Houston Astros: The Top 20 Pitchers in Franchise History
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The Astros had their worst season in franchise history this past season. Bad pitching certainly had a lot to do with that.
Yet, as the franchise celebrates 50 years (and only 50) in the National League this season, we can look back fondly on some great pitchers. Twenty seems like such an arbitrary place to cut it off, but when you look at the numbers, it makes a lot of sense.
It is often hard to compare eras, but sabermetrics allows us to do that through some advanced statistics. One of those statistics is called ERA+. It compares ERAs from different eras against the league average.
It allows for differences in era and differences in home ballparks. So, an Astro who enjoyed the spacious Astrodome in the 1970s can be compared to a pitcher that dealt with the band box that is Minute Maid Park.
Pitchers with ERA+s over 100 are considered to be better than the league average. Those with scores under 100 are below average. We took only pitchers with scores of 101 or higher. They had to pitch for either five years or amass 500 or more innings as Astros.
20. Darryl Kile
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So much of Kile's career can be filed under the "what could have been" category. He tragically died on June 22, 2002, during the prime of his career. As an Astro, Kile spent most of his career as an unrealized talent. He had the best curveball I have ever seen, and I've been watching baseball for 30 years.
Career Highlight: Led the Astros to the Central Division championship with a 19-7 record in 1997. All things considered, it would remain the best season of his career.
19. Wandy Rodriguez
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Rodriguez struggled for a few seasons early on, but beginning in 2008 he became one of the top 20 pitchers in all of baseball. Unfortunately, his won-loss records and ERAs have not reflected how well he has pitched. In some cases, he has been betrayed by the fielders behind him.
Career Highlight: Went 14-12 with a 3.02 ERA in 2009. To date, that is the only season where he has amassed 200 or more innings.
18. Larry Dierker
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Dierker is one of the more recognizable faces from the past in Houston. He served for more than 10 years as the television color commentator and then five seasons as the manager.
The local Society for American Baseball Researchers (SABR) chapter was named after him. Most local fans believe he is still the best manager in franchise history.
Career Highlight: Dierker became the club's first 20-game winner in 1969. The club stayed in contention into September despite a fairly thin lineup.
17. Joe Niekro
Niekro set the franchise record for wins with 144 and with Roy Oswalt out of town, he will likely hold onto that record for at least another five seasons. Niekro was not as good as his Hall of Fame brother, Phil, but he was darn good for a number of years.
Career Highlights: Won the one-game playoff in 1980 by shutting out the Dodgers. He won more than 20 games that season to lead perhaps the best starting rotation in Astros history.
16. Shane Reynolds
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Nobody got more out of his talent than Shane Reynolds. Reynolds never threw hard, but he put together good control with his split-fingered fastball to turn in several solid seasons in Houston.
His Astros career ended abruptly, but it probably ended at the right time. It allowed Astros fans to remember him as a good pitcher.
Career Highlight: Went 19-8 on the great 1998 team to lead the team in victories. This is a team that featured Jose Lima, Mike Hampton and Randy Johnson.
15. Mike Scott
Like a shooting star, Mike Scott shone brightly for a brief time and then fell back into obscurity. From about 1985 to 1989, there might not have been a better pitcher in baseball.
He was robbed of the Cy Young Award when they awarded the honor to a relief pitcher. Two Cy Youngs would have been noteworthy.
Career Highlight= Scott spent most of 1986 being unhittable and on one day in September, he was unhittable. The caveat was that his no-hitter clinched the division championship.
14. Ken Forsch
Won-loss records for relief pitchers are tough. Forsch was invaluable as a swingman for those great Astros teams from the late 1970s and 1980. While J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, and Nolan Ryan got the headlines for that 1980 team, Forsch set a career high (to that point) in innings pitched and managed six complete games.
Career Highlight= On April 7, 1979, Forsch hurled the sixth no-hitter in franchise history. Out of all of the Astros pitchers to do it, he might have been the most improbable. It was Forsch's first start of the season. What a way to open the year.
13. Don Wilson
A large part of being an Astros fan is playing the "what if" game. It ranks right up there with the billy goat and Curse of the Bambino.
In this case, what would have happened if Wilson had not tragically died? He was only 29 in 1974, so it is not out of the realm of possibility to think he could have been a part of that 1980 staff.
At the very least, he and Richard would have made a nice one-two punch throughout the latter 1970s.
Career Highlights: Wilson is still the only pitcher to have two career no-hitters as an Astro. The second came in 1969 the day after Jim Maloney of the Reds no-hit the Astros. According to the tale, Wilson charged into the Reds dugout the moment the game was over.
12. Danny Darwin
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His ERA+ puts him ahead of some folks with bigger names. Darwin was another of those swingmen who seem to have become a thing of the past.
