Astros: The Knee-Jerk Store Called; An Early Look at the Team’s Fast Start
This is not an epidemic limited to Astros fans, but it’s too early to judge a player after only seven games.
Ah, spring is in the air… we’re buried under a mountain of pollen. Kids are in the homestretch to summer. And baseball fans everywhere are busy knee-jerking to a small sample of games they’ve convinced themselves are predictive of how a long season will break. You know the drill Astros fans: JOSH REDDICK SUCKS! BENCH HI—
NEVER MIND! JOSH REDDICK IS AWESOME!!!
Here’s a quick sampling of what we know, what we think we know and what we definitely don’t know after the Astros first seven games.
What We Know
Uhm… these guys are good. Like, really, really, really good.
All off-season, there was ample talk of avoiding the dreaded championship hangover… Yeah, well, the Astros have essentially, for now at least, stuck a sharp object into that notion and left it bloodied on the Minute Maid Park sidewalk.
At 6-1, the Astros are off to the best season-after-a-championship start since the 2004 Florida Marlins also began their title defense 6-1. They lead the American League with 41 runs scored and are a league-best +21 in run differential despite playing four of their first seven on the road. This while all three home games were extended with pre-game ceremonies/distractions. Pretty doggone impressive.
And look, EVERY WORD of this article should be dipped into a deep vat of small sample size – but the Astros’ start is not totally insignificant.
Did the Marlins build on that 6-1 to a repeat championship? No, they most certainly did not. They finished 83-79 and 13 games behind the Atlanta Braves. But as we know from recent Astros’ history, quick starts can pay tremendous dividends down the road.
In ’15, the Astros jumped out to a 15-7 mark in April and led the West by four games. While they did eventually concede the division to Texas, they secured a wild card berth by a mere game over the Angels, despite playing roughly .500 baseball from May on (71-67). Those early April wins were pivotal.
Last year, the Astros followed up a 16-9 April with a 22-7 May and led the AL West by 11 games on the morning of June 1. The division race was essentially done some six weeks before the All-Star Game.
And here’s the scary part: while Altuve, Correa, and Springer are off to reasonably expected, sustainable starts, Alex Bregman has a .655 OPS; Dallas Keuchel has an ERA+ of 97 (before his second start Wednesday), Yuli Gurriel is on the DL… There’s ample room for improvement. In fact, ZIPS’ updated mean standings now have the Astros winning 98 games – and no other team in all of baseball within five games of them.
What We Think We Know
The bullpen remains the weakest part of the team. Granted, the Astros’ offense and starting rotation both have the potential to be historically great so a very good bullpen would still likely finish a distant third in any race between the three units. But it has not been a terribly encouraging start thus far (outside of Brad Peacock; more on him in a bit) for the far and away most problematic part of last year’s postseason run.
Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Tony Sipp have combined with newcomers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon to produce an ERA of 4.09 and a WHIP of 1.52. They’ve each given up at least one run (only Rodon’s was unearned), and we’re not even counting Collin McHugh, who has a 9.00 FIP. (My guess is McHugh, if he’s not pressed into injury-replacement duty in the rotation, will eventually be dealt for prospects. Or, you know – bullpen help.)
Peacock has been the lone bright spot as he seems to have picked up where he left off last year. He has thrown five scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and zero walks while striking out 7. He’s starting to look and feel a bit like peak Andrew Miller. If the Astros have a rope on Giles after his disastrous postseason, Peacock’s arsenal is shaping up as a legitimate plan B in terms of closing games.
What We Definitely Don’t Know
The return on the Astros’ three new offensive additions – J.D. Davis, Derek Fisher & Max Stassi – has been decidedly mixed thus far.
Stassi has been the obvious breakout – he has two doubles in thirteen plate appearances and just three strikeouts. He’s 27 and doesn’t have a particularly decorated minor league career (.247/.319/.419 across nine seasons), but he’s now totaled 102 MLB plate appearances and has a more-than-respectable .777 OPS.
If he can maintain that, he could give McCann some much-needed rest behind the dish. At this point, the Astros need McCann more in October than they do April through September, so limiting the wear and tear on the 34-year old catcher likely has a long-term significance.
Fisher and Davis.
Fisher, who has forever cemented his place in Astros’ lore, remains very, very fast (he’s on pace for 46 triples and scored the winning run Wednesday). Beyond that, however… Fisher has six strikeouts and one walk in 16 plate appearances so far. He seems likely to stick around because his blazing speed truly is an asset – but any thought he might be good enough to hold off the surging Ted (Kyle Tucker) into June and July…
Finally, Davis has looked lost and overwhelmed, a far cry from his explosive spring training performance (in which he hit .364 and swatted five dingers). After his 0-3, two-strikeout performance Wednesday, he has a .133 OPS in 15 plate appearances with six strikeouts and one walk. As soon as Gurriel is healthy, Davis will be sent back down to jostle with AJ Reed and Tyler White for positioning on the Astros likely-to-be-busy train from Fresno to Houston.
Next: Astros Josh Reddick wills himself to hit with a Tweet
Will Stassi and/or Fisher being able to stick in what is a loaded line-up? Too early to tell.
What are your knee-jerk takeaways from the first week of the 2018 MLB season? Let me hear from you.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***