HomeTeamsAstrosRonel Blanco Continues To Shine For The Astros

Ronel Blanco Continues To Shine For The Astros

The Astros started the season desperate for starting pitching. Ace Justin Verlander suffered a shoulder injury right as spring training started. He returned to the starting rotation on April 19th, getting the victory by throwing six innings of two-run ball against the Washington Nationals in our nation’s capital. José Urquidy injured his elbow in spring training as well, but is expected to return to the club at the end of May. Then, Framber Valdez got diagnosed with elbow inflammation and landed on the injured list (IL) on April 9th. He returned to the rotation this past Sunday against the Colorado Rockies in Mexico City, throwing five innings of two-run ball and notching six strikeouts, getting the win. Cristian Javier landed on the IL on April 14th with neck discomfort. He made a rehab start for the Astros’ AA-affiliate, the Corpus Christi Hooks, this afternoon—throwing three and a third innings, allowing three hits and three runs, while striking out three batters. Javier should rejoin the rotation sometime this upcoming week. It’s been known that Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers have been hurt and are gradually ramping up their recovery process. Luis Garcia underwent Tommy John surgery last May and is expected back sometime later this season. Also last year, Lance McCullers underwent surgery on his right forearm; it’s believed that he’ll be able to return about midseason as well.

With all these injuries to the Astros’ starting rotation, who’s been the lone consistent starter this year? Enter 30-year-old Ronel Blanco. Blanco, entering just his third year with the ball club, has been pitching incredibly for the Astros this year. His story is just as incredible. In 2016, when he was 22 years old, he signed with the Astros as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic. After spending six years steadily making his way up through the minor leagues, Blanco made his major league debut out of the bullpen for the Astros in 2022. He pitched in only seven major league games that year, and shuttled between the majors and minors as well in 2023. He got called up that year during a time in the Astros’ schedule when the club played seventeen games in a row. He made his first career start in that span, striking out five and letting up two runs in an Astros’ victory against the Los Angeles Angels in early June. In 2023, Blanco appeared in 17 games, making seven starts. He went 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA and a 94 ERA+. He was worth only 0.2 Wins Above Replacement (in which an average player would be worth 0 WAR) that year.

This year, Blanco has made the most of his opportunity in the starting rotation. He shocked the baseball world by throwing MLB’s first no-hitter of the year in his first start of the season against the Toronto Blue Jays at home. He recorded seven strikeouts and only allowed two baserunners; both reached on walks. This also gave the Astros their first victory as they started off the season 0-4. So far this year, Blanco has thrown 38.2 innings, notching 36 strikeouts, a 0.96 WHIP, and a 2.09 ERA, good for an impressive ERA+ of 178. He’s only allowed a .158 batting average against, as hitters have an OPS of only .507 against him. All this makes him second on the team in WAR with 1.8, behind only right fielder Kyle Tucker’s 1.9. Blanco has received great run support, as the offense has supplied him with more than five runs in four of his six starts. He’s also pitching deep into games, recording five quality starts (going six or more innings and allowing three or fewer runs) so far this season. He’s accounted for nearly half of the Astros’ quality starts this season, as the Astros have 11 quality starts in total.

As a unit, much like the Astros’ bullpen, the Astros’ starting rotation has struggled mightily to start the year. Their starting pitching entered Saturday’s matchup against the Seattle Mariners with the second-worst ERA in the AL (4.90), third-fewest innings pitched (161.2), and fifth-most runs allowed (90). Not only that, they’ve conceded the most walks (79) and recorded the third-fewest strikeouts (150) in the AL. Opponents are hitting Astros’ starters at a .258 clip, as they’ve recorded the highest WHIP in the AL (1.47).

A lot of these pitching troubles start in the first inning for the Astros. They’ve started games by letting up a crooked number early on, causing the offense to press for runs the rest of the game. In 32 total innings, the Astros hold MLB’s second-worst ERA in the first inning at 9.84. In the first inning, they’ve given up the most hits in the MLB (48), the second-most runs (35), and the second-most walks (19). The Astros are allowing way too many baserunners to start off games, as the team holds the major’s second-worst WHIP in the first inning at 2.09. Opponents are also hitting a robust .350 against the Astros in the first frame of the game.

So how has Blanco been so successful for the Astros this year? It starts with his pitch selection. Blanco has a five-pitch repertoire. He throws a four-seamer, changeup, slider, cutter, and curveball. Of those five, he’s relied heavily on a mixture of his four-seamer, changeup, and slider. These three pitches have been virtually unhittable so far this year with a batting average against of .171 on the fastball, .128 on the changeup, and .143 on the slider. The only pitch batters appear to hit with regular consistency is his cutter (.375 batting average against), which he only throws 6.4% of the time anyway.

Last year, despite a small sample size of 52 innings pitched, his four-seamer got hit pretty consistently, as Blanco let up 24 hits in 70 at-bats for a .343 batting average against. Batters were averaging a whopping 95.6 mph exit velocity off of his four-seamer in 2023. This was in part because Blanco had trouble locating his four-seamer anywhere but the heart of the plate. This year, he’s been able to consistently pepper the top part of the strike zone with his four-seamer, resulting in batters whiffing on this pitch 24% of the time.

Earlier in the year, I listened to one of Ronel Blanco’s starts on the radio and color commentator Steve Sparks remarked that he didn’t know what Blanco’s strikeout pitch was (and iterated that he didn’t know if Blanco himself knew what his strikeout pitch was). After six starts, it appears that his strikeout pitch is his changeup, as he’s racked up 20 strikeouts in 53 plate appearances. (His next best strikeout pitch is his four-seamer, as he’s recorded 10 strikeouts in 49 plate appearances.) He’s been able to consistently locate his changeup down and off the plate against hitters. This is especially impressive because Blanco hardly relied on his changeup last season, only throwing it 9% of the time. Last year, he heavily relied on his slider and four-seamer, as he used his slider 48.6% of the time and his four-seamer 40.2% of the time. This year, he’s throwing his four-seamer 37.3% of the time, his changeup 31.4% of the time, and his slider only 20.8% of the time.

When Blanco is not striking out batters, he’s inducing soft contact at the plate. Opposing batters have just an 86.8 mph exit velocity against him. Opposing batters are hitting ground balls at a 43.9% clip, a 9% increase for Blanco from last season. He’s also not allowing hitters to hit line drives, as his line drive percentage has plummeted to 10.2%, a monumental 16% decrease from last season. Hitters are not able to get the barrel on the ball, as they’ve squared up Blanco’s pitches only 4.1% of the time. Blanco’s expected batting average is .179 (placing in the top 7% of the major leagues) and his expected slugging percentage is only .284 (placing in the top 10% of the major leagues).

The Astros expect reinforcements to their starting rotation over the next couple of weeks with Javier and Urquidy rejoining the Astros. When McCullers and Garcia rejoin the club midseason, the Astros’ starting rotation will finally be an embarrassment of riches. The way Blanco has pitched so far this season it feels pretty unlikely the Astros would demote him to the bullpen. What McCullers and Garcia’s return means for Blanco’s spot in the rotation remains uncertain. What is certain is that Blanco has firmly established himself as a major league starting pitcher.


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