Except a few hours later, the Astros boarded a flight to Seattle – and the beginning of a six-game road trip – a loser again. Ken Giles, the reliever imported from Philadelphia to strengthen Houston’s already strong bullpen, allowed a pair of runs in the 12th. The Astros couldn’t counter. As the fourth week of the season dawns, a team considered a World Series favorite (::looks in mirror::) has a better record than only two teams – the Braves and the Twins, who both appear to be awful. They have not yet won consecutive games.
Houston, as of Monday afternoon, is 6-13. Over the course of a season, this happens. Last year’s Astros — who took the second American League wild-card spot, beat the Yankees in that game and then pushed the Royals to five games in a division series – dropped 13 of 18 games in one September stretch.
But no other team with such lofty aspirations is currently under so much water. A look at the problems that got them here, and what it might take to get them out.
Problem: Starting pitching. Here lies the path to the AL West cellar – for now. Houston’s team ERA: 4.85 – worst in the American League. Dallas Keuchel, last year’s Cy Young winner, walked six men in one start and gave up six runs in another – and he has been the Astros’ best starter. The ERAs of the other members of the Houston rotation: 4.58, 5.73, 5.94 and 7.56 (for Scott Feldman, Mike Fiers, Doug Fister and Collin McHugh, respectively). A year ago, the Astros didn’t have Fiers (a midseason trade acquisition) or Fister (signed as a free agent) and were second in the AL in ERA. Now, only Milwaukee’s rotation is allowing more walks and hits per innings pitched across all of baseball – and they’re not missing bats, either, with a 16.3 percent strikeout rate that again ranks 29th.
Solution: Lance McCullers – and a little better luck? McCullers, a 22-year-old right-hander, made an encouraging debut last summer (3.22 ERA, 129 strikeouts in 125-2/3 innings). A first-round pick out of high school in 2012, he figures heavily into Houston’s bright future. But he came down with a bout of shoulder soreness in spring training, was shelved to start the season, made one three-inning minor league start before having his rehab assignment halted because of more issues. After a bullpen session over the weekend, he’ll be back at extended spring training in Kissimmee, Fla. – and the Astros aren’t sure when he’ll be back. But even before McCullers is healthy, the Astros could turn things around. Their rotation is allowing a .344 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), tied for the highest in baseball – and well above the American League norm of .299. If that number normalizes, Houston’s starters should see more success.
Problem: Ken Giles. The Astros sent a bevy of prospects, including promising starter Vincent Velasquez, to the Phillies for the 25-year-old right-hander, and there was a school of thought that he would become Houston’s closer. Manager A.J. Hinch instead stuck with veteran Luke Gregerson in that role – and he has been fine, with just one run allowed in eight appearances. Giles, though, can’t get enough outs. He has just one 1-2-3 inning in nine appearances, five of which have ended with runs scored. The league is hitting .325 against him with a .972 OPS. And his WHIP is an astonishing 1.846, eighth-highest of any AL reliever.
Solution: Stick with him. Houston has a deep bullpen, and reached the playoffs last year without Giles in the midst. And there are some concerns with him: After getting swings-and-misses on his fastball 10.2 percent of the time in 2014 and 8.8 percent last year, that number has fallen to just 3.4 percent. That’s odd on the face of it, but even stranger still because he hasn’t lost either velocity or movement. Given hitters have a .346 BABIP against him – and he’s only thrown 8-2/3 innings – this could normalize. “Things aren’t going my way right now,” he told reporters after Sunday night’s loss. It’s possible Giles’s problems are as simple as that.
Problem: Black holes in the lineup. The Astros’s offense is built on power, and their 27 homers put them tied for first in the AL. Their slugging percentage (.439) trails only Baltimore, and they lead the AL with 69 extra-base hits. They’re just not converting that muscle into runs. A year after ranking sixth in baseball in runs scored, the Astros sit 14th. One reason: They can’t keep the line moving. Center fielder Carlos Gomez is hitting .194 with just two walks and a .471 OPS; Hinch has tried him everywhere from fifth to seventh in the order. Catcher Jason Castro, not an offensive force by any means, is at least a power threat who entered the season with a career OPS of .702; this year, he is hitting .116 with no doubles or homers and a .434 OPS with 20 strikeouts in 49 plate appearances. And primary designated hitter Evan Gattis hasn’t found himself since returning from offseason sports hernia surgery a week into the season, with a .188 average and no homers and a single RBI. All this puts an inordinate burden on shortstop Carlos Correa, who hit three homers in the first two games of the season but has none (and just four extra-base hits) since.
Solution: Uncertain. The Astros don’t seem likely to turn to perennial prospect Jon Singleton at this point; he has three homers but no other extra-base hits and is hitting just .212 in his first 14 games in Class AAA – and his appearances in the majors in 2014 and 2015 went terribly. Last year, Jake Marisnick sparked the Astros early, but with Gomez on board there were too few at-bats, and the club sent him to the minors on Monday. This is, in large part, the team the Astros built, the one they expected to contend. Given the season isn’t yet a month old, the best move would be: show no panic.
Seattle and Oakland await this week, then a 10-game homestand. We may have a better understanding of the depth of the Astros’ problems after that.