THE ASTROS ALL-TIME TEAM - ROTATION

Starter #1: J.R. Richard

(c) Houston Astros
Seasons: 1971-80
107 wins, 3.15 ERA, 1493 K

Key comments:
"What a dominating talent. A real treat to watch once he harnessed his control."

"The most dominating and consistent pitcher in franchise history. "

"His 100+ mph fastball, coupled with his 6' 8" frame, was too much for most hitters to overcome"

Starter #2: Nolan Ryan

(c) Houston Astros
Seasons: 1980-88
106 wins, 3.13 ERA, 1866 K

Key comments:
"Capable of fanning 15+ and/or tossing a no hitter every start."

"He became a great pitcher when he joined the Astros because he found a way to control his curveball and get it over for strikes consistently. "

"His arrival in 1980 was met with joyous celebration"

Starter #3: Mike Scott

(c) Houston Astros
Seasons: 1983-91
110 wins, 3.30 ERA, 1318 K

Key comments:
"Was never more confident the Astros would win than I was when Scotty took the mound in 1986. "

"With the split finger, Mike was virtually unhittable."

"The franchise’s only Cy Young Award winner."

Starter #4: Larry Dierker

(c) Houston Astros
Seasons: 1964-76
137 wins, 3.28 ERA, 1487 K

Key comments:
"The first really great pitcher to be connected with the Astros"

"Smartest pitcher in Astros history. He ruled in 1969."

"Amazing stuff and almost immeasurable poise in one so young. "

Starter #5: Joe Niekro

(c) Houston Astros
Seasons: 1975-85
144 wins, 3.22 ERA, 1178 K

Key comments:
"His back-to-back 21-11 and 20-12 seasons in 1979 and 1980 are arguably the two best consecutive seasons any Houston starting pitcher has ever had. "

"The all-time winningest Astros pitcher"

"Joe's career took off when he made the knuckleball his primary pitch."

Other mentions : Don Wilson, Mike Hampton, Roy Oswalt, Bob Knepper

Full comments:

Gene Elston: - J.R. Richard - Nolan Ryan - Larry Dierker - Don Wilson - Mike Hampton

Andy Tomczeszyn:
J.R. Richard, Larry Dierker, Don Wilson, Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan. I hate that this list leaves off Mike Scott, but he really wasn't good enough long enough. Also conspicuous by his absence would be Mike Cuellar, but he only played four seasons in Houston. But these are 5 of the top 7 in wins, strikeouts and ERA. In order, Richard was the most dominant pitcher of his generation. Dierker was the first really great pitcher to be connected with the Astros. Wilson was masterful, and tragically troubled. Niekro is the all-time winningest Astros pitcher and Ryan is of course, the strikeout king.

Bob Hulsey:
1) J.R. Richard (R): What a dominating talent. A real treat to watch once he harnessed his control.
2) Joe Niekro (R): Putting Niekro between two flamethrowers makes him even tougher to hit.
3) Mike Scott (R): From 1986-1989 he could be untouchable.
4) Mike Hampton (L): The only 22-game winner in team history and quite a hitter too.
5) Larry Dierker (R): Can't have an All-Astros team without Dierk, could you?

Michael Nash:
1. J.R. Richard. The single scariest thing I can imagine in sports is facing this guy when he was 20 years old. The single most difficult thing I can imagine is trying to hit him when he was 28.
2. Nolan Ryan. An 8-16 record hung on Ryan in 1987 is the biggest embarassment I can think of for an Astros team.
3. Mike Scott. Was never more confident the Astros would win than I was when Scotty took the mound in 1986. Ask the New York Mets.
4. Joe Niekro. 5. Larry Dierker

Bill McCurdy:
1. J.R. Richard: Nobody did it better. The most feared pitcher in big league history.
2. Mike Scott: With the split finger, Mike was virtually unhittable.
3. Larry Dierker: Smartest pitcher in Astros history. He ruled in 1969.
4. Nolan Ryan: The Hall of Famer only got better with age. Too bad McMullen didn’t see it.
5. Bob Knepper: Crafty; intelligent, like the others I’ve chosen; great ground ball outs man.

