at 16, the age when many prospects from the Dominican Republic turn pro. He signed just before his 18th birthday for $10,000, the same bonus the Astros had given Framber Valdez, a Dominican left-hander, in 2015. The team gave a $100,000 bonus that year to José Urquidy, a right-hander from Mexico, and $20,000 in 2017 to Luis Garcia, a right-hander from Venezuela.

Add it all up and the Astros spent $140,000 to sign four pitchers from Latin America who combined to make 112 starts this season. None of the four were ever listed among the top 100 prospects by MLB.com.

“When I got here, I only knew what I’d read, that the system is a little empty,” said reliever Ryne Stanek, who signed with Houston before last season. “But then you see these guys come up and you’re like, ‘What do you mean, empty? These guys are nasty.’ Obviously the prospect rankings mean nothing when those guys weren’t prospects.”

Ensberg said the Astros essentially doubled their inventory of starters by using a piggyback system; that is, two pitchers working four innings apiece each time through the rotation. That way, the organization had more options for pitchers who could be stretched into starters at the higher levels — and more starter types who were familiar with relief.

“Not many teams do it at all, but starting pitchers have the most value and the Astros wanted to develop and harvest starting pitchers — and they are very good at it,” said Ensberg, who now manages in the Tampa Bay Rays’ system.

“But what’s most important is that the Astros were really good at understanding how to teach pitchers to throw their pitches with certain pitch shapes — figuring out what would be most effective and understanding what the body needs to be able to do to produce that.”

Some of the architects of the Astros’ system have moved on. Jeff Luhnow, the former general manager, was fired in early 2020 after revelations of the team’s illegal sign-stealing scheme in its title season. Oz Ocampo, a prominent international scout, will soon become Miami’s assistant general manager. Brent Strom, the influential former pitching coach, now works for Arizona.

But the prospects they cultivated keep carrying the Astros to the World Series, even after the departures of mainstays like Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. Urquidy beat Washington in the 2019 World Series and beat Atlanta twice last fall. Garcia blanked Seattle for five innings to win an 18-inning division series clincher last month.

Valdez and Javier have the Astros’ wins in the World Series. Valdez — a first-time All-Star this summer — worked six and a third innings with nine strikeouts in Game 2, and Javier also fanned nine in Game 4.

Meanwhile, the only Astros pitchers to appear in the MLB.com Top 100 prospects list between 2017 and 2021 — Forrest Whitley and Josh James — have been derailed by injuries. The international signees have teamed with the staff ace, Justin Verlander, to keep the Astros on top.

“We’ve always felt like the rankings of our guys are light,” said Josh Miller, the team’s pitching coach. “We feel like we have a lot, and we still do. But I’d be lying if I told you that most of these guys would grow into top-of-the-rotation starters and big bullpen pieces at this point. They’ve outperformed expectations.”

Ocampo, who signed Javier, Valdez and Garcia, tweeted a photo of the trio after Javier’s victory in Game 4, along with a lizard emoji. That was a nod to Javier’s nickname, El Reptil, given to him at Buies Creek by Ensberg and a coach, Drew French.

“This guy’s coldblooded,” Ensberg said. “He never seems nervous, he’s always cool and collected the whole time. Nothing fazes him at all. I was always wondering, ‘Does he knows how good he is?’”

After an indelible performance in the World Series, the secret is out.

Ben Shpigel and James Wagner contributed reporting.

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