Seventy Three Days and Counting
On April 19, the Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Angels, 4-3 and moved into first place in the American League West Division. Seventy three days later, they are still there. At one point in May, they led the division by 7 games and finished the month 5 games ahead. They encountered some rough spots in June including a 7–game losing streak, some injuries and a few bullpen blowups, but they still finished the month ahead by 4 games with a record of 46-34. They were 15-14 in June, their third straight winning month.
The Astros success in 2015 has been due to a number of factors. They are playing consistently well in most facets of the game, hitting, pitching and defense. While the team batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.308) rank near the bottom, their slugging average (.426) ranks near the top of all major league teams. They were the first team in the major leagues to reach 100 home runs and are currently on top with 113. They rank third in the majors and first in the American League in stolen bases with 61 and have scored an average of 4.45 runs per game, ranking sixth in the majors. However, they lead the majors in striking out with 742 which has them on a pace for 1502, slightly less than the major league record of 1535 which the Astros set in the forgettable 2013 season.
Pitching has been surprisingly strong all season. They have allowed 3.73 runs per game and the team ERA is 3.50, ranking 8th in the majors and third in the American League. The bullpen wavered a little in June but the relief pitchers have an ERA of 2.56 for the season, ranking 4th in the majors and behind only Kansas City in the American League. Astro pitchers have allowed only 1.17 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), the best figure in the majors.
The back end of the starting rotation has been a potential problem area but received a shot in the arm with the performance of rookie Lance McCullers who recorded an ERA of 2.11 in his six starts in June. Fellow rookie, Vince Velasquez also showed promise, recording a 3.72 ERA in his four June starts.
Offense in June was up, largely due to the eagerly anticipated arrival of the beginning of the Carlos Correa era. Correa, the number one pick in the 2012 draft, considered by most to be the top prospect in baseball, earned his promotion to the majors with outstanding production in two minor league stops to begin the season. In his first month with the Astros, he batted .287 with 5 home runs, 15 RBIs and 4 stolen bases. On three occasions, he needed only a triple to hit for the cycle.
George Springer had a strong month, batting .321 with 6 home runs. Backup catcher, Hank Conger, also had a strong month batting .310. Luis Valbuena and Chris Carter provided power with 9 and 6 home runs respectively, but both remain below the Mendoza Line at .199 and .197. Jose Altuve slumped early in the month but finished strong on a 9 game hitting streak.
The Astros minor league teams continue to do well. All four of the full season teams have winning records and three are in first place in their divisions. Several prospects have been promoted to higher levels including 2013 No. 1 pick, Mark Appel. However, Appel was hit hard in his first start at AAA Fresno. There was hope that he would be able to help at the major league level this year but his inconsistency now makes it unlikely.
The Astros faced a tough schedule the last two weeks of June with an 8-game road trip west followed by home series against the Yankees and Royals. They split the road trip 4-4 thanks to the luxury of facing the Colorado Rockies batting practice pitchers for two games and also split the Yankee series 2-2. They finished the month with 2 wins against Kansas City.
The going doesn’t get any easier. The Astros began the month of July by finishing the 3-game sweep of Kansas City before leaving on another road trip which takes them to the All-Star break. They will not have another home game until July 17. Unfortunately, they may be without Springer who was hit in the wrist by a pitch in the final game of the Royals series.