Hitting what Cristian Javier has been throwing has never been easy for Midwest League batters.
Lately, it’s been next to impossible.
Rotating between starting and relief roles for the Quad-Cities River Bandits, the 6-foot-1 right-hander has become one of the more dominant pitchers in the league.
Javier has recorded 35 strikeouts over 19 innings in his last four outings, leaving him among the Midwest League leaders with 65 strikeouts in 39 innings of work this season.
"I have been attacking the zone, going after hitters, and I have been able to strike out a lot of people," Javier said, speaking through interpreter Rafael Pena.
"It has been a good start to the season, but I know I must keep working. It is still early."
Javier is in his second season with the River Bandits, but the 21-year-old from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, returned to Quad-Cities this season better prepared to face the challenges presented by Midwest League hitters.
He spent the offseason at home, working at the Astros complex there to develop consistency in his change-up.
The results of that work can be found in the statistics.
Opponents hit .195 against Javier in the eight appearances he made for the River Bandits last season, compiling a 2-0 record with a 2.39 ERA.
This May, opponents hit .168 against Javier, and through nine appearances with Quad-Cities, he has a 2-1 record and a 1.85 ERA while allowing an average of 1.1 walks and hits per inning.
The experience Javier gained during late-season and playoff appearances with a River Bandits team that won the Midwest League championship last year has proven invaluable.
"I feel good about what I learned here last year," he said. "It gave me an idea of what to expect coming back, and it showed me how good the hitters in this league are. It taught me what I needed to do."
Javier also sees the improvement as a byproduct to the work he has put in on his change-up, following an offseason training plan put together by the Astros that positioned him for the growth he is now experiencing.
"My change-up has made a big difference," he said. "I am a lot more confident in it, and I am using it more."
That only adds to the challenge opposing hitters face.
River Bandits pitching coach Graham Johnson sees Javier gaining confidence in how and when he uses his change-up.
"He’s always had an effective fastball, but as he become comfortable in utilizing his change-up in different situations, he’s been able to attack hitters in a different way, and both pitches have become effective ways for him to record outs," Johnson said.
Javier has recorded at least five strikeouts and has not allowed more than three runs in any of his nine outings for Quad-Cities this season.
In his last four appearances, he blended his fastball and slider with his change-up to record at least seven strikeouts, including nine over six innings of one-hit work in a no-decision Saturday against Peoria in his most recent outing.
"Javier is going through one of those stretches right now where he has a good feel for everything he is throwing right from the time he takes the mound," Johnson said. "He’s been in control and hasn’t had to pitch with a lot of stress because there haven’t been many hitters get on against him lately."
Johnson sees that as a result of effective development in the way that Javier is mixing his pitches.
"He’s developing the ability to let his off-speed pitches play off of his fastball," Johnson said. "When things are going well, that’s the way it is supposed to work, and right now, that is only helping him."
The work continues.
Javier appreciates the progress he has made but believes there is room for improvement and that provides motivation.
"I have to find the consistency that it takes. Repeat, repeat, repeat, that is what we are all looking for," Javier said. "I want to be able to do well, and then go out and do well again and again. That is what I am working on now."
He believes continued growth in the consistency of his change-up will only help him continue to make progress as he works through the Astros farm system.
"I have confidence now in the way I attack hitters and attack the zone, but I know there will be more tests for me," Javier said. "I have to be ready for them and be willing to continue to work to get better. That is the way this game works. You have to be better tomorrow than you are today."