On June 19, 2014, the Astros lost game No. 74, 5-0 to the Rays. With the loss, the team’s record dropped to 32-42.
Houston wasn’t yet the train wreck of a team it would be by the end of the year, though there were certainly signs that the Astros were about to fly off the rails. And many of those signs came in that very game.
Collin McHugh (4-5) pitched well, but still picked up the loss. The two runs he gave up came courtesy of a muffed catch on the front end of a would-be double play. Thanks, Jonathan Villar. The extra pitches, possibly, contributed to McHugh getting pulled after six innings. On comes Paul Clemens, and two homers later a 2-0 deficit becomes a 5-0 loss.
It doesn’t help that the Astros managed only three hits; two by Jose Altuve and one by George Springer. At the time, Springer, Altuve and Dexter Fowler were a pretty decent 1-2-3 in the lineup, all with an OPS near or above .800. Heck, that day Jon Singleton (.769), Matt Dominguez (.702) and Chris Carter (.702) all were pulling their own weight most days. That wouldn’t last long. Carter might have been on the upswing (pun intended), but Dominguez and Singleton were about to crash down. In a month, Springer would play his last game of the season.
That left Altuve and Fowler (when healthy). Dallas Keuchel and McHugh were pitching their hearts out. But with the anemic offense and T-ball bullpen, it wouldn’t matter many nights.
So, Wednesday afternoon the Astros lost a heartbreaker, 2-1 in more innings than I care to count, dropping their record to 42-32. Still, 74 games in, these Astros are 20 games better than the ones in 2014.
While I have no idea what will happen with the Astros today, tomorrow, the next day or thereafter — Luis Valbuena could stop hitting homers, Jed Lowrie might not return to form when he returns, Carlos Correa could turn into a rookie or the league could figure out McHugh and Lance McCullers Jr. — the Astros didn’t get where they are without doing the little things right. Well, at least most of the time.
The Astros have stolen 58 bases and been caught 18 times. That’s a 76 percent success rate. But even better is the number of runners who can go first to third on just about anything hit down the lines or toward the gaps. Springer, Altuve, Correa, Colby Rasmus, Jake Marisnick: each one can take that extra base with ease. In fact, Altuve, Marisnick and Springer all rank in the top 11 among AL base thieves.
This means putting pressure on defenses and making them make mistakes — or forcing them to make a perfect play to get the out. And, yes, the Astros have run themselves into more than one out. Wednesday’s game was a perfect example. Springer, pinch running, gets picked off. Otherwise, he probably goes to third on Gattis’ single. Gattis probably makes second base because the throw probably comes into third. No outs, runners on second and third.
Ah well. More often than not, speed has been a boon rather than a bust.
Runs and Balance.
The Astros are scoring at a much higher pace than in 2014. Their 331 runs thus far — third best in the AL — translates to 725 runs over 162 games. That compares to 629 runs in 2014, which placed the Astros 14th in the AL.
One of the big differences this year has been situational hitting. Evan Gattis leads the Astros with 43 RBIs, which would translate to 94 over the whole season. How has Gattis done it? Well, it isn’t through the long ball. Only 13 RBIs means Gattis has to be driving in runners other than via home run. Five of those homers are solos. A total of 22 of his RBIs have come on homers.
But he’s driven in runners from third without a hit at least twice this season. He’s moved runners over. And he’s whiffed less than 25 percent of the time.
And Gattis isn’t the only one who’s knocking in runs. If they stay healthy, Carter and Luis Valbuena are knock in 70-plus runs.
And it’s not just RBIs. Five Astros are on track to top the 20-homer mark, six if you prorate out Carlos Correa’s first 16 games over the rest of the season.
Of course that consistence swings both ways. Swings and misses, actually. At least three Astros are on pace for 150 Ks. Two more are on pace for 130-plus. Of course, if an out is an out, what does it matter? Well, it matters because when you whiff, you’re not moving that runner over like Gattis has done with some consistency.
A Wealth of Arms.
To say the bullpen has changed would be like saying the internet changed how we all communicate.
Josh Fields is night and day different from last season. Neshek has become just untouchable most days. If Will Harris isn’t an All-Star, there’s no justice in the world. he’s on track for nearly 80 innings, no one can hit him (.097 BA against), no one gets on base against him (0.61 WHIP) and his sub-1.00 ERA is a product of the fact he’s allowed just 3 runs all season.
As for starters, McHugh has had some struggles, but he’s still got 8 wins. I know, I know, worst statistic ever. Still, it’s entirely possible the Astros could have a 20-game winner. And it’s as likely to be McHugh as it is Keuchel. Well, not quite as likely, but it’s not impossible.
And while I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop on Lance McCullers Jr., he keeps pitching amazing. And Brett Oberholtzer is the bulldog we all think he is. McCullers is 3-2 with a 2.33 ERA. Obie is 2-1 with a 2.81 ERA. Of the pair, McCullers with his sub-.200 BAA looks like a safer bet.
But that’s four pretty good starters with a fifth (Scott Feldman) coming back soon.
There have been a lot of improvements, but most are little. Hitters taking extra bases. Getting rid of the bad bullpen arms and replacing them with actual pitchers. A deeper rotation.
1. What are the little things that have made a difference? Deeper rotation? Fewer holes in the lineup?
2. Several improvements have come from Houston’s vaunted farm system. But each of those players has replaced another major leaguer. Sort of. Correa replaced Villar. McCullers replaced … Roberto Hernandez sort of.