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What Happened? - A Houston Astros preview

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A look ahead at the team that's surprisingly at the bottom of the American League West

"Congratulations, considerably larger human. You now have as many home runs as I do."
"Congratulations, considerably larger human. You now have as many home runs as I do."
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, I thought of the Houston Astros as "Cubs-light". They're a team that built from within while spending many years at the bottom of the standings and the top of the draft. Then, things finally clicked in 2015 and a competitive young team emerged from the ashes to grab a Wild Card slot. The Cubs have the superior core group of players, but the rise of the Astros followed a similar blueprint.

En route to the Astros sniffing the playoffs for the first time since losing to the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series, the Astros received quite a few breakout performances to improve by 16 wins over their 70-92 record from 2014. Rookie phenom Carlos Correa grabbed hold of the starting shortstop job and provided rare power for a middle infielder. Dallas Keuchel was a laughingstock of a pitcher as recently as 2013; the groundballer won the 2015 Cy Young award. Rookie starter Lance McCullers burst onto the scene with a very successful season powered by mid-90s heat and a nasty curveball.

The 2015 Astros' offense sold out for power throughout the lineup and it worked. They finished second in the majors in home runs and strikeouts, and the dingers more than made up for the whiffs. With a good rotation that was made deeper at the trade deadline and a crop of power arms in the bullpen, the Astros had a formula for success in place. Their assets were controllable and meant to keep Houston at or near the top of the AL West for years to come.

However, there's been a little hiccup in the plan. Currently, the Astros sit at 15-24, dead last in the AL West and second-worst in the American League. What went wrong?

Giving a single answer to this question is oversimplifying, but if one cause of the Astros' woes needed to be picked, it'd be the starting rotation. Keuchel doesn't seem like the pitcher that took home the hardware last year. His velocity is down across the board (except on his changeup) and it's not like he threw particularly hard to begin with. The extreme groundballer's control seems to have deserted him as well. With Keuchel ineffective, Collin McHugh being neutralized by uncharacteristic homers and a .377 BABIP, and McCullers just recently returning from a shoulder injury, the Astros have basically been without their three best starting pitching weapons from a season ago.

The complementary pitchers haven't been holding up their end of the bargain, either. Doug Fister throws in the mid-eighties and can't miss bats anymore. The best description you can put on him now is "crafty righty" and there's a reason that those aren't a thing. Mike Fiers has put together a nice couple of years throwing junk and living up in the strike zone with a fastball that isn't all that hard; this year, hitters have decided that enough's enough and started depositing his pitches in the outfield seats. "We're going to use a six-man rotation for now" is a nice way of saying, "Unproven fringe prospect Chris Devenski is out-pitching all of you established guys, so what else do you want us to do?"

That starting staff, plus some set-up men (Ken Giles, Tony Sipp, and Pat Neshek) that have had problems with the longball, have been largely responsible for the predicament in which Houston currently finds itself.  It's a shame, too, because the offense has been playing pretty well. Second baseman Jose Altuve is gunning for an MVP award, as he currently leads all of baseball in doubles and is in position to lead the American League in stolen bases for the third consecutive year. Altuve never used to be much of a slugger, but last season he broke through for 15 home runs and already has nine on this young season. I'm contractually obligated to mention he's five-and-a-half feet tall.

Altuve's had plenty of help. The success Correa enjoyed his rookie year has carried over into 2016. Powerful right fielder George Springer has matched Altuve's home run total and at a 24.4 percent strikeout rate, he somehow qualifies as one of the least whiff-prone Astros. The other outfield corner is manned by Colby Rasmus, who accepted the Astros' qualifying offer and doesn't appear to be any worse for the wear, as the 29-year-old is on his way to another above-average season. Rasmus was never a great defensive center fielder, but has played pretty well in left and has a three-true-outcomes offensive profile similar to that of Springer. He's always had plate discipline, though not to the extent of the top-20 walk rate he currently boasts.

The Astros have also received good catcher play from popular White Sox trade target Jason Castro. Castro's offensive game is built upon giving you enough power to make all the striking out worth it (in other words, he's a Houston Astro). However, his true value lies in his receiving ability. He's produced the most framing runs in baseball this year by a decent margin. The Astros' pitching staff has been pretty poor this year, but it could be worse without Castro's efforts.

Though there's been a good crop of contributing position players, the Astros have had a few extremely bad performances drag down the unit's aggregate production to something close to average. Luis Valbuena is one of the most random players ever to hit 25 home runs in a season. He enters this series with just two round-trippers, which is a big problem for a player whose good-but-not-great power is his only net asset.

Valbuena's dropoff has been tough to stomach but Carlos Gomez has fallen into the abyss. Gomez seems like he's lost his ability to make contact (maybe it's the uniform?) and his power stroke has vanished. Chances are, a 29 wRC+ will have no effect on his 80-grade cockiness. Yesterday, the Astros recalled Evan Gattis, sent down designated hitter Preston Tucker and designating catcher Erik Kratz for assignment. Gattis was in the minor leagues working to regain his former catching skills to back up Castro, in addition to his usual DH duties. The net effect of all of this is swapping out one guy with a .570 OPS for another, but Gattis has enough pop to significantly increase that figure. He was a decent receiver in his Atlanta days, so while he's replacement-level as a low-OBP DH, he could still be useful as a catcher.

There's reason to believe the Astros could claw their way back into the AL West race as the year goes on, but the clock is ticking. Two players in particular, Keuchel and Gomez, could have a big say in such a comeback if they can manage to fix what's wrong. The hole they've dug themselves may prove to be too deep, but there's a strong core here that should allow Houston to compete again in the near future. That's the thing about the Astros' current model. They might strike out in 2016, but the next home run could be right around the corner.

Projected Record and Finish: 78-84, third place AL West

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Tuesday, May 17: Carlos Rodon vs. Dallas Keuchel
  • Wednesday, May 4: Mat Latos vs. Doug Fister
  • Thursday, May 5: Chris Sale vs. Collin McHugh

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Jose Altuve - 2B

SP1. Dallas Keuchel - LHP

2. George Springer - RF

SP2. Lance McCullers - RHP

3. Carlos Correa - SS

SP3. Collin McHugh - RHP

4. Colby Rasmus - LF

SP4. Mike Fiers - RHP

5. Marwin Gonzalez - 1B

SP5. Doug Fister - RHP

6. Evan Gattis - DH

CL. Luke Gregerson - RHP

7. Luis Valbuena - 3B

RP1. Will Harris - RHP

8. Carlos Gomez - CF

RP2. Ken Giles - RHP

9. Jason Castro - C

RP3. Tony Sipp - LHP