If you tuned in to a few select games in 2022, you may have come away thinking Cristian Javier was the best pitcher on the planet. On a June afternoon in New York and a November night in Philadephia, the 25-year-old flummoxed two of the best lineups in the league for six innings, allowing zero hits in both appearances, striking out a combined 22 hitters, and fronting the bulk of two combined no-hitters.
An impressive prospect who signed with the Houston Astros in 2015 as an international free agent, Javier’s career really began to blossom in 2022, when he tossed a career-high 148.2 innings with a 2.54 ERA, earning 3.4 fWAR in the process. Following his promising 2022 campaign, particularly his dazzling World Series outing, Javier has emerged as a popular pick to be one of the league’s best hurlers in 2023. A recent MLB.com article even tabbed him as a candidate for the American League Cy Young Award.
So, who will Javier be in 2023? In an Astros rotation with plenty of young talent but no longer possessing a bona fide superstar, like three-time Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, Javier seems likely to be a key cog in a young core of pitchers. Here, we’ll look into just how high his ceiling can be next year.
How He Got Here
When Javier broke into MLB during 2020’s shortened season, he possessed an intriguing pitching profile. Then 23 years old, the young pitcher leaned heavily on two offerings to get outs: his fastball and his slider. Working as both a starter and reliever for the Astros, he tossed the fastball 63% of the time, while opting for the slider at a 26.2% rate.
Though his reliance on just two pitches prompted some evaluators to project Javier as a multi-inning reliever, the strength of his arsenal buoyed an auspicious start to his career—he tossed a 3.48 ERA over 54.1 innings in his first foray into the majors. His early calling card? A fastball that boasted some of the best vertical movement in the league.
Cristian Javier, K'ing the Side. ? pic.twitter.com/zPbJy99d5Z
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 8, 2020
Quickly, Javier began to develop his fastball into the kind of pitch that provides an enviable bedrock to a powerful arsenal. Per Statcast, his fastball was worth -6 runs in 2020, but more importantly, it was the most vital pitch in a pitching profile that excelled at limiting hard contact. In his rookie season, both Javier’s xBA and HardHit% ranked in the top tenth percentile of MLB. After 12 total appearances in the regular season, it became clear that the young pitcher began to emerge as the latest Astros product to excel at limiting dangerous contact.
In 2021, the Astros were careful not to overwork Javier, deploying him 36 times but penciling him in as a starter only nine times. He continued to improve, upping his strikeout rate to 30.7%, raising it from 25.2% just one year prior. Across 101.1 innings, he hurled a 3.55 ERA and 4.43 FIP, which was an improvement from 2020, when his FIP was 4.94.
Though Javier’s heater was always a plus pitch, it didn’t start to generate gaudy strikeout totals immediately. An offering that comes out of Javier’s hand at average velocity but excels in its vertical movement versus average, it took time for the fastball to become a consistent putaway pitch. Across his three seasons in MLB, Javier has increasingly found a home for his fastball at the top of and above the strike zone, an adjustment that has powered his evolution into one of the better young pitchers in the game.
Once Javier began to pinpoint his rising fastball at the top of the zone (and often above it), the pitch separated itself from the pack. While the league average swinging strike rate on fastballs is around 9%, Javier’s adjustment in 2021 and 2022 allowed the fastball to soar past that, and that change mirrored an increase in strikeout rate over the two years, ultimately leading to an outstanding 33.2% K rate in 2022. The 2022 season was crucial for Javier in many respects; he posted a career-high in innings pitched, games started, and even a career-low in FIP at 3.16 — his first year under 4.
Javier’s 2022 Savant page reflects the makings of an ace, a pitcher who not only limits hard contact with the best of the league but also strikes out hitters with impressive efficiency. He’s in the 94th percentile or higher in xBA, xSLG, xERA, and K%.
Another vital piece of all of Javier’s success is his other trusted weapon: the slider. While the pitch and Javier’s approach to it have evolved over time, it has always been a useful option for him. A slower pitch than usual—Javier’s slider has fluctuated between 78 and 81 MPH while the league average is 84—the pitch misses bats because of its excellent horizontal movement.
Javier Baez can’t lay off Cristian Javier’s slider — so Cristian gives him 4 in a row!pic.twitter.com/ZldKYkbY3j
— Apollo Media (@ApolloHOU) September 14, 2022
Much like his fastball, Javier has tinkered with the slider as he figures out how to maximize his arsenal. He’s upped his zone rates for the slider dramatically over the years, making the offering a more consistent strike pitch. Between 2021 and 2022, he increased the horizontal break on the pitch by nearly five inches, moving from 10.7 to 15.1 inches of break, while barely sacrificing any velocity. While the highest swinging strike rate and CSW% for the slider came in 2021, the offering is now an above-average complement to his main weapon, the fastball — which it also happens to tunnel with quite nicely.
Cristian Javier, 80mph Slider and 95mph Elevated Fastball, Overlay pic.twitter.com/PnEAe2iMG9
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 3, 2022
Though we’ve mentioned Javier’s progression in innings thrown after his career-high total in 2022, a less heralded aspect of his profile is his walk numbers. With a career 3.64 BB/9, Javier’s walk totals are higher than a typical ace. For the sake of both fantasy players and Astros fans, he’ll need to trim that number if he wants to become a true ace. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy, though — his signature fastball accrues a ton of swing and misses because it jumps out of the strike zone, and if hitters start to lay off that pitch, Javier will need to adjust accordingly.
When Javier wasn’t throwing the fastball or slider in 2022, he opted for a curveball or changeup, each of which came in at 8% and 4% usage rates, respectively. Though the curveball has boasted impressive horizontal break numbers, the stars in Javier’s arsenal are decidedly the fastball and slider, as it remains to be seen whether or not he will diversify his pitch mix.
Though it’s clear the Astros’ young righty has the potential to become one of the league’s premier arms, a persistent question that has followed him is his heavy reliance on two pitches. In 2022, Javier threw his fastball or slider an overwhelming 87.6% of the time, meaning that in many at-bats, an opposing batter would never see his curveball or changeup. How likely is it that Javier could ascend to MLB’s elite with a somewhat limited arsenal?