Astros stumbling to start season, but Houston's not in trouble yet
Quick, name the only team in the major leagues that has yet to win consecutive games this season. Did you pick the Astros? If so, you’re right. Houston, which a certain media outlet picked to win the World Series this year (and next), enters Thursday with a 5–10 record, the fourth-worst mark in baseball. Things looked like they might be turning around over the weekend when the Astros took two of three from Detroit to register their first series win of the young season, but they have since lost the first two games of their current three-game set against the rival Rangers to fall four games behind first-place Texas just 15 games into the season. Houston now has to play five games better than the Rangers over the rest of the year to win the AL West, but first it will need to try stringing consecutive wins together.
What has gone wrong for the Astros in the early going? The biggest problem has been their pitching. Houston is last in the American League with a 4.81 ERA and 4.87 runs allowed per game. Ace Dallas Keuchel (who will start the finale against the Rangers and A.J. Griffin on Thursday night) has lived up to that title, delivering Houston two of its five wins, but the rest of the rotation has struggled. Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers, Scott Feldman and Doug Fister have each contributed just one quality start in three turns apiece, combining for a 5.72 ERA in the dozen games not started by Keuchel. Of those three, only McHugh has pitched significantly better than his results would indicate, posting a 3.04 FIP; the other three all have FIPs above 5.00.
Indeed, since a disastrous outing in the second game of the season in which McHugh gave up six runs (five earned) and got just one out, the 28-year-old righthander has posted a 2.92 ERA with 11 strikeouts against just one walk in 12 1/3 innings. Overall, even with that first start included, McHugh’s peripherals are in line with his last two seasons, and he should be his reliable self going forward. Still, it’s clear that this team is very much missing the electric presence of sophomore Lance McCullers.
McCullers developed a sore pitching shoulder early in camp, did not appear in an exhibition game and opened the season on the 15-day disabled list. An MRI taken in early March came back clean, and he began a minor league rehab assignment in conjunction with the start of the regular season. McCullers was scratched from his last rehab start last Saturday, however, making an anticipated April return extremely unlikely. The young righty threw a clean bullpen session before Tuesday night’s game and is scheduled to throw again on Friday, but it’s unclear when the team can expect him to return to the rotation.
If there’s an upside to McCullers’s injury, it’s that it does not involve his elbow and that his DL time is effectively limiting his innings after a season in which he threw a career-high 164 frames between the minors, majors and postseason. That limit would only be valuable, however, if the Astros were winning in his absence. A team out of contention can easily shut down a 22-year-old stud like McCullers in September. The Astros are expecting to need McCullers into October, but for that, they need to start winning.
In contrast to the rotation, the bullpen hasn’t been as bad as it’s collective 4.79 ERA might suggest. Despite the struggles of key off-season addition Ken Giles, the Astros have yet to blow a save on the young season. That’s due in large part to Luke Gregerson, who retained the closer job coming out of camp and has yet to allow a run in five appearances, saving four of the team’s five wins. Incumbent setup men Will Harris and Pat Neshek have also been excellent, as has 25-year-old rookie righty Chris Devenski, who was primarily a starter in Double A last year and has proven a valuable innings eater, twice working three full innings in a game.
As for Giles, who has a 6.75 ERA through 6 2/3 innings, the home run has been his bugaboo in the early going. He allowed just three round-trippers in 115 2/3 innings with the Phillies over the last two years but has already given up three for Houston. Two of those home runs led directly to defeats: a tie-breaking, three-run shot by Mark Teixeira in the seventh inning of Houston's 8–5 loss to the Yankees on April 7, and a two-run home run by Salvador Perez last Wednesday that broke another late tie in the Astros' 4–2 loss to the Royals. Giles has worked three scoreless innings since then, including a scoreless eighth in the Astros’ last win against the Tigers on Sunday, so there’s hope that he’s rounding into shape. The same can be said for primary lefty Tony Sipp, who gave up three runs in his first three outings but has made four straight scoreless appearances since.
Of course, it would be nice if the bullpen had a little more room for error. The Astros' offense isn’t off to a terrible start, but it is clearly underperforming, scoring just 3.8 runs per game. That's close to the AL average but well below the major league average. Several Houston hitters are off to outstanding starts, including Jose Altuve (.310/.412/.638 with a shocking five home runs), rookie first baseman Tyler White (.340/.404/.720 with five homers of his own) and leftfielder Colby Rasmus (.286/.446/.548 with a surprising 13 walks, none of them intentional). Others are simply living up to lofty expectations (Carlos Correa, largely replicating last year’s numbers, and George Springer, slugging .517 with four home runs). The trouble is that the hitters who aren’t hitting well have been awful.
Centerfielder Carlos Gomez, catcher Jason Castro, third baseman Luis Valbuena and utility man Marwin Gonzalez (who has drawn starts at third base, first base and shortstop) have combined to hit .189/.245/.270 in 159 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Gattis has returned from the disabled list to take the designated hitter job back from Preston Tucker, who was off to a hot start, and has thus far gone 3 for 19 (.158) with just one extra-base hit (a double) and no walks in five starts, adding a single in his lone pinch-hitting appearance.
Small samples abound here, of course. Ultimately, the Astros' offense should settle in as above-average, with first base prospect A.J. Reed lurking in Triple A should White’s hot start prove fluky or should Houston decide it would rather move White to DH to get Reed’s bat to the majors. The bullpen is already rounding into shape. The big question remains the rotation and, specifically, the health of McCullers.
The good news for Houston is that it could very easily win its next two games behind Keuchel and McHugh, and starting Monday, the Astros hit a soft patch in the schedule, with three games each against the Athletics and Twins and seven games against the Mariners. By the time Cleveland comes to town on May 9 for the final series of a 10-game homestand, things should be looking up in Houston.