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Houston’s 6–14 start is one of the bigger surprises, and disappointments, about the first three weeks of the 2016 season. The Astros’ -20 run differential is seventh worst in the majors. They’ve allowed more runs than any other American League team, and have looked generally bad doing it.
Having said all that, this team is going to be fine. If this 6–14 stretch happened over a 20-game sample in the middle of July, we’d hardly notice. It’s just that this particular sample represents 100% of their season to date, so it makes it appear that all is not right in Houston. While that may be true, there’s still a whole lot more right than wrong with this team. Some of those, like the fact that Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa have combined for a .298/.375/.532 slash line, were expected. Others, like the late-20s, post-post-post hype breakout of Colby Rasmus, were not.
To be fair, Rasmus had a fine 2015 campaign, his first with the Astros. He belted 25 homers and slugged .475, though he had a lackluster .238 batting average and .314 OBP. Everything has come together for Rasmus thus far in 2016. Not only does he have seven bombs and a .661 slugging percentage, he’s hitting .274 and getting on base at a 41.8% clip. With this Rasmus hitting fourth behind Altuve, Springer and Correa, the Astros have one of the best quartets at the top of the order in the league.
Rasmus isn’t the only player who’s going to have a hot 20-game stretch this season, and we should expect some regression in the batting average and OBP departments. There are, however, signs that Rasmus has made substantive adjustments that have led to his dramatic turnaround, and that he’s not simply exploiting the small-sample-size fairy. Most notable among these are Rasmus’s strikeout and walk rates. The 29-year-old entered this season with career numbers of 26.1% and 8.8%, respectively, in those two metrics. This season, his strikeout rate is down to 24.1%, while his walk rate has surged to 20.3%. Rasmus has already drawn 16 walks this season, which puts him on a 162-game pace for 129. His career high is 63, set with the Cardinals back in 2010.
As you would expect after seeing those rates, Rasmus has been more selective and disciplined at the plate than ever. His o-swing percentage, the rate at which a hitter swings at a pitch out of the strike zone, is 23.9%. He set a career-best in the stat last year when he offered at 29% of pitches that were balls. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches in the zone than at any other point in his career. As a result, Rasmus is seeing more pitches and forcing pitchers to attack him in the zone. His 4.39 pitches per plate appearance ranks 15th in the league, and he’s hitting exactly .500 (14 for 28) when putting pitches in the strike zone in play.
This all actually began in the second half of last season. Rasmus hit .240/.323/.490 after the All-Star break, and .237/.305/.460 before it. His strikeout and walk rates in the first half were 34.1% and 8.8%, respectively. Both trended in the right direction in the second half, settling at 29.2% and 10.6%.
Rasmus made a noticeable change in his setup at the plate halfway through last season that could help us explain the seemingly new hitter we’ve seen this year. Let’s examine that change with the help of a few GIFs. The first one is from May 8, 2015, and the second one is from September 4 of the same season.
Notice the difference. In the May at-bat, Rasmus is almost fully upright with his hands out in front of him slightly below his shoulders. His feet are square and he simply picks up and then puts down his front foot in the same spot. The first movement of his hands is down and back toward his armpit.
Now take another look at the September at-bat. Rasmus has more of a bend in his knees and the bat is behind his head with his hands at shoulder height. His stance is slightly open, and he takes a big leg kick as the pitcher releases the ball. Rather than his hands going down and toward his body, they go straight back in a more natural, textbook backwards-c load motion. We didn’t show the result, but we didn’t have to, did we? The trajectory of the ball off his bat should have told you that this one ended up in the seats.
Here’s what Rasmus looks like in 2016.
His stance is nearly the same as it was in the second half of last season, though he’s a bit more open. Other than that, it’s identical to the stance that helped him turn things around after the All-Star break last year. Forget about history and focus on what Rasmus has shown us over the last four months of game action. The breakout is for real.
Hitters to watch this week
Starling Marte, OF, Pirates
Marte is off to a great start this year, hitting .329/.375/.512 with a pair of homers and a league-leading nine doubles. It is he, and not Andrew McCutchen, who is carrying the Pittsburgh offense, along with Gregory Polanco. Marte and the Pirates opened a four-game series with the Rockies in Colorado on Monday, and then return home to take on the Reds this weekend. After four days in the thin air of Colorado, he’ll get treated to the pitching staff with the worst xFIP in the majors.
