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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.
ALCS GAME 7 POST-MORTEM
Astros 4, Yankees 0
I’ll be the first to admit – after the Astros got swept in the New York games, and especially due to the way in which they lost, I didn’t think they had another comeback in them.
I won’t make that mistake again.
Behind ballsy pitching efforts from Morton and McCullers, dazzling defensive plays by Bregman, McCann, and Springer, and a pretty decent offensive showing, the Houston Astros are American League champs and are headed to their second World Series. What a neat deal!
And now our attention turns to the 104-win Dodgers as the World Series starts on Tuesday night. Look for a preview of the Series and Game 1 by Monday afternoon. Go Astros!
2017 MONTH IN REVIEW – JUNE
Starting Rotation: B- (B+ with the curve)
In a month when Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Musgrove, and McHugh combined for only eight starts in 26 games, an uptick in the ERA was bound to happen. A hell of a lot is credit is due to one Mike Fiers, whose June 2.32 ERA and 0.968 WHIP with zero homers allowed really helped shore up the rotation when the team needed it most. This level of production from Fiers is not likely to continue but it sure is nice while it lasts. Keuchel and McCullers were characteristically excellent in their injury-limited work. Peacock was more than serviceable with his 3.72 ERA for the month. Martes showed some promise despite his control issues (nine walks in three starts).
I wouldn’t have taken Paulino for a 6.84 ERA in June; maybe it’s because he never factored into a loss, but he did lead the team with seven home runs allowed. Then there’s Musgrove, who pitched himself out of a major league gig with a 10.28 ERA and 1.929 WHIP. He’ll be back eventually, but with McCullers already off the DL and Keuchel, Morton, and McHugh due back within the month, Musgrove may have to wait until September callups (unless the injury bug bites again).
Overall, Astros starters went 12-6 with a 4.62 ERA and a 1.292 WHIP. It could’ve been much worse. However, a greater concern is that the rotation only averaged just slightly over five innings per game. This absolutely must improve.
I played a lot of RBI Baseball ‘93 for the Sega Genesis back in the day. One of the things about that game that stuck with me the most (besides Jeff Bagwell’s completely upright batting stance) was how the faceless, generic-looking pitchers would visibly start breathing heavily on the mound when they were tiring.
This is what comes to mind when I think about the Astros bullpen in the month of June. Houston has crept into 6th in MLB in bullpen innings (281); of contending teams, only the Orioles have more (292.2). Additionally, Devenski is tied for the MLB lead in relief innings (48.1) and Feliz is tied for 27th (37). Obviously the bullpen doesn’t decide how many innings it’s going to throw on a given day, but this remains a looming problem nonetheless.
The top performers of the month were Devenski, Harris, and Gregerson, all of whom posted sub-2 ERAs and WHIPs around 1 or less. Hinch also started working Gregerson into some higher-leverage situations, so it wasn’t all garbage time like it was in May. Giles faced the minimum in precisely 30% of his appearances, and the blown-save-plus-loss in Kansas City to snap the 11-game win streak was maddening, but he converted four out of five save opportunities in a month where the Astros only had eight total save opportunities.
This is where things really take a turn. Feliz (6.59), Hoyt (9.00), Diaz (11.18), and Guduan (11.57) all posted objectively bad ERAs. Hoyt was third place on the team (including starters) in home runs allowed with four. Guduan’s WHIP was 2.143, albeit in a relatively small sample size.
In June, the entire bullpen (including Aoki’s 9th inning outing against the Yankees) went 4-5 with five saves, three blown saves, and a 5.35 ERA.
Overall, the Houston staff posted a 4.79 ERA in June, 19th in MLB. McCullers is already back, Morton’s return is imminent, McHugh’s rehab assignment is imminent, and Keuchel will be back soon enough after the break. We should see a sea change if everyone gets healthy and stays healthy.
Offensive production was down some from May, but not by much. In June the Astros scored 157 runs (T-4th in MLB), banged 46 home runs (6th), and posted an MLB-best .294 average, .516 slugging, and .869 OPS, and missed having the best OBP by a thousandth of a point (.353). That OPS was even better than their May mark and 40 points better than the next-best Yankees. Double plays continued trending down as well: after 34 in April and 24 in May, they only hit into 18 in June (7th best in MLB).
On the individual side of things, six players (Reddick, Altuve, Marwin, Springer, Gurriel, Aoki) hit .300 or better, with Correa and McCann missing that mark by less than 10 points. Eight players had at least an .800 OPS, five were .900 or better, and Three players broke 1.000 OPS (Springer, Reddick, Altuve), Correa two broke .900, and four others were over .800 (Gurriel, McCann, Marwin, Marisnick). Springer gave All-Star voters every reason to send him to Miami, hitting .333 and slugging .733.
Outside of some high LOB numbers here and there, the offense is not a problem.
Bringing this down a notch this month, largely because other teams ran with impunity on the Astros, who allowed 21 stolen bases in 23 attempts. That’s second-worst in the majors; only the White Sox were worse at 25 of 26.
After such an unbelievable May it’s easy to be disappointed about the Astros’ June performance. However, after 80% of their Opening Day rotation went on the DL they still went 16-11 on the month; only three teams (Dodgers at 21, Royals and Diamondbacks at 17) won more games. At the exact halfway point of the season the Astros are 54-27. Their division lead actually saw a net gain of 2.5 games. If they merely play .500 ball from here on out they’ll win 94 games.
Plus, after all those big comebacks we’ve been treated to this year, we’ve been reminded a few times of how it feels to have that happen to you.
