Astros Still Flying High after Two Months
At the end of April, the Houston Astros surprisingly led the American League West Division by 4 games with a record of 15-7. During the month of May, the lead briefly increased to 7 games before settling back to 4 games with a record of 31-20 at the end of May, the most wins of any American League team.
With almost one third of the season now behind us, it is time to consider what has happened to account for this improvement and to attempt to determine whether or not it will continue. While the 16-13 record in May was not as strong as April’s 15-7 the team has continued to play well in most respects. Relief pitching has been the strong point with an ERA of 2.28, third best in the major leagues. The Astros lead the major leagues in home runs with 84 and are tied for fourth in stolen bases with 43. The team has a positive run differential, scoring 4.38 runs per game and allowing 3.86.
On the other side, Astro batters are second to the Cubs in striking out with 464 and are 25th in batting average at .237 and 23rd in on-base percentage at .305. The ERA for Astro starting pitchers is 4.16 compared to the major league average of 4.06. This is where the team is most vulnerable, particularly with the loss of No. 3 starter, Scott Feldman to a knee injury which will keep him out for about six weeks. The starting pitching stats are buoyed by the work of Dallas Keuchel, who leads the American League with an ERA of 1.76 and is a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young Award at this point. In May, the Astros No.2, 3 and 4 starters, Collin McHugh, Feldman and Roberto Hernandez, all had ERAs over 5.00.
The Astros must fortify the starting rotation to stay in contention. So far, management has chosen to use the farm system with positive results. Lance McCullers Jr. was promoted from AA Corpus Christi in May and had three solid starts with an ERA of 2.40. Two other minor leaguers, Jake Buchanan and Michael Feliz, have also been promoted but have seen only limited action. Other possibilities are available in the minors but a trade for an established major league starting pitcher may be required if the team is to be a serious contender.
Individually, results were mixed in May. Evan Gattis overcame his April struggles, hitting .276 in May with 9 home runs and 22 RBIs. Chris Carter also improved in May with six home runs and 21 RBIs. Rookie, Preston Tucker, promoted from AAA Fresno, had some timely hits and batted .306. Jose Altuve had a down month, batting only .231, and third baseman, Luis Valbuena and backup catcher, Hank Conger were well below the Mendoza line (.200).
Astros minor league teams have performed very well in the past two years and that trend is continuing in 2015. All four of the full-season teams have winning records. Three of the four are leading their divisions and the other is in second place as Astro minor leaguers continue to build a winning tradition. However, the two top prospects do not appear to be quite ready for the major leagues. Carlos Correa, after tearing up the Texas league at Corpus Christi is batting .241 in his first 19 games at Triple A Fresno and pitcher, Mark Appel is 3-1 with a 5.85 ERA at Double A.
The Astros need to start strongly in the month of June after dropping their last two series in May. The schedule gets tougher later in the month with a trip to the West Coast to play Seattle and the Angels, followed by home series against the Yankees and Royals. By the end of June, we should know if the team is likely to be competitive in the season’s second half.