Odubel Herrera, OF, Phillies
We’ve already discussed how the Phillies are going to have to find silver linings this season with respect to the hot starts of Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff. Herrera is in that group, as well. Through 19 games, Herrera has a .286/.432/.429 slash line, walking 17 times and racking up 18 hits. He has mostly hit third for this team, but as they amass bats for the future, he could eventually work his way to the top of the lineup, especially if his newfound plate discipline remains in his skill set. He also has four steals, and has turned himself into an intriguing fantasy player in all formats, despite the fact that he plays the deepest position in the fantasy game.
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
The inscrutable, obstinate, irrational Votto haters of the world are likely having a field day with his start to the 2016 season. Votto can’t get anything going at the plate, hitting .208/.293/.306 in his first 20 games. He has just three extra-base hits and has struck out twice as many times as he was walked (16 to eight). These are unprecedented struggles for Votto, who has never had a batting average worse than .297, OBP lower than .368, or slugging percentage beneath .491 in a season in which he played at least 100 games. It’s entirely likely that he turns it around sooner rather than later, but that may not be much consolation to his owners for the time being. After facing Noah Syndergaard on Monday, the Reds still have dates with Matt Harvey, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole this week.
Welington Castillo, C, Diamondbacks
No catcher other than Buster Posey is Buster Posey. That’s obviously true in a biological sense, but in this context we mean that he’s the only true all-around offensive threat behind the dish in the majors today. If you can’t have him, you’re likely better off finding a specialist, someone who is very good at one or two things. That description fits Castillo, who quietly turned into one of the best power-hitting catchers last year. The former Cub took advantage of the everyday job granted him in Arizona after being shipped to the desert, hitting 17 homers in 303 plate appearances with the Diamondbacks. This season, he has left the yard six times in 70 trips to the plate, five of which came last week. We know that Castillo is going to hit for power and play almost every day, slotting in the middle of Arizona’s potent lineup. That alone makes him a good bet to be a top-10 catcher.
Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
Votto isn’t the only superstar first baseman off to a rough start in 2016. Cabrera got a day off over the weekend after scuffling to a .206/.296/.302 slash line in his first 17 games. Cabrera had just four extra-base hits, only one of which was a home run, and 13 strikeouts against eight walks. As is the case with Votto, there’s no real reason to worry about Cabrera, and he showed that on Monday. Cabrera went 4 for 4 with a pair of homers, the first sign that he’s starting to shake off the early-season doldrums. No one sells players like Cabrera or Votto low, so there isn’t really any action to take regarding them, unless a fool in your league owns one or both of them. Cabrera and the Tigers have three more games with Oakland this week before heading to Minnesota for a weekend set with the Twins.
GALLERY: Most Recent No-Hitters, By Team
Most Recent No-Hitters, By Team
Tim Lincecum pitched his first career no-hitter and the second in the majors in 11 days, a gem saved by a spectacular diving catch by right fielder Hunter Pence in the San Francisco Giants ' 9-0 win over last-place San Diego. The two-time Cy Young winner threw a career-high 148 pitches.
Homer Bailey pitched his second no-hitter in 10 months, becoming the first player in baseball to throw MLB's two most recent no-no's since Nolan Ryan in 1974-75. Bailey allowed just one walk and struck out nine against the Giants in a 3-0 win, surrendering his perfect game in the in the 7th inning when he walked Gregor Blanco. Bailey would later get Blanco to ground out in the 9th to end the game, becoming the third pitcher in Reds history to throw multiple no-hitters.
The Mariners' ace and former AL Cy Young Award winner pitched the team's first perfect game, overpowering the Tampa Bay Rays with 12 strikeouts in a brilliant 1-0 victory. The game was Seattle's second no-hitter of the season. On June 8, six pitchers -- Kevin Millwood, Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League and Tom Wilhelmsen -- combined to no-hit the Dodgers in what was also a 1-0 victory.
After 35 one-hitters, the Mets finally got the first no-no in franchise history. Johan Santana, who missed all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery, struck out eight and walked five as New York beat the Cardinals 8-0. It left the Padres as the only team without a no-hitter.
