July 22, 2024

How Astros starter Ronel Blanco has kept the injury-plagued team from sinking

In the third inning of his first exhibition game as Houston Astros general manager, Dana Brown made a decision that would save the 2024 season.

This was February 2023, four weeks into Brown’s new job. He knew the headline names — the Astros were reigning World Series champions — but was eager to study the team’s depth. Sitting in on a broadcast with Todd Kalas, the Astros’ play-by-play man, Brown was intrigued by the big right-hander who fanned the New York Mets’ Alex Ramirez, Luis Guillorme and Tim Locastro in succession.

It was Ronel Blanco, and Brown thought he was miscast as a reliever. He said as much on the air, and called the team’s pitching coaches into his office after the game.

“Hey, let’s try to make Blanco a starter,” Brown said he told them. “He’s got clean actions, he’s got good stuff and he’s a big, physical guy. We can always pull the plug on it if it doesn’t look right.”

Blanco stayed plugged in as a starter, and now he’s at full capacity. He’ll enter Wednesday’s start in Toronto with an 8-3 record and a 2.49 ERA in a team-high 90 1/3 innings, numbers that should make him an All-Star when rosters are announced on Sunday. Other Houston starters have been inconsistent or injured, but Blanco’s steady, standout work has kept the team from sinking.

“He’s been an anchor in our rotation,” Brown said. “With all of our guys going down, without him, we’d be in trouble.”

Brown spoke in the Citi Field dugout last weekend in New York, where the Astros took a series from the Mets to finish June at 17-8, the majors’ best record for the month. Despite losing starters Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and J.P. France to season-ending surgeries — and being without Justin Verlander (neck soreness) for the last three weeks — the Astros’ starters had a 3.14 ERA from May 22 through the end of June, the lowest in the majors in that stretch.

For Blanco, 30, it’s the first time he’s brought his otherworldly offseason performances into the regular season. In the last three winters, with the Estrellas in the Dominican Republic, he’s allowed one earned run in 47 2/3 innings. That’s a 0.19 ERA, even better than his 0.24 career mark in spring training.

“He’s always been the best pitcher on the field in spring training,” pitching coach Josh Miller said. “He made our opening day roster the two seasons prior to this, in our bullpen, just because of how dominant he was in spring. Then we get into the season, and I don’t want to say the foot comes off the gas or the hitters catch up, but he didn’t really carry it over. And this year he has.”

He’s done it because of his changeup. The pitch can take a long time to master — many of the greats never do — and Blanco was already a late bloomer. He signed for $5,000 at age 22, ancient to many scouts for Dominican players, and while he got by as a reliever with mostly a fastball and slider, Blanco hardly distinguished himself.

“He always had the work ethic, but I just thought he was another righty out of the pen — a little more erratic, didn’t throw as many strikes,” said outfielder Chas McCormick, a teammate at several stops in the minors. “In ’20 and ’21, I thought he was going to be a fringe guy; we were kind of calling him up and sending him down. I did not think he’d ever be this All-Star caliber, this dominant, this lights out — at all. Now he knows how to paint, and he’s very, very strong.”

Under former international scouting director Oz Ocampo, the Astros made a habit of signing older prospects from Latin America. It was a classic market inefficiency: The industry tended to reject international prospects who did not sign as soon as they were eligible, at 16. Those players then commanded lower bonuses.

“In the Dominican Republic, age is almost more important than talent,” Blanco said through an interpreter. “Some scouts see your age and almost throw you off to the side, like you’re too old. It was a blessing from God that (scout Francis) Mojica was able to give me the opportunity to be here.”

Mojica and the Astros noticed Blanco at a camp that featured Julio Rodríguez, now the star center fielder for Seattle who would sign for $1.75 million. But while Rodríguez was the draw, there was much to like about Blanco, the soft-spoken righty who washed cars part-time in his hometown of Santiago.

He had a good arm — his fastball touched 95 mph at the time, Blanco said — and a pitcher’s frame: 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds when he signed in 2016, and 50 pounds heavier now. The strength helped Blanco hold up as a starter last season (seven starts for Houston, 13 for Triple-A Sugar Land), but he needed to use his full arsenal to make a breakthrough.

That meant trusting his changeup.

“I would use it in the minors and it would get swing-and-miss, but I didn’t use it with a lot of frequency,” Blanco said. “I used it more in winter ball last season; that’s one of the instructions I was given. I think the confidence in using it more, that’s what’s made it a better pitch.”

Blanco did not alter the grip, he said, but he stopped trying to be too fine with the pitch. His belief in the changeup grew as he worked on it, and the pitch has been a revelation. Through Sunday, no MLB starter who has thrown as many changeups as Blanco had generated as meager an opponents’ average. He’s used the pitch 379 times, and opponents have hit .163 off it.

“We knew the fastball was there, and he had a pretty good slider,” manager Joe Espada said. “When he added that changeup in spring training, he changed the way we viewed him as an overall package.”

Blanco made his final spring start at Minute Maid Park on March 26, against the Astros’ Triple-A team. Earlier in the day, he’d been with his wife, Yanissa, for the birth of their baby daughter. With Verlander on the injured list with shoulder inflammation, a rotation spot was still open. Blanco wanted the start, worked into the fifth inning, then learned on the bench from Espada that the job was his.

“Double blessings,” Blanco said.

Another would follow six days later, when Blanco no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays in his first start of the season. His stuff was so overwhelming that teammates grew superstitious before he was halfway done.

“I was sitting there in the fourth inning like, ‘He’s got a shot to do it, his pitch count is good,’” starter Hunter Brown said. “I wasn’t leaving my seat. I didn’t get up to get a new water or anything. It was awesome.”

Blanco finished his gem in 105 pitches, then worked 5 2/3 innings in his next start before the Rangers finally got a hit. His streak of 44 outs before allowing a hit is the longest to start a season since 1893, when baseball established 60 feet, 6 inches as the distance from the mound to the plate.

It was no fluke. Blanco still can be wild, but he’s very hard to hit: Through Monday, he was tied for sixth in the AL in walks but first in opponents’ average, at .171. He served a 10-game suspension in May after umpires found rosin on his glove — Blanco sweats prodigiously and said the rosin had mixed with sweat — but in seven starts since, his ERA is 2.93.

The issue now is how the Astros manage the next three months. Verlander is not close to returning — he’s just now resumed playing catch — and the Astros have already dipped into their depth. Dana Brown almost certainly must find another starter before the trading deadline.

As he searches, the All-Star Game should be a showcase for a hunch that paid off — though the Astros might prefer that Blanco gets a break. They’ve relied on him to revive their playoff hopes, but the innings are stacking up: he’s on pace to surge past his career high of 125 1/3 last season between the minors and majors.

“He is a big strong guy, definitely does his work between starts — but yeah, I think it’s a concern for everybody,” Miller said. “You don’t want to run a guy into the ground. He’s been a force for us this year, and hopefully he keeps it up. Obviously, we need him to.”

(Top photo of Ronel Blanco: Tim Warner / Getty Images)