The best starting pitcher in the Astros rotation is…

Sorry, it’s not that simple. I’m not going to just answer that question straight out. What fun would that be?  Log in, read a headline, read a one-word answer? Bah. Print isn’t dead, and reading is infinitely superior to 30 second videos. So read, lazybones, and find out who the best starting pitcher is for the 2018 Houston Astros.

THE CASE FOR JUSTIN VERLANDER

Let’s be real. In this rotation, there’s only one pitcher who already has a clear view of the Hall of Fame. Justin Verlander is one of the greatest pitchers of this generation, and he’s not finished padding his résumé yet.

Verlander boasts a 3.42 career ERA and has a mantle overflowing with personal and team awards, including American League Rookie of the Year, A Cy Young Award, An American League Most Valuable Player Award, five Division Championships, three American League Championships, and a World Series ring.

Not enough to crown him? How about this? Since joining the Astros, the right-hander has been charged with zero losses in twelve starts, and boasts a 1.10 ERA with a 2.49 FIP.  His average strikeout rate with the Astros (11.6 K/9) is higher than any individual season prior to coming to Houston. His walk rate (1.4 BB/9) is lower than any individual season prior to coming to Houston.

In short, for a guy who was likely bound for the Hall of Fame before being traded to the Astros at age 34, he has been even better since, and by a clear margin.

This year, Verlander’s ERA sits at 1.13 after forty eight innings in seven starts.

Clearly, Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in the Astros’ rotation.

THE CASE FOR DALLAS KEUCHEL

If you spend any time at all in that stinking bubbling cesspool filled with every example of humanity’s worst tendencies to be horrible to each other known as Twitter, you can be forgiven for thinking that Dallas Keuchel is a horrible pitcher.

I mean, he isn’t Justin Verlander, and he doesn’t have an ERA under 2.00, so he’s trash, right? Trade him for a bag of spare parts, because that’s all he’s good for.

Laff.

Since his first start of the 2014 season, Keuchel has a 3.20 ERA in one hundred and eighteen major league starts – a lower ERA than any other pitcher currently in the Astros’ rotation.

Last season, Keuchel turned in a 2.90 ERA season, tied for 8th best in the Major Leagues (140 IP min.) with Chris Sale of the Red Sox, and almost fifty points lower than Verlander’s 3.36.

And yet, the Twitterati are freaking out because of Keuchel’s 3.98 ERA after only seven starts in 2018.

Let’s think back to 2013.  Now, let’s restate that. Astros fans are complaining about, and want to trade away, a starting pitcher who has an ERA under 4.00.  Which, yes, gives him the highest ERA in what is a historically special rotation so far. After seven starts. Calm down, for the love of Pete.

Keuchel’s own “I Love Me” Wall looks like Verlander’s:  Cy Young Award? Check. World Series ring? Check.

Fact is, Keuchel has been the most consistently excellent pitcher that the Astros have had since Roy Oswalt of the early ‘aughts.

Dallas Keuchel is the best pitcher in the Astros’ rotation.

THE CASE FOR CHARLIE MORTON

Unlike Verlander, Charlie Morton‘s potential wasn’t fully unlocked until midway through his first season with the Astros. In 2016, Morton (or “CFM” as he is colloquially known) was signed to an eyebrow-raising two-year $14 million deal by Houston. Eyebrow raising because the 6 foot 5 inch right hander had thrown only seventeen innings during the 2016 season.

He turned in the best season of his career in 2017 after lowering his release point, adding a cut fastball, and increasing use of his curve. And now in 2018, he has gone bonkers, turning in a 1.72 ERA in the first six starts, striking out an average of eleven batters per nine innings.

The man who famously closed out the 2017 World Series by throwing the four biggest innings of his career and of the franchise’s 56-year history has upped his average fastball velocity to over 97 mph this season, third highest in the major leagues, and at age 35 has established himself as a legitimate ace.

Charlie Effing Morton is the best pitcher in the Astros’ rotation.

THE CASE FOR GERRIT COLE

Name a pitcher who was drafted in the top two of the draft, pitched the entirety of his career with one team up north, was already a top of rotation ace, gathered Cy Young Award votes, was traded to the Houston Astros with a couple years remaining on his contract, and then became even ridiculously better.

No, we already talked about Verlander. This is a different guy. Deja vu, amirite?

When Gerrit Cole came over from the Pirates during the 2017-2018 offseason in exchange for a bunch of major-league-ready young talent, many folks predicted that he could flourish under the same system that improved Verlander, turned Keuchel into a Cy Young winner, helped unlock Morton’s potential, and turned Collin McHugh into a legit major league mid-rotation starter.

So what has Cole done as an Astro?

He has been the best pitcher in baseball.

He matched an Astros record with 61 strikeouts in April.

He has been so good that he has been accused of cheating, via subtweet, by a jealous former college teammate.

He pitched a one-hit, sixteen-strikeout complete game shutout versus the club with the best winning percentage in the National League.

No big deal. He leads major league pitchers in WAR, with 2.5. He leads the major leagues in FIP and xFIP (1.55 and 2.08). He’s sixth in ERA, with a 1.42. He is barely #2 in the majors in strikeouts, with nearly fourteen strikeouts per nine innings pitched.

Gerrit Cole is the best pitcher in the Astros’ rotation.

THE CASE FOR LANCE McCULLERS

Quick, name another pitcher who can throw twenty-four straight curveballs to the most prolific power hitting club during the waning moments of the American League Championship Series, and completely shut down the opponent?

Lance McCullers did that.

Performance has never been McCuller’s biggest enemy, but rather health. During his first four seasons in the major leagues, McCullers has overhauled his arsenal, and has kept getting better…and better…and better.

His career ERA of 3.61 belies his 3.13 FIP, the best among all of Astros’ starters since Lance came into the league in 2015, and it’s not close. He pitches with a unique approach, throwing far more breaking balls than fastballs, an approach usually only applied by knuckleballers, and batters just can’t hit his curve.

At only 24 years old, the best is ahead for McCullers, which is hard to fathom.

Outside of one stinkeroo start, McCullers has a 2.17 ERA while striking out over ten batters per nine innings. Electric stuff, a unique approach to pitching, and steadily improving…

Lance McCullers is the best pitcher in the Astros’ rotation.

THE “WEIRD, I DON’T SEE MY NAME” CATEGORY

But how about Brad Peacock, who had a 3.22 ERA and struck out eleven batters per nine innings while making 21 starts for the World Series winning 2017 Astros? Relegated to the bullpen in 2018, shouldn’t his name at least be on the ballot?

Or how about Collin McHugh, recovered from the doldrums of pitching coaches who had no idea how to use him, only to earn Cy Young award votes in 2015 and putting up a 3.64 ERA in 102 starts with Houston?

IN CONCLUSION

There are five legitimate candidates for “best starter on the 2018 Houston Astros” and two other guys who could concoct their own case, if they were actually in the rotation and had the chance to stand up to the current crop.

So figure it out for yourself.