Can the Astros Bounce Back in an Improved AL West?
The Houston Astros are floundering in the AL West cellar following a tremendous breakout season in 2015. Forty games into 2016, the Astros sit at 16-24 after winning last night’s game to the Chicago White Sox. Though only a quarter of the way through the season, the Stros’ have some ground to cover on the division leading Seattle Mariners. The question that remains is what can Houston do to bounce back into playoff contention before it’s too late?
When searching for a glimpse of the 2015 Astros, it can be found in the middle infield. Jose Altuve, the speedy second baseman, is raking at a .340/.430/.627 slash along with nine long balls. Altuve’s stellar start is keeping the Astros .233/.320/.411 line from dropping any lower. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa has maintained a steady .273/.381/.469 line, a shade under last season’s slash. The two infielders are the anchor to an abysmal lineup, which will only change with the improvement of supporting players.
Key pieces to the 2015 Astros puzzle have seemingly gone missing. Although Evan Gattis has only played in half of Houston’s games this year, his .209/.257/.309 line to go with a lone home run is nothing short of disappointing. Preston Tucker, Gattis’ interim replacement at DH, failed to perform in his absence hitting a meager .176/.213/.353. Now heading to the DL, Carlos Gomez has been searching for answers at the plate with only a .182/.238/.248 to show for it.
Heading into Tuesday night’s matchup against the White Sox, the Astros would be hitting .191 without the Altuve/Correa duo. This is a truly staggering statistic given last year’s achievements, reaching the playoffs and nearly knocking off the eventual World Series champions Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. While Houston has dropped from a .250 to a .233 AVG, last year’s batting averages were not playoff caliber (ranked 21st). Even with the below average hitting, Houston pitched their way into October in 2015.
While the Houston lineup has been largely underwhelming, an argument can be made that the pitching staff has been an even larger drag on the 2016 season. Reigning AL Cy Young award winner, and Astros ace, Dallas Keuchel has been a shell of his former self, owning a 5.58 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP with a 2-5 record in eight starts. Other Astros starters Collin McHugh, Doug Fister, and Mike Fiers all own ERAs above 4.00. While Luke Gregerson has not had a stellar season, his 3.78 ERA might seem impressive compared to fellow Houston relievers Ken Giles (7.20 ERA), Josh Fields (6.89 ERA), and Michael Feliz (6.43 ERA).
The disparity between 2015 and 2016 is clearly evident in the pitching category. Dallas Keuchel‘s greatness was evident in his Cy Young award, but the ace was well supported by a team 3.57 ERA, tops in the American League. While still early in the season, Houston’s 4.67 ERA comes nowhere close to last season’s dominance. The improvements need to start at the top with Keuchel and work through the bullpen. A few quality starts from the ace could push the Astros in the right direction.
The Astros do have ground to make up, but as stated earlier there is still time bounce back. If last season proves anything, it’s that pitching is the key to success in Houston. The Astros most certainly have a talented pitching staff, but they need to start gaining ground in a more competitive AL West. As the season progresses, can the Astros rekindle the energy that drove them to the ALDS after nine year playoffs absence? It seems that burden relies heavily on the Astros once-elite pitching staff, led by an ace in dire need of a bounce back outing.
All statistics are updated heading into, but not including, the Astros vs. White Sox game Tuesday Night.