Starting Rotation: A+
I have little doubt in my mind that after games like last night – when #5 starter Charlie Morton blanks the red-hot offensive juggernaut Yankees for almost eight innings – Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch retreat into their offices, close their doors, and vigorously take one for the team. Hell, maybe they do it in the same office. I’m not one to judge.
We knew the starting pitching would be a strength in 2018: a full year of Verlander; harnessing Cole; a newly confident Morton; a matured McCullers. But the results we’ve seen so far have exceeded all but the most outlandish expectations one could have imagined. The word “epic” isn’t used very judiciously these days (“those tacos were epic, brah”) but even that word fails to capture the success we saw to start the season.
Let’s try on some stats. Here are the categories in which Houston starters lead all of baseball:
- ERA: 2.44 (2nd: Boston, 3.26)
- Innings: 188 (2nd: Washington, 174.2)
- Strikeouts: 226 (2nd: Washington/Arizona, 187)
- Opponent AVG: .196 (2nd: Cleveland, .216)
- Opponent OBP: .263 (2nd: Cleveland, .275)
- Opponent SLG: .329 (2nd: St. Louis, .343)
- K/9: 10.8 (2nd: Arizona, 10.7)
- K/BB: 4.3 (2nd: NY Mets, 4.0)
- WHIP: 0.99 (2nd: Cleveland, 1.06)
- LOB%: 83.1% (2nd: Cleveland, 80.6%)
Ridiculous. A few of those aren’t even close. And as a further testament to how good the rotation is, the Astros bullpen has pitched the second fewest innings (81.2) in MLB – less than three innings per game.
On an individual level, three Astros pitchers are in the top 10 in MLB in ERA (Verlander #4, Morton #8, Cole #9). Cole leads baseball in strikeouts (61) and Verlander is 5th; Morton and McCullers missed the top 10 by one and two strikeouts, respectively. Cole and Verlander also land in the top 10 in innings pitched. McCullers has been very good more often than not. Keuchel has had his ups and downs but has also suffered from lack of run support (he is 1-3 in starts where he has allowed three or fewer earned runs).
One area that needs improvement is the long ball. Astros starters have allowed 20 home runs, which ties them for 19th in MLB. They’re in good company, though: other top starting staffs like the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Braves, and Indians have allowed at least that many.
Overall, it’s really been just a hell of a lot of fun to watch these guy go out and dominate opposing lineups night after night. It’s not sustainable at this level – for example, we’re bound to lose one or two to injury at some point – but what they’ve done has put the team in a really good position.
Contrary to popular belief, the 2018 Astros do have a bullpen. They have indeed pitched a non-zero number of innings. For the most part, they’ve quietly done a pretty good job: their 2.76 ERA is 5th best in MLB and 2nd in the AL. They’re very good at keeping people off base, with a .267 opposing OBP that is 2nd best in MLB and tops in the AL by a comfortable margin (#2 Cleveland is .292). They have converted six of their ten save opportunities, for a roughly average 60% save percentage.
One thing of particular note: they’ve been especially excellent at stranding runners on base. Although they’ve only inherited 22 runners (second lowest in MLB) only three of those runners have scored, resulting in a baseball-best 14%.
Five relievers (Giles, Devenski, Harris, Rondon, McHugh) have sub-2 ERAs, with Peacock (2.84) not far behind. Giles, McHugh, Devenski, and Peacock all boast sub-1 WHIPs. Hinch has had the luxury of spreading work around fairly evenly, with each reliever except Tony Sipp sitting at about 10 innings or a little more. Joe Smith has the worst ERA of the bunch thanks to a couple of bad outings.
By this point in each season from 2015-2017 we already had concerns about the load the bullpen was shouldering, and in each of those seasons we saw the bullpen run out of gas late in the season and/or in the postseason. Things are looking considerably improved in that respect so far.
The Astros own baseball’s best team ERA (2.54) by nearly half a run. They have pitched four shutouts and eight other times have allowed just one run. They are the first and only (so far) team to have hit the 300 strikeout plateau. By any objective measure they have done outstanding work in the first month of the season. More, please.
Watching your team get perfect-gamed by 173-year-old Bartolo Colon is enough to make anyone batty. It’s also enough to cloud your judgment on assessing the offense as a whole, but a closer look shows that they’re doing pretty well overall.
We all got spoiled by a historically good Astros lineup in 2017. The 2018 lineup may not be that, but it doesn’t have to be, and in fact this year’s team is pretty comparable in terms of run production. Through 30 games they’ve scored 149 runs, tied for 4th in MLB; last year through 30 games they scored 147 and slotted in 5th.
What holds this year’s iteration back vs. 2017 is a number of things:
- Considerably lower batting average (.255 vs. .278)
- Considerably more strikeouts (262 vs. 213)
- Fewer home runs (32 vs. 40)
- Less power overall (.408 sluggings vs. .443)
- Worse hitting with RISP (.254, 106 RBI vs. .300, 97 RBI – the RBI difference may be largely attributable to Reddick’s two grand slams)
- Considerably worse production from 7-8-9 in the order (.210/.286/.364 vs. .314/.371/.511)
Next month I will try to stop the comparisons to 2017.
The DH spot remains a big problem: the .578 OPS Astros DHs have tallied is dead last (only the Phillies are worse, but that doesn’t really count). However, some of that slack has been picked up by Houston’s catchers (.833 OPS, #3 in MLB) and at short (.947 OPS, #4 in MLB).
The good news about Reddick, Gurriel, Gattis, and Marwin all hitting under .250 is that they don’t have anywhere to go but up, and despite that the team can still score runs when it wants to. And with Altuve and Correa already on fire, and with Springer and Bregman heating up lately, the offense should be more than capable.
Marisnick and Fisher… yeesh.
As was the case last year, we’ve seen both the good and the bad but more of the former. The Astros are tied with the Red Sox for fewest errors committed (8). McCann and Stassi have only thrown out two runners on 13 total tries, a 15.38% caught stealing rate that is near the bottom of the majors.
At 20-10 the Astros have a 2.5 game lead in the AL West, and although they face stiffer competition from within the division they have positioned themselves well for defending their division title. They also stack up well against other contending teams. They also compare favorably to their 2017 counterparts, which had an identical record through 30 games.
LOOKING AHEAD TO MAY
May will be a big month, with six games against the Yankees, three with the Diamondbacks, seven against the AL Central-leading Indians, and three games against the division foe Angels. They’ll close out the month – and start June – with four games against the Red Sox.