By Richard Cuicchi | May 01, 2016 at 09:03 PM EDT | No Comments
Based on last year’s unexpected success, the Houston Astros were picked by many baseball analysts in this year’s pre-season prognostications to repeat their winning ways from last season. However, despite those expectations, the Astros have struggled to win games so far this season. Were they a fluke last year? Did they overachieve? Can they rebound this year?
In 2015 the Houston Astros surprised a lot of folks by leading the American League West Division from the start of the season until the middle of September, but finally succumbing to the Texas Rangers for the division title. Yet they still made the playoffs, winning the American League wild-card game before losing to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in the Division Series. It appeared the young Astros team had matured and jelled sooner than expected, after going through a complete rebuilding process the preceding four seasons. Their organizational plan didn’t have them being competitive before 2016-2017.
So why have the Astros labored to put up Ws in the win column in April? It’s actually pretty simple. Pitching. Their staff has given up the most runs in the league, and their ERA is over 5.00, almost double that of the league-leading Chicago White Sox. They also have the worst WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in the league as well. They have one of the worse run differentials in the league, giving up 31 more than they have scored to date, an average of 1 1/2 runs per game.
Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Kuechel, had two good outings at the start of the season, but now seems to be struggling with his consistency. Collin McHugh has been the biggest disappointment among the starting staff. After having a breakout season in 2015, it appears he may have over-achieved last season when he won 19 games and posted a 3.89 ERA. This year his ERA is 6.65 in his first five starts, while yielding an average of 15 hits per nine innings pitched.
In an off-season acquisition, Astros starting pitcher Doug Fister seemed like a good pick-up at the time. However, he hasn’t been effective either, not getting past six innings in any of his starts. Veterans Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman haven’t fared much better either. There’s some hope that Lance McCullers Jr. will provide a much-needed boost to the starting rotation when he returns from the disabled list around mid-May. As a rookie last season, he was a pleasant surprise with a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts and an average of over nine strikeouts per nine innings.
The Astros bullpen has been similary mediocre as well. Relief pitcher Ken Giles, another off-season acquisition who was thought to be a contender for the closer role, has been a bust. He’s given up ten runs in 11 innings. Closer Luke Gregerson has picked up only four saves so far, as his opportunities have been limited.
On the offensive side of the ledger, the Astros have been in the middle of the pack of the American League in terms of production. While last year’s Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa hasn’t hit full stride yet this spring, newcomer Tyler White has picked up his slack. Second baseman Jose Altuve has found a new power stroke with six home runs (he hit 15 in all of last year), while Colby Rasmus has been effective in the cleanup spot, leading the team in RBI.
Outfielder Carlos Gomez has yet to get untracked as a hitter, with a dismal slash line of .213/.241/.275, including no home runs and only two RBI. Evan Gattis, who put up 27 home runs last year, hasn’t been on the field much due to injuries.
So, while a few of the Astros’ bats have yet to wake up in April, their offense still has the potential to be one of the best in the league.
2015 was manager A. J. Hinch’s first year at the helm of the Astros. Since the club was in first place most of the season, he didn’t develop too many battle scars. However, given this year’s rough start, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to fully test his managerial skills as he strives to get the team back into contention. How he deals with the adversity of a struggling pitching staff and a team in last place will be key to their ability to rebound.
On their current path, the Astros are digging a big hole for themselves that could be very difficult to get out of. Their only saving grace may be that the two leading teams in their division are currently playing a little over .500 ball, so no one has built an insurmountable lead thus far. It’s not time for the Astros to panic yet; there’s still a lot of baseball to be played. But some extreme concern would certainly be in order for the team and its fans at this point. Stay tuned.