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Are the Houston Astros Actually This Good?

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There’s a pretty great “let’s get stoked about baseball” campaign that MLB has run out this year called “#THIS.” I’m not really sure why they picked that buzzword rather than, say, “synergy.” There’s an interesting line from Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter at the beginning of the promotional video the league released just before Opening Day: “There’s no Cinderellas in baseball. Who you are and what you are will show itself sooner or later.”

(If you want to hear that line verbatim/get chills, watch this ad-free video!)

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with him in the context of the playoffs (see 2014 Kansas City Royals, 2005 Houston Astros). But from April to September, if you forget about Showalter’s 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who went 16-2 in extra inning games and 29-9 in one-run games, he makes a good point. That’s the beauty of a 162-game season — it weeds out the pretenders from the contenders.

And here we are, coming up on the beginning of May, and the Cinderella of all Cinderellas, the Houston Astros, find themselves sitting alone in first place in the AL West. The Astros are surprising just about everybody (but not me, of course 😉 ). This is the fastest they’ve reached 12 (well, 13 now) wins since I was a middle schooler. Anybody who’s watched them in these last few series can say “yeah, they look like a playoff team” without sounding crazy, which, by and large, just felt really weird to type out.

But as Houston Astros fans, it’s our nature to be skeptical. We may not be used to hot starts of late. However, we are all too familiar with Lady Regression to the Mean. She’s a cruel mistress that’ll make you a realist faster than you can say “J.R. Towles once got 8 RBI in a Major League Baseball game.”

Earlier this week, Jason Burke wrote about how the Astros are winning. Andrew Sanders wrote about how there is room for improvement despite their hot start. Both writers used stats from the first 19 games to support their arguments. I’ll be examining those stats as well, but I’ll be helping us decide for ourselves — is this team due to face a cold backhanded slap from reality? Or are they…dare we say it…worthy of playoff contention?

Let’s look at some of the more notable (yes, I picked and chose) Houston Astros stats’ through 19 games on April 28 (all rankings are out of all 30 teams, to see all stats click here):


Pitching

Fielding

  • Fielding Percentage: .989 (tied-2nd)
  • Errors: 8 (4th fewest)
  • Assists: 217 (5th)

Hitting

  • Batting Average: .229 (22nd)
  • Slugging Percentage: .392 (11th)
  • On-Base Percentage: .310 (18th) (grab a calculator, find OPS)
  • Home runs: 25 (5th)
  • Stolen Bases: 23 (tied-1st)
  • Walks: 74 (tied-4th)
  • Strikeouts (lol): 179 (1st, next closest, Miami, has 168)

Overall, there are a lot of encouraging things up there. Let’s break it all down.

Pitching:

First of all: The Houston Astros have a reliable bullpen, and it’s going to stay that way. Aaah … that felt good. Now on to the starters. Dallas Keuchel is flexing all over the haters right now and has the second-best ERA (0.62) in the Majors. Collin McHugh has been impressive in his own right, as has Roberto Hernandez, but after that, it’s a big ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Scott Feldman has a 4.81 ERA that (I think) will not get tremendously lower than his career 4.48 mark. The 5th slot figures to be a question mark until Brett Oberholtzer comes back (assuming he performs well) and Hernandez should (notice I did not say ‘will’) regress from his current 3.57 mark. Water tends to find its level, and I think this team is still one more elite pitcher (other than Keuchel and, well, McHugh honestly) away from seriously contending. Free agency should be fun next offseason in that regard. In the remaining 142 games, I think we can expect the Houston Astros to fall out of the top ten rankings in some of the pitching categories above despite the fact that the bullpen has proven to have a pulse (and then some) this season.

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Fielding:

I am beyond impressed with the defensive performance the Astros have displayed this year. Their stats may slip a bit with the loss of Jed Lowrie until the All-Star Break, with error-prone Jonathan Villar getting reps at short and Marwin Gonzalez holding the starting spot. But you know what they say: defense doesn’t slump. Or … speed doesn’t slump. Whatever. Same difference. We knew the outfield would impress, and for the most part, it has. If there’s any constant positive we can expect from this team (other than Jose Altuve hitting baseballs and Gold Glover Keuchel and McHugh keeping people from hitting them), it’s the defense. That by itself is going to help this team add more wins to its 2014 mark of 70.

Hitting:

Raise your hand if you’re shocked that the Houston Astros are running away with the team strikeout crown.

Didn’t think so. This team, no matter how well it’s playing, will strike out in bunches. Monday night’s 9-4, 12 K win is a prime example of that. It’s the nature of the beast. The walks and stolen bases totals being as high as they are incredibly encouraging. You can chalk up the latter stat to newfound baserunning aggressor Jake Marisnick (who, by the way, will not hit .360 all year, despite the marked offensive improvement he has made), along with George Springer. There are also some team stats that we should actually expect to progress, which is really exciting and should be a very scary thought for the rest of the AL West.

This team will hit better than .229, and should be able to slug better than .392 with all the big bats in the order (see-5th in Majors in HRs, but just 23rd in doubles). Remember: Chris Carter, Evan Gattis and Springer, the three biggest power threats on this team, are all hitting in the .100s, and the team is leading the division by 3 games. WOW. In short, watch out.


Let’s recap: the bullpen is dominant and should continue to be, the starting pitchers 3 through 5 may be overperforming, and are probably the team’s biggest weakness. But that might be OK, because this team can and will outhit other teams while striking out 9 times a game and boasting a stout defense. Are they a playoff team?

Maybe. There’s a chance. If they’re still hanging around the 2nd Wild Card spot by the deadline, don’t be surprised if Luhnow makes some moves, most likely to bolster the back end of the rotation. But regardless of where they finish this season and how many games they improve by, the Houston Astros are competitive and fun to watch again. After the purgatory we’ve sat through in the last 5 years, that alone is amazing news.

#WorldSeriesChamps2016

Next: Is Luis Valbuena Part of the Astros Furture?

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