Champion Astros Can Own MLB by Forming Keuchel-Verlander-Arrieta Super Rotation

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 8, 2017

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 18:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs reacts in the middle of the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game four of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In winning 101 regular-season games and the franchise's first-ever World Series championship, the Houston Astros ascended to the top of Major League Baseball in 2017.

Now they should aim for the moon by signing Jake Arrieta.

This isn't something they need to do. They already have co-aces Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel set to lead their starting rotation in 2018. Behind them are Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers Jr. and Brad Peacock. Should they choose to shift Peacock to a bullpen that could use a shutdown arm, Collin McHugh or Mike Fiers could slide in.

But then again, why stop at "good enough" when "even better" is within reach?

If the Astros can land Arrieta, their rotation would be headed by a trio of former Cy Young winners. Arrieta and Keuchel won in the National League and American League, respectively, in 2015. Verlander won his way back in 2011, but he should have won a second Cy Young in 2016.

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 21:  Justin Verlander #35 and Dallas Keuchel #60 of the Houston Astros celebrate with the William Harridge Trophy in the locker room after defeating the New York Yankees by a score of 4-0 to win Game Seven of the American League Cham
Elsa/Getty Images

The catch with Arrieta is how he's fallen from his Cy Young form.

In 2015, the right-hander was to hitters what John Wick is to henchmen, posting a 1.77 ERA over 229 innings. He then regressed to a 3.10 ERA over 197.1 innings in 2016, and then to a 3.53 ERA over 168.1 innings in 2017. Since he'll soon be 32 years old, these regressions can't be dismissed as random noise.

One bright side, however, is that even the 2017 Arrieta would have been a boon to Houston's rotation.


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Although the late addition of Verlander helped stabilize things in time for the postseason, Astros manager A.J. Hinch spent much of 2017 improvising with his rotation. He used 11 different starters, among whom Fiers had the biggest workload with only 153.1 innings.

Despite how things look on paper, it shouldn't be assumed that Hinch is out of the woods. Keuchel, McCullers, Morton and McHugh (if needed) all come with durability questions. 

Another bright side is that both Arrieta's recent track record and the qualifying offer he received from the Chicago Cubs should drive down his price.

Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported in March that Arrieta and super-agent Scott Boras were looking for something "along the lines" of Max Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals. Instead, he'll be lucky if he gets a four- or five-year deal worth half that.

Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Astros already have nearly $143.6 million projected on their books for 2018. That alone would shatter their $124.3 million Opening Day payroll from 2017 as their largest ever.

However, this isn't a wall between them and Arrieta. He figures to be much cheaper than fellow free-agent ace Yu Darvish, so he should therefore fit nicely into the club's plans to expand its payroll.

"We're probably going to have roughly a league-average payroll this year for the first time in a while, and I think that's going to continue to increase," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said in Februrary, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "And that helps. You need fuel to fuel the fire, and we've got plenty of resources right now."

The Astros can also afford the consequences tied to Arrieta's inevitable rejection of his qualifying offer. They didn't exceed the luxury tax in 2017, and they also receive revenue sharing, according to Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald. So, signing Arrieta would only cost them their third-highest pick in the 2018 draft.

There will, of course, be plenty of competition for Arrieta's services. But beyond the money and the golden opportunity to give some company to the 2016 World Series ring that he won with the Cubs, a few things could attract him to Houston.

One: The chance to return home and play for a team that employs one of his idols. The Plano, Texas, native has professed to being a fan of Nolan Ryan, who played nine seasons in Houston and now works for the Astros.

Two: The possibility that the Astros might do for his slider what they did for Verlander's slider.

As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported, the Astros welcomed Verlander by putting him in front of a high-speed camera that revealed a sub-optimal grip on his slider. One thing led to another, and the pitch gained devastating downward tilt to go with the high-80s velocity it already had.

Like so:

Including the postseason, opposing hitters managed just a .154 batting average against the 246 sliders that Verlander threw as an Astro.

Arrieta's slider is a different beast. Although he told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs in 2015 that he always uses the same grip, he can manipulate the spin to make it act like either a traditional slider with diving action or as a cutter with sharp glove-side run.

"I spin the ball the same almost every time," he said. "It's just grip pressure, effort on the pitch, all of that."

What's true either way, though, is that the slider doesn't loom as large in Arrieta's repertoire as it used to.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant, here's a look at how the usage and effectiveness (as measured by whiffs and "poor" contact) of Arrieta's slider has progressed over the last three seasons:

It peaked in usage in the first half of 2015 before finding a perfect equilibrium between usage and effectiveness in the second half of the year, when he went on an all-time great tear.

Ever since then, however, it's been a downhill ride for its usage and a mostly downhill ride for its effectiveness. Arrieta's overall effectiveness has paid the price.

Granted, this could be a case of the veteran trying to save his arm from the health risks associated with heavy slider usage. But since it's become slower and has, at times, also looked a lot flatter than it did at its peak, there are things Houston's toys might be able to help.

Even if all the Astros get in the end is something like the 2016 or 2017 version of Arrieta, they would still occupy the No. 3 slot in their rotation with an outstanding starter. At a time when good starters are increasingly difficult to come by, that alone would constitute a huge advantage.

And if the Astros managed to turn Arrieta back into an ace, their 2017 title likely wouldn't be their last.

                

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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