Astros Complete a Surprising 2015 Season
The Houston Astros were expected to make a modest improvement in 2015 over their 70-92 record in 2014. Did anyone expect them to still be playing on October 14 and to be playing after the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees had been eliminated and sent home? Would anyone have guessed that they would win more games than the Washington Nationals who were picked by some to win 100 or more games? The end wasn’t pretty but it didn’t seriously detract from a successful season.
Getting to the top in Major League baseball is tough, especially from the depths the Astros reached in the forgettable 2011-2013 seasons. It can be viewed as a seven step process and the Astros took several steps in 2015.
Step 1 – Field a competitive team. CHECK. 139 days on top of the American League West Division.
Step 2 – Turn in a winning record. CHECK. 86-76 record in 2015.
Step 3 – Claim a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. CHECK. One game ahead of Los Angeles Angels.
Step 4 – Win the Wild Card play-in game. CHECK. 3-0 vs. Yankees.
Step 5 – Win a Division Series. Wait till next year.
Step 6 – Win a League Championship Series. See Step 5.
Step 7 – Win the World Series. See Step 5.
The Astros improvement in 2015 was due to several factors. In 2014, the Astros performance was below average in virtually every significant category. However, in 2015, the Astros were above average in most categories due to:
- The further development of young players like George Springer, Lance McCullers, Vince Velasquez and Preston Tucker and especially the arrival of potential superstar, Carlos Correa,
- The off-season acquisition of veterans Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena (each reaching the 25 home run mark), and
- Most significantly, a major improvement in the bullpen.
Here are the numbers:
|BAVG||.242||.250||Better but below MLB average of.254.|
|OBP||.309||.315||Better but below MLB average of .317.|
|Slugging||.383||.437||Big jump to No. 2 in MLB. MLB avg .405.|
|OPS||.692||.752||MLB avg. is .721. Houston ranks No. 2.|
|Runs Per Game||3.88||4.50||Big improvement. Ranks 6th in MLB.|
|Home Runs||163||230||Only Toronto hit more (232)|
|Stolen Bases||122||121||Ranks third in MLB. First in AL.|
|Strike Outs||1442||1392||Better but still too high.|
|ERA||4.11||3.57||Ranks 6th in MLB vs. 25th in 2014.|
|WHIP||1.34||1.20||Ranks 5th in MLB vs. 25th in 2014.|
|Runs/Game||4.46||3.81||Ranks 6th in MLB vs. 24th in 2014.|
|Starters ERA||3.82||3.71||Ranks 8th in MLB.|
|Relievers ERA||4.80||3.27||Big key to team’s success.|
Defensive Runs Saved Above Average:
|-15||+38||Big improvement. Ranks 3rd in MLB.|
The Astros in 2015 ranked among the MLB leaders in power, speed, pitching and defense, suggesting that their rise was not a fluke and may be sustainable. Unfortunately, the strong performance was not continued in September when the pitching, especially the bullpen collapsed, allowing 4.88 runs per game compared to the full season average of 3.57. The offense in September was even stronger than the full season average with 4.78 runs per game vs. 4.50. The result was an 11-16 record for the month, the only losing month of the season. This, combined with the 18-10 record by the Texas Rangers in September resulted in the Astros finishing two games behind the Rangers after leading the AL West Division for the first five months. However, the Astros recovered to win six of their final eight games to claim the second wild card.
The Astros compiled some noteworthy individual accomplishments in 2015. Jose Altuve collected 200 hits for the second straight year and again led the AL in stolen bases with 38 while batting .313 with an on-base percentage (OBP) of .353. Springer led the team in OBP with .367 and Correa led in slugging average with .512 and in on-base plus slugging (OPS) with .857 and is a leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. Five players hit over 20 home runs, led by Evan Gattis with 27 who also led in RBIs with 88. Eleven players hit over 10 home runs, tying a major league record. Chris Carter struggled at the plate through the first five months before coming up with some key hits in September but still lost his season-long battle with the Mendoza Line (.199).
On the pitching side, Dallas Keuchel had an outstanding year (20-8, 2.48 ERA with 216 strikeouts) and is a strong candidate to win the AL Cy Young Award. Collin McHugh followed up his strong 2014 season with 19 wins in 2015. Luke Gregerson recorded 31 saves in his first year as a closer and relievers, Will Harris (1.90) and Tony Sipp (1.99), compiled ERAs under 2.00.
Another factor that bodes well for the future is the strength of the minor league system. The Astros’ seven top minor league teams all had winning records and made the playoffs in their leagues. Triple-A Fresno won the Pacific Coast League championship and also won a one-game playoff against the champion from the Triple-A International League. Four minor leaguers were promoted to the majors during the 2015 season and made positive impacts and six others were traded to upgrade the major league team. The Astros had a strong draft in 2015, selecting three players considered by many to be among the top ten players available.
The Astros still have some holes to fill. They need a hard-throwing relief pitcher that can get strikeouts in key situations. They need a further upgrade in on-base skills and to cut down on rally-killing strikeouts. The back end of the starting rotation could also be improved.
The success achieved in 2015 is not guaranteed to continue in 2016. Many major league teams have enjoyed a surge like the Astros only to fall back the following year. After starting the 2015 season 17-8, the Astros were a mediocre 69-68 the rest of the way. However, with youth on their side, there should be room for improvement and the Astros should be positioned to be contenders for the foreseeable future.