Lance Iversen, USA Today

Houston Astros April Recap

The Astros are off to a 7-17 start to the 2016 season, a feat not even the 111 loss 2013 team achieved in April

The first month of this season has been rough. There is no getting around it no matter which way you slice it. At 7-17, the Astros are already seven games behind first place Texas in arguably the weakest division in the American League. The silver lining here is that they are in the weakest division in the AL and have plenty of games remaining on their schedule against their AL foes, so Houston can certainly get back into the race in a hurry. There are larger problems at work, however. 

Scott Feldman, who was lifted from the rotation in favor of Chris Devenski, has the best ERA of any Astros starter with two or more starts at 3.97. The rest of the starters follow him in order: Dallas Keuchel (4.41), Mike Fiers (4.97), Doug Fister (5.56) and Collin McHugh (6.65). The team could have ended April with a better record had their offense been more consistent, but it has felt as though when the pitching is going, the bats are hot, and when the bats go cold the pitching is nowhere to be seen. 

Feldman was impressive on Saturday, working three perfect innings while collecting three strikeouts. Post-game Feldman noted that he was able to be more aggressive out of the bullpen and was throwing more strikes. "Maybe coming out of the 'pen like that just helped jumpstart my aggressiveness a little bit." Feldman added "Hopefully we can win tomorrow (Sunday). Hopefully that's what's next. From there we can worry about that other stuff. It'll all take care of itself [his role on the team]."

Even with the calendar flipping to May, there is one big concern in the rotation, and that's is the velocity of AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel. The left-hander has never been a hard thrower, but this season his velocity is down by large margins almost across the board. 

Fastball Slider Cutter Changeup
2015 89.6 (56.1%) 79.4 (20.3%) 86.7 (9.8%) 79.1 (13.7%)
2016 87.9 (42.8%) 77.1 (27.2%) 84.7 (19.6%) 78.7 (10.5%)

The first number is the miles per hour each pitch is being thrown while the second number is his usage of that pitch in each year. Dropping nearly two miles per hour on every pitch besides his change, Keuchel has had to adjust the usage of how often he throws each pitch. It's also worth noting that his walk rate is up from 1.98 per nine last season to 3.48 this season. With the drop in velocity he is able to use his fastball to get ahead of hitters less, and that is likely what's leading to him falling behind batters and then losing them to the base on balls. The problem here is that there is no fix for dropping velocity. The other problem is that while his fastball has dropped by 1.7 miles per hour, his changeup has remained fairly steady, losing just four-tenths. This leads to less of a discrepancy between the two pitches, which generally means a pitcher is more prone to getting hit around. 

The Astros rotation has an ERA of 5.16 while their bullpen has an ERA of 4.94. Both have been inflated a bit by poor outings and small samples, namely McHugh's one-third of an inning in New York and Keuchel's six runs in six innings in Texas for the rotation, and the overall performances of Ken Giles (9.00 ERA over 10 IP) and Michael Feliz (9 earned in 5.1 innings, 15.14 ERA). In defense of the bullpen, the Astros are 0-15 after Saturday's loss in games in which they trail after six innings. That's most of their losses, and that points the finger predominantly at the rotation and the offense. 

Giles has a track record in the Major Leagues, and while he has been unreliable through the first month, I still think he can turn things around. Per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle, Giles said before Saturday's game, "I'm out of whack. I'm not the guy I was the past two seasons...I don't feel comfortable up there." A.J. Hinch is going to start to alleviate the 8th inning role off of him according to Kaplan. One option that could be considered is Will Harris, who has not allowed an earned run since his first outing of the year, totaling 9.2 scoreless frames over nine appearances. In those same outings, he has allowed just nine hits and walked one. 

Obviously a lot has not gone the way of the Houston Astros over the first month of the season, but as Jose Altuve pointed out on Saturday, "we're just one hit, two hits away. One play away. We're right there. We're gonna come back and win some games." Saturday's example was Evan Gattis grounding into a double play to end the game with the bases loaded and the Astros down by two. Friday night it was Carlos Gomez trying to stretch a double into a triple, making the first out of the 9th in a tie game. 

To be fair to Carlos Gomez, he owned his mistake and the reasoning behind his aggressiveness made perfect sense. He said he thought that Coco Crisp, who has a notably bad arm in left, was going to field the throw, but then the centerfielder (Billy Burns) came in and made the throw. "Credit to him." You never want to make the first out on a play like that, but with the team looking to be pressing and Gomez being a spark plug, he was trying to get something started. I can admire that while disagreeing with the decision.

Is there going to be an immediate turnaround as the calendar turns to May? Most likely not. But it's hard to believe that management will continue to field the same 25 players much longer if things continue to go down this road. Luis Valbuena has been noted on the Statcast podcast as being able to hit the ball extremely hard, but he is currently batting .183 and has struck out in 20 of his 60 at-bats, accounting for zero home runs. Feliz, to me, has shown that he is not quite ready to be in the big leagues. Down in Fresno, James Hoyt has a 2.19 ERA over 12.1 innings pitched, striking out 20 in that time. Opponents are batting just .171 against him this season and his ground ball to fly ball ratio is 2.40. 

Another bullpen option would be Brendan McCurry, whom the Astros acquired in the most recent deal that sent Jed Lowrie to the A's. Playing with Corpus Christi, the 24 year old righty held a 2.08 ERA heading into last night's game in Frisco. In that game he allowed three runs in two-thirds of an inning, upping his ERA to 3.95 on the season. That said, his peripherals have been impressive. He has struck out 20 while walking just 4, and his ground ball to fly ball ratio is an astounding 3.00. It may not be the right time for McCurry just yet, as he is still gaining experience in the Texas League, but he should certainly see some time in Fresno before too long. 

There is still plenty of season left for the Astros to gain some ground, but they will have to go 79-59 the rest of the way to match last year's win total and conceivably make the playoffs. The goal at this point should be to reach .500 by the All-Star break. That is roughly two and a half months of playing ten games over .500. From there, the Astros can make a move, get hot, and make the playoffs like we all expected. 

The 2005 team, which made the World Series, had tons of expectations heaped upon them as well but they were just a game over .500 in the first half of that season and were 9-13 in the first month. This year's version will have a tougher climb, but they certainly have the talent to rattle off a number of wins. 

That said, it would be nice if Houston could rattle off just two in a row here before long--something they have yet to do this season. 

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