Jeff Burk:
1. Mike Hampton. 2. Nolan Ryan. 3. Don Wilson. 4. J.R. Richard. 5. Mike Scott
The Astrodome’s strong park effects as well as the extreme difference in run levels between the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s on one hand and the 1990s on the other hand makes the evaluation of Astros pitchers challenging. Adjusting ERA for park and league indicates that the five best run-preventing starters in Astros history with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched are Hampton (ERA+ 119), Ryan (ERA+ 110), Wilson (ERA+ 110), Richard (ERA+ 108), and Scott (ERA+ 107). Ken Forsch (ERA+ 107) is comparable to Scott: both threw no-hitters, but Scott pitched more innings and is the franchise’s only Cy Young Award winner. Mark Portugal was considerably effective in his four seasons with the Astros (ERA+ 109), but his tenure was half as long as most of these pitchers.

Greg Lucas:
1. Larry Dierker-- for his years and numbers he is solid
2. J.R. Richard- took him a while but before the stroke was most feared in baseball
3. Mike Scott- for two or three years was the hardest to handle in the NL
4. Joe Niekro- just look at how many games he won as an Astro
5. Nolan Ryan- capable of fanning 15+ and/or tossing a no hitter every start. I put him as the #5 starter because he was not a CG man much of his Astro career (Dick Wagner wouldn’t let him, but he still didn’t go as deep as the others)
Toughest calls... not including Don Wilson. He had a 3.15 ERA in nine years with the Astros. Dying before his 30th birthday no doubt cost him a shot at #1 Astro all time. Won-Loss comparison with Ryan in same ballpark, but Nolan was more spectacular. Niekro was never spectacular, but he won games--still the winningest Astro.

Darrell Pittman:
#1: J.R. Richard. In his prime, no pitcher of his era was more dominating than J.R. His 100+ mph fastball, coupled with his 6' 8" frame, was too much for most hitters to overcome, especially if they wore the hated Dodger uniform. At that time, J.R. Richard was the most feared pitcher in the game since Bob Gibson. The date of his career-ending stroke, July 30, 1980, is one of the darkest days in Houston baseball history. Oddly, the ballclub has yet to retire his jersey.
#2: Nolan Ryan. Except for the 1969 Mets, and the 1980 and 1986 Astros, Nolan played the remainder of his amazing 27-year career with bad or mediocre ballclubs, and still got 5714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters. He pitched the fifth of those no-hitters for the Astros on September 26, 1981. Coming to his hometown from the Angels via free agency as baseball's first "Million Dollar Man", his arrival in 1980 was met with joyous celebration, while his departure via free agency to the Texas Rangers (where he would pitch two more no-nos) was met with universal fan outrage, as then owner John McMullen groomed the team payroll, readying the club for sale.
#3: Joe Niekro. Niekro was the first and only back-to-back 20-game winner the Astros have ever had, yet always labored in the shadow of older brother and HOF'er Phil.
#4: Mike Scott. Salvaging a sagging career after pitching for the Mets, Scott found new life as a split-finger fastballer. In 1986, after the tutelage of Roger Craig, he won the NL Cy Young award, and no-hit the Giants to win the NL West for the Astros.
#5: Roy Oswalt. No NL rookie pitcher was feared more than Roy Oswalt. His utter lack of fear of opposing hitters and his composure on the mound bodes well for the Astros in the future.