Jered Weaver pitched the 10th no-hitter in franchise history, striking out nine in a 9-0 victory over the Twins, who never came close to getting a hit. Weaver allowed just two baserunners. Chris Parmelee reached in the second inning when he struck out and advanced on Chris Iannetta's passed ball, and Josh Willingham worked a walk in the seventh. Weaver became the first Angels pitcher to throw a no-hitter in Angel Stadium since Nolan Ryan on June 1, 1975.
Philip Humber threw the first perfect game in almost two years, striking out nine for his first win of the season. It was the third perfecto in White Sox history, joining Mark Buehrle (Tampa Bay in 2009) and Charles Robertson (Detroit in 1922). Humber, a former first-round draft pick of the Mets who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2005, needed only 96 pitches to complete the gem. The White Sox beat the Mariners 4-0.
Justin Verlander threw his second career no-hitter and the second in the big leagues this week, leading the Detroit Tigers to a 9-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. Verlander barely missed a perfect game. The only runner he allowed came with one out in the eighth inning, when rookie J.P. Arencibia drew a 12-pitch walk. Minnesota's Francisco Liriano tossed a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on May 3.
In his previous start Liriano had lasted three innings and his ERA had ballooned to 9.13. But he delivered the seventh no-hitter in Twins history, and the first since Eric Milton in 1999, as he struck out two and walked six in a 1-0 win over the White Sox. The 123-pitch erfort was just the first complete game of Liriano's six-year career.
Halladay threw just the second no-hitter in postseason history as the Phillies beat the Reds 4-0 in Game 1 of the NLDS. Halladay, who was making the first playoff start of his 12-year career, struck out eight and walked one on 104 pitches. He also threw a perfect game on May 29 vs. the Marlins, making him the fourth author of two no-hitter in the same season along with Nolan Ryan, Virgil Truck, Allie Reynolds and Johnny Vander Meer.
Matt Garza (center) pitched the first no-hitter in Tampa Bay Rays history and the fifth in the major leagues this season, beating the Detroit Tigers 5-0. Garza faced the minimum 27 batters, allowing only a second-inning walk, for a team that's often been on the wrong end of pitching gems lately. The last time there were at least five no-hitters in a season was 1991.
Edwin Jackson overcame a wild start to throw the fourth no-hitter of the season, leading the Diamondbacks to a 1-0 victory over the Rays. Jackson threw 149 pitches and walked eight, all but one in the first three innings, in the second no-hitter in D-backs' history.
Braden was perfect on Mother's Day, recording the first perfect game for Oakland in 42 years. He was also the beneficiary of some flashy glovework, courtesy of Kevin Kouzmanoff, who sprinted to the dirt in front of Oakland's dugout to catch a foul popup by Dioner Navarro for the second out in the sixth.
Ubaldo Jimenez pitched the first no-hitter in Rockies history, dominating the Braves in a 4-0 victory. Jimenez walked six -- all in the first five innings -- and struck out seven. He was helped by Dexter Fowler's diving catch on Troy Glaus' drive to left-center field in the seventh inning.
Pitching for the first time in nearly two weeks, Carlos Zambrano stifled the Astros en route to the Cubs' first no-hitter since Milt Pappas in 1972. The game was relocated to Milwaukee's Miller Park because of Hurricane Ike.
At 22, Lester learned he had lymphoma, but after beating the cancer, he returned to win the clinching game of the 2007 World Series. Then in May 2008, Lester no-hit the Kansas City Royals, allowing just two walks and striking out nine in one of the most inspiring comebacks in baseball history.
Sanchez, a 22-year-old rookie making his 13th major-league start, hurled a no-hitter in a 2-0 victory over the Diamondbacks.
In perhaps the most bizarre no-hitter of all-time, the Astros used a record six pitchers -- Roy Oswalt, Pete Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner -- to hold the Yankees hitless in Houston's 8-0 victory.
Smith became the 18th rookie since 1900 to throw a no-hitter, tossing a whopping 134 pitches in a 4-0 victory over the Padres. Smith made just 14 more appearances in the majors and was gone for good one year later, at 23.
