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The Houston Astros: Still Room for Improvement

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Apr 26, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick (6) scored along with Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27), not in picture, on an Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis (11) double RBI during ninth inning, not in picture, against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Monday April 27 and the Houston Astros are about to begin their series in San Diego.  The AL West standings make happy reading for the sort-of-long-suffering baseball fans of East Texas.  The Houston Astros are the proud owners of an 11-7 record, .611 winning percentage at the time of writing, which is good enough for joint fifth-best in all of Major League Baseball.

On Monday, Jason explored what was going right with the team.  Here, I will look at how things could get even better.  With the past handful of seasons in mind, let’s put a bit extra emphasis on that could.

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Jason emphasized the improvement we’ve seen defensively and one cannot help but marvel at

Dallas Keuchel

‘s 0.62 ERA, allowing thirteen hits for two runs, even if he does lead the team in walks with eleven.  He and

Collin McHugh

lead the team in strikeouts, with eighteen a piece.  The two also lead the team in win percentage, going a perfect 2-0 in Keuchel’s case and 3-0 in McHugh’s.  All five starters have double figure strikeouts already, although

Asher Wojciechowski

now finds himself at Fresno with a 7.31 ERA.  He’ll be back.

The team is, predictably, led by diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve with twenty-five hits for an average of .321.  Center-fielder Jake Marisnick actually leads the team in average with .364.  Marisnick, acquired in the 2014 trade that sent Jarred Cosart to Miami – Cosart is currently sitting on an ERA of 3.63, for what it’s worth – would have to go some way to maintain a .300+ average, given his career high is .249, although he did bat .272 in 51 games with the Astros last season.  He is already 2/3 of the way to topping his career high in home runs, and the confidence this quick start could give him once the rest of the lineup really starts seeing pitches could push him on to much better things.

Apr 19, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) gets a single during the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

So, that “rest of the lineup”…

That is where there really is serious room for improvement.  The team is getting solid production from Colby Rasmus, with a .260 average and thirteen hits for five RBIs so far, along with the aforementioned Altuve and Marisnick, and Jed Lowrie has also been solid, but several starters are struggling.  Chris Carter is flirting with the bench at .150.  Evan Gattis has improved his average, but only as far as .156, and still has some way to go to emulate his .263 of last season in Atlanta.  He is also only one home run to the good, but still has time to catch his previous best of 22.  George Springer is hitting .188 and leads the team in strikeouts with twenty-six (he’s currently striking out 38% of the time).  Jason Castro is hitting .191.  Luis Valbuena might be forgiven his .194 given he leads the team in home runs with five.

Going on seasons past, and considering that only Lowrie is over the age of thirty, it seems very reasonable to expect things to improve.  Castro has, perhaps, the biggest question mark, with focus on whether or not he can recapture his All-Star form of 2013.  Most expect Springer to be an important player for the Astros long term and his .231 average of last season seems attainable in his first full season.  If he can throw in another twenty home runs, all the better.  He did strikeout 39% of the time last season and is right around there again this season.

Another question is over Chris Carter’s continuing value to the team.  At Designated Hitter, or occasionally First Base, Carter’s career average is .219 and he has seen his strikeouts soar since arriving in Houston: they went from eighty-three in 2012 with Oakland (sixty-seven games) to 212 and 182 in his two full seasons in Houston.  In this sense, Carter represents what appears to be the Astros offensive philosophy.  Those two seasons saw him set career highs in hits, though, and the Astros are a team that are prone to a strikeout, as Evan Drellich pointed out in this January article for the Houston Chronicle.  The Astros currently lead the lead with 166 strikeouts, after 1442 last season, 1535 in 2013, 1365 in 2012 and “only” 1164, good for fourteenth in the league, in 2011.

Is this a strategy for success?  Well, looking at the last four World Series Champions….um….it could be: St Louis were second last in strikeouts in 2011, San Francisco fifth last in 2012, Boston were ninth in 2013 and San Francisco twelfth last season.  The four teams ahead of the Astros in the overall standings are scattered across the current SO charts: Kansas City are last, the Cardinals are third last, the New York Mets are fifth last but the Detroit Tigers are eleventh.

There is no arguing with first place in the AL West, of course, and one cannot help but feel that the years of criticism directed at GM Jeff Luhnow for his long-game rebuilding strategy could be on the verge of history’s trash can.  The Astros have started the season well and have much room for improvement going forward.  We must expect some regression on some fronts, of course.  The trick will be balancing it all out.

Next: The Astros Recall Hot Hitting L.J. Hoes, Option Wojo

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