The Astros’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Roy Oswalt (2001-10)
The wiry right-hander from Mississippi, a member of the gold medal-winning American baseball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, quickly leveraged his success to the majors, becoming the Astros’ ace for the next decade while taming Minute Maid Park’s hitter-friendly conditions in its early years.
Oswalt began his rookie year of 2001 as a reliever but was brought into the rotation in June, responding with a 12-2 record in 20 starts—setting him off on a path that would make him the National League’s winningest pitcher during the 2000s with 137 wins, against just 70 losses. He won 20 games in back-to-back seasons (2004-05), then followed that up with a 2.98 earned run average that led the NL in 2006. In the Astros’ run to the 2005 NL pennant, Oswalt figured prominently—winning three games and being named the NLCS MVP, allowing just two runs in 14 innings.
In an interleague game at Yankee Stadium in 2003, Oswalt initiated one of the strangest no-hitters recorded when he retired the side in order in the first inning but had to depart with a groin problem; five Houston relievers followed up and kept the Yankees hitless for the remaining eight innings.
Oswalt finally suffered his first losing season (6-12) with the Astros in 2010, through no fault of his own; his ERA was a fine 3.42 as the team barely averaged more than two runs of support per start. Seeing no immediate future for a depreciated Houston team, Oswalt requested a trade and got it, being sent to Philadelphia where he avoided his first losing season overall, winning seven of eight decisions to finish the year at 13-13.
J.R. Richard (1971-80)
Tall (6’8”) and intimidating with an electric fastball, Richard showed incredible promise and began to peak when, in 1980, his career was suddenly cut short by a massive stroke that nearly killed him.
In his very first start for the Astros, Richard startled the baseball world by tying the major league record for most strikeouts by a first-time pitcher with 15; three of those came against the great Willie Mays as Richard beat San Francisco, 5-3. Wildness on the mound kept him from securing a permanent spot on the Astros, but when he threw 33 scoreless innings at the Triple-A level in 1974, the Astros had to bring him back for keeps.
Richard was largely successful in spite of his reckless throwing habits. Three times he led the NL in walks (including a career-high 151 in 1976) and three times led the majors in wild pitches; he once threw a ten-inning shutout while walking ten. But with experience came adjustment, and Richard’s habit for walking began to wane—all while his strikeout totals began to climb. In 1978, he became the first NL right-hander since 1900 to strike out over 300 batters; a year later, he did it again, striking out a career-high 313 to go with a 2.71 ERA that led the majors.
In 1980, Richard was off to a sensational start, posting a 10-4 record and 1.90 ERA that led to a start at the All-Star Game. Shortly afterward, he began to experience nausea and numbness in his arm. The Astros were skeptical at first, but when Richard collapsed during a throwing workout several weeks later, it was discovered that he suffered a full-blown stroke. Returning to the mound was no longer a concern; saving his life was.
Richard recovered but encountered post-stroke symptoms such as dizziness and blurred vision. He attempted a comeback in the minors and even rejoined the Astros late in 1982, but never appeared; it was said that the Astros worried that the lingering effects of his stroke would make him a liability on the field.
Richard’s life after baseball became every bit as sad as the way his career ended. He lost his wife, his money and soon found himself living homeless under a highway overpass a few miles from the Astrodome. With help from former teammates and a conversion to Christianity, Richard was able to turn his life around.
Joe Niekro (1975-85)
Lesser known but as solidly talented as brother Phil, Joe Niekro also embraced the knuckleball midway through his career and put it to good use with the Astros.
Though he played for six other teams in a 22-year career, Niekro’s longest and most established tenure came in a ten-year stay at Houston, where he collected his only two 20-win performances of his career (back-to-back in 1979-80) and was the victor in 144 games overall.
Niekro enjoyed his finest moment in 1980 when, in a one-game playoff at Los Angeles to decide the NL West title, he threw a complete game, 7-1 victory that gave the Astros their first postseason berth in 19 years of existence. In the NLCS to follow, Niekro was even sharper—firing ten shutout innings before being removed in a scoreless game that ended in the Astros’ first-ever playoff win, a 1-0 decision over the Phillies in Game Three.
In the years to follow, Niekro remained a solid workhorse but was dealt away from the Astros at the right time, as his career hit a fadeout in 1988 well past the age of 40. Infamously, Niekro is best remembered for the moment in 1987 when, pitching for Minnesota, he was caught with an emery board in his pocket while pitching on the mound; he was suspended for ten games.
Mike Scott (1983-91)
Scott was no more than a common pitcher with little more than a good fastball when, after the 1984 season, Houston general manager Al Rosen called upon good friend Roger Craig, then the pitching coach for the world champion Detroit Tigers, to teach Scott the split-finger fastball. Apparently, Scott aced the lesson; using the splitter, he became a pitcher reborn.
Graduating from Craig’s class, Scott went from a 5-11 mark and 4.68 ERA to 18-8 and 3.29 for Houston—but he really turned it on a year later in 1986, lowering his ERA to a major league-best 2.22 and more than doubling his strikeout total to 306, all while hitters could only bat .186 against him. Scott put the ultimate stamp on the season when, facing his old guru Craig—now managing divisional rival San Francisco—he no-hit the Giants to clinch the NL West crown. In the NLCS against the cocky, favored Mets, Scott remained phenomenal; he tossed two complete game wins, allowing just a run on eight hits and a walk while striking out 19 in 18 innings, all while the Mets complained that Scott was scuffing the ball—amplifying accusations made earlier by others around the league including, ironically, Roger Craig. Nevertheless, Scott was named NLCS MVP, the first time a member of the losing side had copped the honor; he was also a slam-dunk choice for that year’s NL Cy Young Award.
Scott remained potent but more mortal in the years to follow, even winning a career-high 20 games and finishing runner-up in the vote for another Cy in 1989. But shoulder injuries ensued, and in 1991 he lasted just two games before being shelved; it would be the last time he pitched.
Nolan Ryan (1980-88)
Leaving his Herculean numbers behind with the Angels in Anaheim, the Ryan Express charged to Houston—25 miles from his childhood home of Alvin, Texas—and was effective in a relatively minimal manner, as the dominance he carried with the Angels and, later, the Texas Rangers, seemed to elude him with the Astros. Ryan was, in fact, often considered a secondary ace in the Astros rotation while Niekro and Scott grabbed more of the headlines.
Wins were hard to come by for Ryan in an Astros uniform, even as his ERAs showed improvement thanks to a reduced rate of walks, which dogged him with the Angels. Ryan’s frustration in getting into the win column was most painfully illustrated in 1987, when he won the NL ERA crown at 2.76 despite an atrocious 8-16 record. Clearly, a lack of run support was to blame—but also by this time, the Astros were hardly inclined to let Ryan finish what he started; after averaging 20 complete games per year with the Angels, Ryan averaged four a season for the Astros. In that bittersweet 1987 campaign, Ryan didn’t go the distance once.
Still, Ryan forged his share of accomplishments while in Houston. He won his only two career ERA titles with the Astros, including a career-low 1.69 mark in 1981—the year he also penned his only no-hitter for Houston, in late September against the eventual world champion Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1987, at age 40, he struck out 11.50 batters per nine innings of work—the highest recorded mark in major league history, one he’d reset a few years later playing for Texas before Randy Johnson came along.
Houston Astros' Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Astros, decade by decade.
The Astros' Five Greatest Hitters: A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Astros' Five Greatest Games: A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Astros' history.
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