2022 MLB Playoffs: Is this the best Astros pitching staff we've ever seen?

By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

Four innings into the Astros' latest postseason run, nothing made any sense.

Justin Verlander, the front-runner for this year's AL Cy Young Award and future first-ballot Hall of Famer, was getting rocked by the Seattle Mariners.

After another tremendous regular season for Verlander, who was the toughest qualified starting pitcher in baseball to record a hit against (.184 BAA), here was the team with the third-lowest batting average (.230) in baseball casually knocking him around the yard. The 10 hits surrendered across those shocking four innings were the most Verlander has allowed in 31 career postseason starts and the most he’d allowed in any start since April 15, 2017

Minute Maid Park was stunned.

Yet from the moment Verlander departed early until the last out of a marathon Game 3, Houston's pitching course-corrected in convincing fashion and returned to the elite form it displayed all season. 

Verlander allowed six runs on 10 hits over just four innings of work. In the 32 innings that followed, 10 Astros pitchers combined to allow 15 hits and three runs while striking out 36 Seattle hitters and yielding just 10 free passes. After hitting .500 against Verlander, the Mariners could muster only a .144 batting average the rest of the way. 

Houston's pitching finished the ALDS with 23 consecutive scoreless frames. It was a sensational display of dominance from a ridiculously deep group of arms.

Yes, the biggest name coming out of Houston's ALDS sweep of Seattle was undeniably slugger Yordan Álvarez due to his two dramatic dingers. It was also a reminder that perhaps for the first time in Houston's dynastic run, the pitchers outshine the position players.

While the hitters have consistently received more of the spotlight during Houston's AL-record six consecutive trips to the ALCS, it's not like the pitching hasn't been elite as well. But last year's run to the World Series had much more to do with having one of the league's best lineups. 

This year, Houston's pitching has returned to the elite levels it established in 2018 and '19. Here's a look at how the Astros' pitching has stacked up league-wide the past six regular seasons:


*2017: 4.12 (11th in MLB)
*2018: 3.11 (1st)
*2019: 3.66 (2nd)
*2020: 4.31 (13th)
*2021: 3.80 (7th)
*2022: 2.91 (1st)

Strikeout rate:

*2017: 26.1% (3rd)
*2018: 28.5% (1st)
*2019: 27.9% (1st)
*2020: 23.5% (13th)
*2021: 24% (12th)
*2022: 26% (2nd)

Fangraphs WAR:

*2017: 19 (11th in MLB)
*2018: 28.6 (1st)
*2019: 24.2 (3rd)
*2020: 6.3 (12th)
*2021: 16.9 (10th)
*2022: 27 (1st)

Batting average against: 

*2017: .238 (7th in MLB)
*2018: .215 (1st)
*2019: .219 (3rd)
*2020: .237 (13th)
*2021: .226 (3rd)
*2022: .210 (2nd)

It's not just Verlander who is elite at preventing hits (other than his uncharacteristic outing in the ALDS). Opponents hit just .210 against Houston pitching on the whole this season, the fourth-lowest BAA of any team since integration in 1947. It's awfully impressive, but that jaw-droppingly low mark generally fits with the way baseball has been trending in regard to batting average. Look no further than two of the three teams that rank ahead of Houston: the 2021 (.207) and 2022 Dodgers (.209). 

Also worth noting, the 2022 Astros' true superpower hasn't been preventing hits overall. Rather, it's preventing extra-base hits. Opponents slugged just .332 against Astros pitching this season — the lowest mark of any team since the 1988 Mets (.329) and 1988 Dodgers (.327), who met in the NLCS that season. Houston's is also the 12th-lowest SLG% allowed by any team since MLB lowered the mound in 1969. 

So who are these pitchers who have stifled opposing batters all year? As far as pure stuff, it would be a stretch to say the current Astros starters match up with the incredible 2018 rotation that featured not only Verlander but also otherworldly Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, pre-surgery Lance McCullers Jr. and still-effective Dallas Keuchel

But Astros starters have posted a 2.95 ERA in 2022, which is even lower than the 3.16 mark the 2018 starters produced. The new co-ace alongside Verlander is Framber Valdez, who is an awfully different style of pitcher than Cole but can carve up any lineup using his sinker/curveball combo that yields historic levels of grounders

Behind Valdez, McCullers Jr. has looked tremendous after missing the first several months of this season due to injury. 

Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier have proven plenty capable in both starting and relieving roles, and Javier in particular just put up a historic season: His .170 batting average against was third-lowest of any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched since MLB lowered the mound in 1968, behind only 2021 Freddy Peralta (.165), 1980 J.R. Richard (.166) and 2000 Pedro Martinez (.167). 

José Urquidy (3.94 ERA, 4.60 FIP) is the clear weakest link, but even he has had moments of postseason success in recent years. 

Yet as good as the starters have been, it's this year's outrageously deep bullpen that makes the 2022 staff so formidable. Astros relievers posted an MLB-best 2.80 ERA this season and a 2.91 ERA in innings 7-9, also the best mark of any team. This is a huge improvement over the relievers Houston relied on the previous two seasons, who were far closer to league average, and it puts the team in excellent position to withstand a clunker or two from a starter, as they demonstrated with Verlander against Seattle. 

Ryan Pressly is the most familiar face, as he has been the primary closer since arriving at the 2018 trade deadline, and he just posted the highest strikeout rate (35.7%) of his career. Pressly's two breaking balls remain some of the best of any bullpen arm in baseball, but it's the more recent additions to the relief corps' collective arsenal that have elevated this group even further: Ryne Stanek's overpowering four-seamer, Hector Neris' splendid splitter, Rafael Montero's changeup, Bryan Abreu's spectacular slider and so on. Hard-throwing top pitching prospect Hunter Brown has also slid seamlessly into a bullpen role, despite being developed as a starter.

And to think, this bullpen would be even deeper had Phil Maton (3.84 ERA in the regular season; one run allowed in 12 appearances last postseason) not punched a locker. The ALCS roster also doesn't include veteran lefty Will Smith, one the stars of last postseason, whom the Astros acquired at the deadline but opted to leave off the roster in favor of their army of resplendent right-handers. 

The Astros did add another arm for the ALCS in Seth Martinez, a 28-year-old rookie who posted a 2.09 ERA in 38.2 innings this season but hasn't pitched since Sept. 15. Right-handed hitters managed just a .394 OPS against Martinez in the regular season, so he could prove to be a nice weapon for certain matchups, and yet we're still talking about the seventh or eighth guy you'd likely see Dusty Baker turn to.

Houston has built a remarkable 13-man unit that it'll take into the ALCS against the Yankees and possibly beyond. Yes, José Altuve, Alex Bregman and the slugging Alvarez will likely continue to get the bulk of the attention. But if Houston is going to capture another World Series — one the baseball world would recognize as clean — it will be because the pitching is as good as it's ever been. 

And that's saying something.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.