Perhaps more than anything, fans will remember him as one of the key pieces from the 1986 NLCS team. He wasn't a front-line player, but he was a part of the depth that helped make it happen.
Career Highlight= Won the ERA title of the National League in 1990 with a 2.21 ERA.
11. Wade Miller
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Sometimes when you look back at the numbers, you come away surprised. I didn't realize that Miller had been this successful in Houston. For awhile, he and Roy Oswalt formed a formidable one-two punch, but injuries derailed his career.
Career Highlight= Miller established career highs in wins, innings and strikeouts to help Houston win the 2001 NL Central.
10. Mike Hampton
Mike Hampton's exit from Houston is shrouded in mystery. The club's official stance was that they didn't feel like they could sign him following his 2000 walk year.
However, there were whispers of something going on between him and some of the other players. Whatever the case, he was never quite the same after leaving Houston.
Career Highlight: Hampton's 22 wins in 1999 are still a franchise record.
9. Brad Lidge
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Are you getting tired of seeing great Astros in someone else's uniform? Lidge had one brilliant season in Philadelphia, but he made his hay in Houston.
Whether he lost an edge because of overwork or because of Pujols is open to debate, but before that moment, he was nearly unhittable.
Career Highlight: Helped lead the Astros to the NLCS in 2004 with 29 saves and a 1.90 ERA.
8. Joe Sambito
You can always tell the age of an Astros fan based on which team they get most nostalgic about. The older fans fell in love with the 1980 Astros and their great pitching.
The thirty somethings fell in love with the 1986 Astros. Younger fans obviously loved the 2004 and 2005 teams.
Sambito was a cult figure on the 1980 team. Closers didn't exist then, but he was as close as there was to it.
Career Highlight= Set career highs in innings, saves, wins and ERA in 1979. His 1.77 ERA and 90 innings probably won't be repeated in this era of specialization.
7. Andy Pettitte
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Pettitte had one disappointing season and two good ones while in Houston. He wanted to come back, but was rebuffed by ownership and then-GM Tim Purpura.
The source of the problem was the request for a second guaranteed season. Pettitte had arm problems at the time. We still will have the memories of his brilliant 2005 campaign.
Career Highlight: Pettitte's 17-9 record in 2005 was arguably the finest of his career, and the Astros needed every bit of it just to get to the playoffs.
6. Dave Smith
Dave Smith was one of the key bridges between that 1980 and 1986 team. While he blew the save that ended up costing the Astros a berth in the World Series in 1986, Smith made up for it with several seasons of effective relief.
Career Highlight= Held the Astros career saves record until Billy Wagner finally surpassed it in 2003.
5. Billy Wagner
There may never be a lefty who throws as hard as Wagner threw again. He reached as high as 101 on the gun and rarely used anything else.
Despite a limited repertoire, Wagner amassed more than 400 career saves when all was said and done. Some think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
Career Highlight: Eclipsed Dave Smith's franchise saves record in 2003.
4. J.R. Richard
Richard was a cross between Nuke Laloosh from Bull Durham and Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn from Major League for the first few seasons.
In 1976, he turned the corner and became the most dominant pitcher in the National League for four and a half seasons. Those seasons were magical and Houston fans are still talking about them all these years later.
Career Highlight: Set the National League record for strikeouts in a season in 1979 with 313. Curt Schilling eventually broke it in 1997 before Randy Johnson shattered it with 372.
3. Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan was the first million-dollar-a-season player and you could argue he was the best choice for the contract. He drew fans to the park in droves because he was a threat to throw a no-hitter every time out.
He led the league in ERA twice as an Astro. Few players had the kind of impact on a franchise without being a mega star.
Career Highlight= Led the National League with a 1.69 ERA in a strike-shortened 1981 campaign.
2. Roger Clemens
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I wanted to put Clemens No. 1 because he gave the Astros the kind of credibility they had never had. However, the scene above ultimately tells the rest of the story.
His career in Houston, Toronto and New York will forever be stained by the steroid allegations. Still, the results were staggering in his three seasons in Houston.
Career Highlight= Many would pick his final Cy Young campaign, but he was even better in 2005. He finished with a 1.87 ERA in 211 innings. The 1.87 ERA would be the lowest of his storied career.
1. Roy Oswalt
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Excluding Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte (who were in Houston for only three seasons), Oswalt led all Astros starters in winning percentage and ERA+. In fact, it isn't really even close in either category.
Oswalt was not as exciting to watch as Ryan or Richard, but he was easily more effective. Poor run support kept him from becoming the franchise record holder in victories.
Career Highlight: Won Game 6 of the 2005 NLCS to clinch the Astros' first and only NL pennant.