Ray Kerby:
1. J.R. Richard - the most dominating and consistent pitcher in franchise history. There's really no other way to describe his presence and accomplishments while wearing an Astros uniform. Four consecutive seasons with 18+ wins, an ERA title, two 300K seasons... the sky seemed the limit before his career-ending stroke.
2. Nolan Ryan - had his best years with the Angels and a finishing kick with the Rangers, but Ryan spent more seasons with the Astros than any other team. Consistently a high-strikeout, low-ERA pitcher, Ryan's legacy in Houston suffers from the poor run support he received.
3. Don Wilson - repeat after me: "Don Wilson is the most underrated star in franchise history." When he was "on", there has never been a more dominating force in an Astros uniform than Wilson -- not even the great J.R. Richard. By the time Wilson suddenly passed away at age 29, he had already amassed over 100 wins with bad teams and to this day holds team marks in strikeouts and no-hitters.
4. Mike Scott - resurrected his career with the split-finger fastball and promptly put together a five-year stretch of pitching unmatched by any Astro not named J.R. Richard. In his Cy Young season in 1986, Scott single-handedly pitched the Astros to the brink of the World Series.
5. Joe Niekro - pitching in the shadow of his brother Phil, Joe's career took off when he made the knuckleball his primary pitch. Capping a solid career with back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1979 and 1980 and an excellent 1982 campaign cements Niekro's position as one of the best hurlers in franchise history.

John Lauck:
The sole criterion I used to rank these pitchers 1 through 5 was how confident they made me feel of an Astros victory on the day or night they pitched, whether they were pitching for a bad ball club or a good one.

1. J.R. Richard--As the song goes, he was a strugglin’ man early in his career, but when he finally got that slider under control from 1975 through midseason 1980, he was awesome. Others have won more games in their Astro careers, but no one--not Ryan, not Scott, not Oswalt--was as dominant on the hill as Richard was. The Dodgers of that era--Garvey, Cey, Baker, Buckner, Reggie Smith--never even touched him. I mentioned Cedeno’s ankle injury in the 1980 NLCS earlier, one of two significant injuries the Astros sustained that season. The other injury was Richard’s stroke after the All-Star break, which effectively ended his career. If the fates had been kinder and Cedeno and Richard had stayed healthy, a World Series banner would have been hung in Houston for that year. Neither the Phillies nor the Royals would have beaten the Astros in the league playoffs or the Series.

2. Larry Dierker--Amazing stuff and almost immeasurable poise in one so young. Dierker was, in 1969, Houston’s first twenty-game winner, and he pitched on three good teams from 1972 to 1974, but I often wondered what his career would have been like if some of those other teams from 1965 to 1968 had been as good as the later ones. Dierker had a fine fastball, a great curve, and exceptional command of both pitches. He lacked the lower-leg strength of his great contemporary, Tom Seaver of the Mets, and developed arm trouble that cut short his career, but for a long while, Dierker was every bit as good as that Hall-Of- Fame pitcher. No matter how rough the times might have been for the Astros during the years Dierker pitched for them, when he stepped out on that mound, the Astros had a sixty percent chance to win, and that’s all any of us as fans could have asked.

3. Mike Scott--I remember listening to an Astros’ game in Lubbock one Sunday afternoon in early 1984, resisting the pleasant temptation to nod off to sleep on the bed but also thinking, “Hey, this Scott fellow is pretty good!” Houston had only recently picked Scott up from the New York Mets, but despite some early good work for the Astros, he was on the verge of calling it a career until Roger Craig taught him the splitter. Scott improved in 1985, as did the Astros as a team, but I daresay no one predicted the kind of year Scott and the Astros were to have in 1986 (a division title, with Scott winning the NL Cy Young Award with an 18-10 record) or the kind of dominating career Scott would go on to have as an Astro hurler. Scott regularly endured accusations that he doctored the ball, but if he did so, I never saw evidence of it. Scott already threw hard before Craig got hold of him; the diving action of the splitter just intensified the effect of a fastball that some batters couldn’t have hit even with normal action on it. There were times, it is true, when the splitter didn’t split. When they happened, Scott was hit as hard as anybody, but from 1985 through 1990, those times were rare. As an indicator of how dominant, how game-altering Scott could be, let me remind you I said bluntly a moment ago that, given a healthy J.R. Richard and Cesar Cedeno, Houston would have won the 1980 World Series. Such is my respect for the 1986 Mets that I cannot make a similar statement about what would have happened if Houston had been able to force a Game Seven of that NLCS; but, baby, with Scott on the mound, I would have liked their chances.

