The future is now in Houston. After losing an average of 108 games over three seasons in 2011-2013, the Astros took a big leap forward last year going 70-92.
The pre-season consensus, including here at Banished to the Pen, was that the Astros would be an exciting team that hit a ton of home runs but would ultimately fall short of the playoffs. And that has been mostly true. According to Baseball Reference, the Astros lead baseball in home runs (128), strikeouts (857), and isolated power (.170). The Astros stormed into 2015 with a late-April 10-game winning streak that saw them take a 7-game lead in the American League West. While they would eventually give up that lead on the last day before the all-star break (courtesy of a 2-8 road trip that coincided with George Springer going on the DL with a broken wrist), the Astros remain neck-and-neck with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and seem poised at least to make their first playoff appearance since the 2005 World Series.
What’s gone right?
Jed Lowrie got injured. How is losing somebody who started the year .300/.432/.567 in the first 18 games going right? Because after a Jonathan Villar/Marwin Gonzalez interregnum in May, the Astros called up #3 overall prospect Carlos Correa to take over the position.
Correa has been as sensational as his pedigree suggests, hitting .290/.331/.531 with 8 homers in 35 games. He is 4th among AL shortstops with a 1.8 WAR; and is 2nd only to Toronto’s Devon Travis (2.1) in WAR among rookies (while playing 20 less games). He gets it done with the glove too, Fangraphs also has him ranked 4th among AL shortstops with a UZR/150 of 11.6 (though 300 innings is a very small sample size). This puts him ahead of the likes of All-Star Jose Iglesias and Didi Gregorius, two players known for their glove.
Before breaking his wrist, the Astros moved the excellent Springer to the leadoff position. He thrived, turning in a .264/.365/.457 split with 13 home runs and 14 stolen bases.
SP Dallas Keuchel started the All-Star game and has continued to build on a breakout 2014. Keuchel has a microscopic 0.970 WHIP—fueled by an astounding 64% ground ball rate (once again nearly 7% better than the 2nd best in baseball) and an improved K/9 of 7.9 (1.3 K/9 better than 2014). He also remains one of baseball’s most durable arms, clocking in with a league best 144.1 IP in 20 starts. Keuchel is getting support from rookie Lance McCullers, who has been excellent in the first 11 starts of his career. McCullers generates 9.9 K/9, by far the best on the staff. McCullers is 2nd to Keuchel in ERA (2.52) and FIP (2.56).
What’s gone wrong?
George Springer is probably the one player the Astros could not afford to lose this season—and he is gone probably until mid-August or early-September.
First base has been a disaster. Chris Carter was terrific in 2014, but has been awful thus far, with 115 Ks in 287 at bats. While he has 15 HR, a .185/.300/.380 line is just not going to cut it in the middle of the order for a playoff contender. The Astros hoped that maybe highly-touted prospect Jon Singleton could fill the void at 1B. Instead, Singleton is showing all the flaws against MLB pitching that were exposed in 2014. Singleton has managed to strike out 15 times in 35 at bats and has yet to hit a home run in 12 games. .171/.286/.200 is not going to cut it, and Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal has suggested the team might be open to moving him at the deadline.
C Jason Castro has also not been very good at the plate, turning in a suboptimal .206/.279/.632 line, though he is still a very good pitch framer, rating 3rd among MLB catchers by Baseball Prospectus’s framing runs added by count. Hank Conger, another outstanding pitch framer, has been getting more playing time recently and is hitting a respectable .233/.336/.456.
What happens next?
As noted in the season preview, the Astros could use some help at the top of the rotation. Keuchel and McCullers have been amazing, but veteran Collin McHugh has taken a big step back and none of Scott Feldman, Roberto Hernandez, or Brett Oberholtzer are impressing anybody. Highly-regarded Vincent Velasquez was called up this week to help bolster the rotation. Velasquez had a nice debut in June, scattering 3 hits and striking out 5 in 5 IP. In 6 starts, he managed a 8.7 K/9 with a 1.31 WHIP. His ERA (3.94) and FIP (3.65) were decent. Velasquez lit up AA this year, striking out 12.6 per nine while giving up just 0.911 WHIP. But both Belasquez and McCullers are likely to be on limited innings, and so the team will still need another reliable starter.
The Astros also have two huge holes in the lineup at first base and to replace the injured Springer. I think the Astros will be active at the deadline, and have been tied to the likes of Cole Hamels, Justin Upton, and James Shields.
Next post: Tigers’ Ausmus Makes the Worst of a Bad Bullpen Situation
Previous post: First Half Pirates: Nothing Gold Can Stay Down