Disappointing Finish for Astros in September
For the second straight year, the Houston Astros faltered in the final month of the season. The team had four straight winning months before logging a 13-16 record in September (and the first two days of October.) They didn’t come close to challenging the Texas Rangers for the West Division lead in September, finishing 11 games behind and also dropping to third place in the Division, two games behind Seattle. While they remained in contention for a Wild Card until the final week of the season, they finished 5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles for the final Wild Card slot.
After the team’s success in winning a Wild Card in 2015, the 2016 season has to be considered somewhat disappointing. It’s not unusual for a team to regress somewhat after a season in which they make a large forward jump. For example, the Minnesota Twins won 83 games in 2015, up from 70 in 2014, but dropped to 59 this year, a decline of 24 games. The Astros record of 84-78 in 2016 was only 2 games worse than their 86-76 record in 2015. With their strong nucleus of young players, the chances of success in the next few years are good.
What went wrong in September? It was a combination of things. Their two best starting pitchers, Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel, were injured and didn’t pitch at all in September, requiring the use of rookies and minor leaguers to start 12 games. This put a strain on the overworked bullpen which was largely ineffective in the month. Doug Fister, their best starting pitcher in May and June, was totally ineffective in September with a record of 0-4 and an ERA of 11.74. The staff ERA was 4.85 in September compared to 4.06 for the season.
On September 22, following a successful road trip to the West Coast where they took 5 of 6 games from Seattle and Oakland, the Astros were very much in contention for a wild card. However, they then lost three straight games at home against the Los Angeles Angels which essentially removed them from serious contention. The bullpen was the primary culprit. In one game, closer Ken Giles came in to save a 6-4 lead in the 9th inning but he gave up 6 runs to lose 10-6. The next night, the Astros took a 4-1 lead into the 8th inning but five ineffective relievers were all scored on as the Astros lost 10-4.
The offense was down a little in September but not to the extent of the pitching. Jose Altuve, batting .351 entering September, hit only .269 for the month, lowering his average to .338. Jake Marisnick, Jason Castro, Colby Rasmus and A.J. Reed all batted less than .200 for the month.
For the season, performance was down slightly from 2015 in most categories. Here are the numbers:
|Batting Average||.242||.250||.247||MLB Average is .255|
|On-Base Pct||.309||.315||.319||Improving, but below MLB afverage of .322|
|Slugging||,383||.437||.417||Astros power declined in 2016|
|OPS||.692||.752||.735||MLB Average is .739|
|Runs Per Game||3.88||4.55||4.47||MLB Average is 4.48|
|Home Runs||163||230||198||Big dip in 2016|
|Stolen Bases||122||121||102||Declining import to Astros game|
|Strikeouts||1442||1392||1452||Highest in AL without Chris Carter|
|ERA||4.11||3.57||4.06||Big regression in 2016|
|WHIP||1.34||1.20||1.29||MLB average 1.32|
|Runs per game||4.46||3.81||4.33||MLB average 4.48|
|Starter’s ERA||3.81||3.72||4.37||Big problem area|
|Relievers’s ERA||4.80||3.27||3.56||Area of strength until September meltdown|
From the above numbers, the biggest problem the Astros have is starting pitching. In 2016, the Astros didn’t have a staff ace like they did in 2015 with Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Keuchel. If Keuchel can regain something close to his 2015 form, it will solve their biggest problem. Lance McCullers should be a capable No. 2 starter if he can recover from his elbow injury. The Astros have several promising young power pitchers in the minor leagues but they may not be ready in 2017. Rookie Joe Musgrove made 10 starts after coming up late in the season and should compete for a spot in the rotation next year.
Collin McHugh (13-10, 4.34 ERA) did not have as strong a season as in 2015 but is a capable No. 3 starter. A case can be made that rookie Chris Devenski was the team’s best pitcher in 2016 with a 2.16 ERA as a spot starter and long relief man. Another 2016 rookie who may be a candidate to start next year is Michael Feliz, a hard thrower, who compiled an 8-1 record with 95 strikeouts in 65 innings. However, he was inconsistent, with an ERA of 4.43 over 47 relief appearances.
In the first half of the season, the team was carried by three players, Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. Altuve led the AL in hitting (.338) and hits (216) and drove in 96 runs while scoring 108. Correa (.274, 20 HR, 96 RBI) and Springer (.261, 29 HR, 82 RBI) did not reach the levels that some had forecast but were very productive players that should be around for a long time. Luis Valbuena was having his most productive season when he was shut down with a hamstring injury in July. Evan Gattis came on strong as a power hitter and led the team with 32 home runs.
Top prospect, Alex Bregman, was promoted in July and, after a very slow start, began producing at a high level and added another productive bat to the lineup (.264, 8, 34). Later, veteran Cuban player, Yulieski Gurriel, joined the team and in a limited sample showed promise for the future. This still leaves three holes in the bottom of the lineup where the 2016 occupants batted .220 or below with tons of strikeouts. At first base, highly rated prospect, A. J. Reed, was promoted in June but never got untracked as a hitter (.164). He should get another chance to produce next year. Catcher, Jason Castro, is a free agent and creates a dilemma for the team. He is sound defensively but hasn’t produced offensively for the last three years, (.210 while striking out in 37% of his at bats in 2016.) Other than Gattis, The Astros do not have another proven major league catcher.
There is also a need for another outfielder. Carlos Gomez was a bust and was released during the season, Jake Marisnick is solid defensively but has a weak bat and Colby Rasmus won’t be back. Players promoted from the farm system (Preston Tucker, Tony Kemp, Teoscar Hernandez) have not shown enough to be considered as full-time players.
The Houston minor league system had an exceptional year in 2015 with six teams reaching post-season playoffs. However 2016 was not as strong as only two made the playoffs (Double A Corpus Christi and High Class A Lancaster) and neither was a winner. The outlook for 2017 is promising with a couple of big ifs. Keuchel and McCullers must come back from their injuries and the Astros must find a way to be more successful against the Texas Rangers (4-15) in 2016, a pattern that has existed for several years.