Starting Rotation: B+
Rest of rotation: C+
Many of the talking heads questioned whether the Astros were coming into the season with a true ace. This is not really up for debate anymore: at least for this month, Keuchel (5-0, 1.21) is back to his 2014-2015 form and there is a reasonable expectation that the team can win anytime he’s on the mound. This alone is a major improvement from 2016.
But what else do the Astros have? With McHugh on the shelf the rest of the rotation has been inconsistent. Starters not named Keuchel have combined for a 4.67 ERA, and only half a run separate the #4 from the #2 (and not in the good way). However, at varying times they’ve been able to recover from early struggles and give the offense a chance to get back in the game, and McCullers, Morton, and Musgrove all show a lot of promise and an ability to eat innings (Houston starters have combined for the 6th-highest innings total in MLB). I also have to keep reminding myself that McCullers and Musgrove are still very young.
Then there’s Mike Fiers. Of all MLB starters with at least four starts, only five pitchers have pitched fewer innings than Fiers. His eight home runs allowed is 4th most in MLB. If McHugh came back today Fiers would be the least deserving of keeping his spot in the rotation (e.g. his 1.60 WHIP is by far the worst in the rotation). However, the scenario by which he keeps his job is not too outlandish: with a crowded bullpen and Fiers out of options, Musgrove might be the odd man out. It’s probably more likely that Fiers would move to the pen, but that would be at the expense of someone who is performing well (Peacock, Hoyt).
There’s a lot of baseball to play between now and the trade deadline, but I have a hard time picturing any scenario where the Astros aren’t shopping for the Archer/Quintana-type starter they passed on during the offseason.
The Astros bullpen has done a pretty decent job of holding leads and keeping the team within striking distance when behind. They’ve converted 2/3 of their save opportunities (roughly MLB average) and own the 6th-best bullpen ERA (2.85), 3rd-best WHIP (1.08), and 2nd-most bullpen strikeouts (99) in baseball. There are some areas that need improvement, though (38% of inherited runners have scored, 6th-worst in MLB).
There are plenty of standout individual performances. Devenski has a smooth 32:2 K:BB ratio, is third on the club in strikeouts (behind only Keuchel and McCullers), and looked virtually untouchable until Lindor took him deep in Cleveland. Harris is typical pre-ASB Harris. Feliz and Peacock have been bright spots, with the latter owning a zero ERA until the last day of the month. For all of his dick-around-ery in non-save situations, Giles has converted all of his save opportunities.
Sipp’s .962 opponent OPS from the left side is a Problem with a capital P. Get your shit together, Tony. You have one job.
The Astros have the 3rd-best staff ERA in MLB, they have pitched two shutouts, and they are comfortably in the top third in strikeouts, WHIP, and BAA, to name a few stats. It’s been a pretty good month.
This lineup is so alien after watching the 2015-2016 offenses. Although they have a thoroughly average run total (105, 14th in MLB) they are tied for the 3rd-best team batting average and have the 7th-lowest strikeout total. Talk about flipping the script from last season.
Baserunning has left a lot to be desired. The Astros have run themselves out of many scoring opportunities, whether it’s stealing bases (their 57% stolen base percentage is 5th-worst in MLB) or getting thrown out trying to take an extra base on a hit.
Situational hitting has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, with two outs and RISP Houston is at or near the top in many statistical categories. They are also routinely coming from behind to take (or retake) leads and win games. On the other hand, they have grounded into an MLB-worst 33 double plays, a pace that will shatter both the AL and MLB season records if kept up. Their numbers with RISP and less than two outs are also much more pedestrian. Without some modicum of situational hitting ability the Astros don’t, for example, come from behind twice against the Mariners to win in 13 innings, or come from five runs down against both the M’s and A’s, or come from four runs down against the Rays; however, with just slightly better situational hitting they would have, for example, swept the Indians and A’s this past week. No team ever capitalizes on every single scoring opportunity, but there is no question they are still leaving some wins in the batter’s box.
The good news is that the lineup is still probably underachieving overall. Between slow starts by Correa, Beltran, and Bregman, Springer’s fall-off after a blazing first week, Altuve not yet quite up to his standard, and some nagging injury issues (Correa’s hand, Springer’s hamstring, Marisnick’s concussion) we can reasonably hope that what we’ve seen won’t be the norm.
The team lacks any glaring defensive concerns as long as Beltran isn’t wearing a glove. The infield could stand to turn more double plays. The outfield lacks the range of the Rasmus-Marisnick-Springer alignment from 2015-2016 but is still capable. McCann has been valuable behind the plate and Gattis’s catching seems improved early on. Keuchel was deserving of another Gold Glove after just one start.
The team ends April at 16-9, good enough for the 3rd-best winning percentage in baseball. They lead their division by three games, thanks in part to their 12-4 record against division opponents. Their longest losing streak is three games and they have only done that once. They are rarely getting blown out of games, especially since the first week, and their .500 record in one-run games is better than MLB average. They are undefeated in extra innings. Nearly all of these are tremendous improvements over the 2016 Astros in the month of April.
It’s the kind of start upon which a successful season is built, but like any other team, they have plenty of areas that need improvement if they want to keep up a 103-win pace. They need better results from 2-3 starter slots, better production from the middle of the order, better timely hitting (especially against good teams), better/smarter baserunning, and a little better relief work with inherited runners. Perhaps most importantly, if they want the AL West crown then they desperately need better results against the Rangers, and we won’t have to wait long to see if there’s any progress there.