With Don Larsen, the only man ever to pitch a perfect game in the World Series, on hand for Yogi Berra Day, Cone tossed a perfect game of his own, silencing the Montreal Expos in a 5-0 win. Cone survived a 30-minute rain delay in the third inning, and needed just 88 pitches to complete his perfecto, which ended when he got Orlando Cabrera to pop out to third.
Cordova, a major league starter for less than a year, pitched the first nine innings of a no-hitter against the Astros. Rincon pitched another inning of no-hit ball when the scoreless game went to the 10th. The no-hitter wasn't secured until Mark Smith's walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th.
The Japanese fireballer became the first (and last) pitcher to toss a no-hitter at hitter's haven Coors Field in a 9-0 blanking of the Rockies.
Rogers became the first AL lefty to throw a perfect game when he shut down the Angels 4-0, the first no-hitter at the brand-new Ballpark at Arlington. Center fielder Rusty Greer preserved it with a diving catch on Rex Hudler to start the ninth. Greer had a much easier time handling the final out, a routine fly ball from Gary DiSarcina.
Three years after pitching the first six innings of a no-hitter -- ultimately completed by teammates Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Pena -- Mercker went solo in tossing nine innings of no-hit ball in a 6-0 victory over the Dodgers.
Saberhagen had already won two Cy Young awards and pitched a shutout in the clinching Game 7 of the World Series in 1985, but had never thrown a no-hitter. He helped himself by snaring an eighth-inning line drive by Ozzie Guillen that would have been a hit. The last out was made by future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas on a ground out to second base.
While the Nationals still played north of the border as the Expos, Martinez threw the 13th perfect game in major league history in a 2-0 victory over the Dodgers.
Milacki, (inset left to right) Flanagan, Williamson and Olson combined to equal the most pitchers used for a no-hitter in American League history by blanking the A's. Olson pitched the first six innings but left after he injured his hand deflecting a ball hit by Oakland's Willie Wilson. Flanagan, Williamson and Olson each pitched one hitless inning.
Four times previously, Stieb had taken a no-hitter into the ninth. Three times he lost it with one out to go, including back-to-back starts in September 1988, the only time that's ever happened in baseball history. His luck finally changed on this night when he got Cleveland's Jeremy Browne to line to right for the final out of a 3-0 shutout. "I had much better stuff the other times, much better control. I always knew it took a lot of luck to get a no-hitter," he said afterward.
Now a coach with the White Sox, Nieves became the second-youngest pitcher in major league history to throw a no-hitter when he shut down the Orioles 7-0 at age 22. Eighteen months later, an arm injury ended his career.
With a losing career record, Barker was an otherwise forgettable pitcher, except for what he achieved in May 1981, when he pitched just the tenth perfect game ever. ''I run into people almost every day who want to talk about it,'' he said in 2006. ''Everyone says, 'You're probably tired of talking about it.' I say, 'No, it's something to be proud of.' It's a special thing.''
Hunter Renfroe, OF, Padres
The Padres, a team everyone expected to be bad, has been as advertised. They’re 7–12 in the first 19 games and have been outscored by 29 runs this season. Their run differential is third worst in the majors, and they’re in the bottom-third of the league in basically every meaningful offensive stat. In other words, they’re not going to have any justification for keeping Renfroe in the minors for too much longer. Renfroe entered the season as the organization’s No. 3 prospect behind outfielder Manny Margot and shortstop (not the pitcher) Javy Guerra, though neither of them are within striking distance of the majors just yet. Renfroe will certainly be up at some point this season, especially if he continues to rake the way he has to start the year. The 24-year-old is hitting .339/.381/.661 with four homers, seven doubles and 10 RBI in 63 plate appearances with Triple-A El Paso thus far. He spent most of 2015 at the Double-A level but exploded upon joining El Paso, slashing .333/.358/.633 in 21 games. Renfroe’s power will play immediately upon arrival in the majors. The question is whether or not he makes enough contact to take advantage of all that pop. He already has 15 strikeouts in his 63 trips to the plate, and posted a 23.7% strikeout rate in 2015. While that bears monitoring and limits his projected ceiling, the Mississippi State product will be a fantasy factor once he gets the call to join the big league club.
GIF of the Week
Maikel Franco may have hit three homers last week, but we’d rather GIF this smooth play he made on a Ryan Braun grounder.