4. Joe Niekro--I really enjoyed watching Niekro pitch because he was more than a knuckleball pitcher. He had started out as a conventional fastball-curveball pitcher with the Cubs and had gotten whacked around like that until his brother Phil taught him the knuckler. That oddball pitch was just the thing that made his otherwise ordinary stuff almost impossible to handle. The knuckleball is tough enough to deal with as a hitter when you know it’s coming; but when you faced Niekro, you were never certain of anything. You might get the knuckleball; you might not. If the knuckleball itself didn’t tie you up in knots, Niekro’s change of speeds off the fastball certainly would. He was tough, really tough. His back-to-back 21-11 and 20-12 seasons in 1979 and 1980 are arguably the two best consecutive seasons any Houston starting pitcher has ever had. Niekro, alas, did scuff the ball (an AL ump confiscated an emery board from his hip pocket when he pitched at the end of his career with the Yankees), but there wasn’t near the fuss over Niekro in his heyday with the Astros that there was with Scott.

5. Nolan Ryan--Just about the time Ryan signed with the Astros in 1980, some yahoo manager somewhere sneered that Ryan was nothing more than a .500 pitcher. Although the comment was disparaging, there was some truth to it. Ryan was dadgum near a .500 pitcher with the California Angels. He was often untouchable on the nights when his fastball and curve were both working, striking out a bunch and walking a bunch, too. But Ryan, whether by his own efforts or by the help of the coaching staff or both, went beyond mere goodness during his Houston days. He became a great pitcher when he joined the Astros because he found a way to control his curveball and get it over for strikes consistently. He cut down the number of walks he gave in a game, becoming much more of a student of what pitch to throw in what count, and where to throw it.

To say as I have said that J.R. Richard and Mike Scott were the most dominating Astros pitchers I have ever seen is not to suggest that Ryan wasn’t dominant in his games. He often was. No one who saw him fan 14 Phillies on a Sunday afternoon in the Dome or who saw his fifth career no-hitter in September of 1981 against the Dodgers would suggest otherwise. But, in my mind, at least, there was always some doubt when Ryan took the mound. “Is he going to have the curveball today, or not?” I never had such a question with the other four members of the Astros’ rotation.

There is one other thing concerning Ryan that colors my attitude toward him-- perhaps unjustly so, but it is there, nevertheless: his lack of success in the playoffs as an Astro. It was Ryan on the hill in the top of the eighth with a 5- 2 lead in Game Five of the 1980 NLCS, six outs away from the World Series, a lead he and the bullpen inexcusably lost. With another trip to the NLCS on the line, it was Ryan on the hill in Game Five of the 1981 Division Playoff against the Dodgers in LA being shut out by ex-Astro Jerry Reuss. It was Ryan who lost Game Two of the 1986 NLCS at home in the Dome after Mike Scott had won Game One; it was Ryan who lost Game Five of that epic struggle, 2-1, pitching one of the best, bravest, most pressure-filled games of his life, two days after Mike Scott had drawn the Astros back even in the series at two games apiece.

Yet, severe as these doubts and criticisms are, to deny Ryan a place as an all-time Astro great would be absurd. He is the greatest strikeout pitcher in the history of the game by a margin almost inconceivably vast. He lasted 27 seasons and won 324 games (106 of them for Houston), with seven no-hitters, throwing as hard consistently over all of those years as any man has ever thrown, and he shattered forever the idea that he was just a .500 pitcher. He had, in effect, three extraordinary careers for three different teams, each of which may claim him as one of its own. But Ryan came to full maturity as a pitcher in a Houston uniform, and it was in Houston that his career began to take on, both in longevity and productivity, the near-mythic stature it will hold for as long as the game of major league baseball is played and remembered.