The Houston Astros are coming off of a three-game sweep at the hands of their in-state and divisional rival Texas Rangers to start the week, dropping their record to 5-11 on the season. That leaves them in last place by two games, and a full five games out of first. While the deficit is far from insurmountable, the Astros will have to string some wins together, something they have been unable to do through 16 games, if they hope to scratch the surface of the expectations heaped upon this club before the season started.
The pitching staff is not the only culprit for the slow start, but after seeing Dallas Keuchel roughed up for six runs on 13 hits in six innings in the series finale last night, it's be a good time to take a look at the staff as a whole. Of course, it's worth noting that Keuchel had an even worse outing against the Rangers in Arlington down the stretch last season (4.2 innings, 9 earned) and went on the win the AL Cy Young award.
First, a bright spot. Even though Keuchel was shelled last night, it's the first game he didn't allow a walk all season, totaling 11 free passes in his first three outings, which is far from the norm for the bearded lefty. Keuchel leads the starters in ERA at 3.71 with Scott Feldman ranking right behind him at 4.11. If Feldman is the team's second-best starter, the Astros are in trouble.
The fix could be as simple as getting Lance McCullers back in uniform, which would give the rotation a boost, provide depth options, and give the Astros starters a different look. As Jeff Luhnow stated on a recent Astros podcast, without McCullers, the team doesn't have a starter that throws above 90. This is part of the reason the Oakland Athletics bullpen struggled so mightily last season--they were all basically the same pitcher. Without offering a different look, by the second or third game of a series, opposing teams are able to square up pitches they may not have otherwise been able to.
Chris Young of the Kansas City Royals has had success throwing so soft (averaging 87.1 on his heater this season according to FanGraphs) partially because of his spin rate and extension, which apparently make the ball look like it disappears as it approaches the plate, but also because his other rotation mates throw the ball so darn hard.
The Astros staff as a whole has an ERA of 4.81, last in the American League and 27th in baseball, just ahead of a rebuilding Atlanta club (4.97), a rebuilding Milwaukee squad (5.34) and the Rockies (5.55), who play their home games at altitude. The team's ERA is nearly a run higher that any of those in the AL West, with Texas' 3.95 still above league average and 16th overall in baseball.
The Astros' starters have tallied just six quality starts (at least six innings, and three or fewer runs allowed) in their first 16 games, with Keuchel holding two and the rest of the starters having one each. On top of that, the starters are averaging just over five innings per start (yes, this is skewed because of McHugh's rough first outing), which leads to the bullpen, which holds a 4.78 ERA in the early going, working the fourth-most innings in the AL. If the bullpen keeps getting used heavily, that leads to their arms tiring out earlier in the season, and fewer options for A.J. Hinch to use in certain situations.
One option to help the bullpen would be to demote Josh Fields, who is struggling to start the season but is an quality piece of the bullpen puzzle when right, to get some new blood in there. Fields has made 8 appearances thus far, and has surrendered at least one run four times. In three of those four outings he has given up multiple runs. James Hoyt is the most obvious choice if the Astros are looking for a bullpen promotion. Hoyt holds a 2.45 ERA in 7.1 innings and has converted all four of his four save opportunities. Michael Feliz is another option, but allowing him to develop a little longer in the minors seems to be the way to go. His ceiling is much higher than that of Hoyt's, who is 29, but he has struggled already in the Majors. Hoyt is the better current option while Feliz is the better option down the road.
If the rotation continues to struggle after the return of McCullers, there aren't really a lot of options that are more than fill-in guys in Triple-A Fresno at the moment. The talent resides in Corpus Christi where both the finely accurate Joe Musgrove and the highly touted Francis Martes are currently developing. They could become options as the season progresses, but likely wouldn't be considered until about June.
The fact that rookie Tyler White is leading the team in batting average (.315), home runs (5) and rbi (12) doesn't necessarily tell the entire story of the offense with some others right on his heels, but it does show that they has been struggling to score some runs and the some of the veterans are not pulling their own weight. At a point everything will click, and either the bats will pick up the pitching or vice versa. With the amount of talent that this team has it shouldn't be long before they start to turn things around. In the meantime, the Astros welcome the Red Sox to Minute Maid this weekend.