Are the Houston Astros Back?
The Houston Astros completed the month of April with a 7-game winning streak and a record of 15-7, their best opening month since 1986 when they finished on top in the NL Western Division. They lead the American League West Division by four games. The big question now is if it will last. This is a big departure from the last four seasons when the team was basically out of contention in April while they were rebuilding.
Some improvement was expected this year after the 19-game improvement in 2014. However, the fast start this year, particularly the 8-1 record on a tough 9-game West Coast road trip was certainly not expected. In the past 4 years, the Astros have consistently been near the bottom in most hitting, pitching and fielding categories. This year they are closer to the top. The club is averaging 4.68 runs per game, well above the major league average of 4.27. The team batting average of .238 is below the major league average of .250, but the team slugging average of .411 is above the MLB average of .390. The Astros are tied for third in the majors in home runs and first in stolen bases.
As impressive as the hitting numbers are, the pitching has been even better. One of the big questions this year was whether Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh could repeat the success they had last year That question was answered in April when the Astros won all nine games that were started by these two pitchers. The rest of the rotation is a concern, but the bullpen has been much better. The staff ERA of 3.04 ranks first in the American League and the WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is the best in the major leagues. Opponents have scored only 3.41 runs per game against the Astros who enjoy a 28-run differential versus their opponents.
Defense, another weak spot during the rebuilding phase, has also improved as the Astros rank near the top in fielding average and defensive runs saved.
Individually, there were some bright spots as well as some disappointments. Jose Altuve is having an even better year than his monster year in 2014, batting .367 with an on-base percentage of .400 and a slugging average of .500 while leading the club with 16 RBIs from the leadoff position. A very pleasant surprise has been center fielder, Jake Marisnick, playing great defense and batting .379 with a slugging average of .621. Shortstop, Jed Lowrie, also played well, batting .300 but will miss at least two months with a thumb injury that required surgery. New third baseman, Luis Valbuena, led the club in home runs in April with five.
The missing link has been the power bats in the middle of the lineup. George Springer (.200), Evan Gattis (.164) and Chris Carter (.160) all started slowly and combined for only seven home runs in April with 86 strikeouts. Hopefully, they will heat up to offset any loss of offense due to the Lowrie’s injury and any cooling off from Altuve and Marisnick.
The Astros lead the league in striking out by a wide margin which is not surprising after picking up Gattis and Colby Rasmus to add to an already strikeout-prone lineup. They are on pace to collect 1546 strikeouts which would break the Major League record of 1535 set by the Astros in 2013. What is surprising is that the team is tied for second in the major leagues in drawing walks.
There are some interesting things to watch for in the months ahead. Will the success on the recent road trip result in the fan base starting to return to Minute Maid Park? Will Marwin Gonzales and Jonathon Villar be able to fill the hole at shortstop in Lowrie’s absence or will the Astros bring up super prospect, 20-year old, Carlos Correa from Class Double A, Corpus Christi, where he is batting .385? Will the club make some moves to strengthen the back end of the starting rotation?
It should be an interesting season.