LOOKING AHEAD TO JULY
Before the break the Astros wrap up the Yankees series, then head to Atlanta for two games and Toronto for four. After the break, they host the Twins and Mariners for three games each, then start a nine-game road trip that takes them to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit. On the last day of the month they come home to start a homestand against the Rays. As of the time of this writing those teams have a combined 341-374 record, with only the Yankees (43-35), Twins (40-39), and Rays (42-40) above .500.
Starting Rotation: A-
It feels to me like the rotation took three steps forward and maybe 1-1½ steps backward. Keuchel’s May numbers are inflated largely because of that big 9th inning in Anaheim, and aside from that and missing one start he was usually excellent. McCullers was an absolute monster on the mound, allowing just four earned runs in the entire month. Morton was slightly improved over April, although his walks almost doubled. Peacock showed some promise with 16 K’s in his two starts, and was cruising in Minneapolis until he ran into a buzzsaw in the 5th inning. Overall, Astros starters allowed two earned runs or less in 19 of 29 games. While the team didn’t win all of those games, more often than not the starters did a really good job of setting the table for a W.
Musgrove was basically the same pitcher in May that he was in April, with nearly identical numbers across the board.
Although it may not have felt like it at times, Fiers was actually slightly improved in May, throwing two quality starts and nudging his ERA under 5 for the first time since his first start of the season. He allowed two more home runs than he did in April (albeit in two more starts) and nearly doubled his strikeouts. If he can get down to, and hover in, the 4.50-4.75 range – basically averaging a minimum quality start – I think the Astros would happily take that every five days.
The problem is that nothing happens in a vacuum, and the injuries to Morton (likely prolonged) and Musgrove (hopefully minor and non-recurring) put additional pressure on Fiers, to say nothing of the arms that will be taking Morton’s and Musgrove’s places. The team’s success to this point has been fantastic and they have built themselves a nice cushion, but even with a generally light June schedule (see below) it remains to be seen whether this level of success is sustainable when Fiers is effectively your #3. And while we can cling to the hope that McHugh and Morton can eventually come back and contribute at a #3-#4 level, their returns – much less that level of performance – are hardly guaranteed.
If I were Jeff Luhnow I’d be keeping my cell phone charged.
The Astros got some really good contributions from the bullpen in the month of May. Giles, Harris, Peacock, Feliz, and Hoyt all had pretty good months with only one or two mostly inconsequential bumps in the road for each. Unfortunately for Devenski, his bumps in the road were game-changers, taking two losses and a blown save. Harris, Giles, and Devenski have combined for just six innings since May 25.
Sipp improved quite a bit, although 34 of the 36 batters he faced were in low leverage situations. Gregerson’s ERA was mostly skewed by his bad outings against the Rangers; he only allowed two runs for the rest of the month, although, like Sipp, many of the batters he faced were in low leverage situations.
The Astros have climbed from 3rd to 2nd in ERA in MLB, although the team ERA for the season went up just a couple of notches (3.37 to 3.49). In the month of May they pitched three shutouts, led the majors in strikeouts (299) and saves (14), and are in the top 5 or better in many other categories. To quote myself from April’s post-mortem, “It’s been a pretty good month.” Again.
I really don’t see any other grade to give here.
The Astros scored a whopping 180 runs in May, 21 more than the closest team and 68 more than they scored in April. Marwin and Correa went on an absolute tear. Altuve didn’t do too badly for himself either. Seven regulars topped an .800 OPS for the month and Beltran at .795 narrowly missed being the 8th. Only Aoki and Gurriel had what could be considered “bad” months.
The Astros grounded into ten fewer double plays than in April, allowing several other teams to catch up to them. Boston is now MLB’s worst in that department with 59 (Astros have 58), and they have some company not far behind.
Not much new to write here this month. The outfield defense is up to ten assists on the year. The infield is still prone to the occasional head-scratcher but is solid overall. They gunned down six runners on the basepaths (three more than in April) which is fairly average for the month.
I remain unconvinced about defensive statistics, as I refuse to believe the Astros are the 6th-worst defense in baseball. When your left fielders lead MLB in assists at that position (7), yet all of your left fielders have a negative DEF, something is terribly wrong.
Houston went 22-7 in May, a blistering .759 win percentage that is tops in baseball for the month and the best month in Astros history. This fact is made even more impressive considering that a good chunk of it was done against contending teams (12-2 against the Yankees, Tigers, Orioles, and Twins). At 38-16 they own baseball’s best record and a double-digit lead in the AL West. Their 103-win pace from April has improved to 114 wins, an end-of-May pace that has not been accomplished since the 2001 Mariners, who went on to win 117 games. Getting swept by the Indians at home is maybe the only blemish on what was an otherwise outstanding month of baseball, and the only thing preventing me from giving an A+.
However, I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that the health and performance of the starting rotation beyond Keuchel and McCullers is a huge concern for the team’s postseason prospects and beyond.
The next 60 days will be very interesting to watch, both on the field and in the transaction list.
LOOKING AHEAD TO JUNE
After spending much of May playing teams outside their division, June brings a return to many AL West opponents: they get the Rangers for six games, the A’s for seven, and three apiece against the Angels and Mariners. Thus far Houston has thrashed its division foes to the tune of a 17-6 record with a +41 run differential. They also get four games against the Royals, who have (at the time of this writing) the worst record in the AL.
The Red Sox also come to town for a three-game set. Except for a series with the Yankees that starts on June 30, the Sawks are the only team currently over .500 the Astros will see in June.