Astros’ success: It’s all about the little things


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.

Baserunning.

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.

Other than Chad Qualls, who’s in a bit of funk, everyone has an ERA under 4.00. Sam Deduno and Kevin Chapman both have ERAs under 4.00. And those are the rejects from this bullpen.

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.

Questions.

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.

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54 comments on “Astros’ success: It’s all about the little things

  1. Carter, Carter Carter Gone, play Lowrie and Margo there for a while. Tucker needs to spend the whole off season handling 500 grounders a day at 1B, Long term AJ Reed. The bullpen has been at least worth 12 wins so far. LMJ I’m thinking is the real deal, the off season to work on control , look out.

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  2. Little things
    – Solid fielding (besides the now gone Villerror)
    – Mental toughness by the bullpen – other than Qualls it is a surprise when they give up a run or a lead
    – Resiliency – they can be doing a terrible job hitting all day and can turn it around in the last 3 innings.

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  3. This year the little things are: 1. our in-division competition is not nearly as stiff; 2. our bullpen [sans Qualls] has been lights out, 3. our skipper and a few prima donnas have not made the dugout and clubhouse a war zone; and 4. we have finally added some of our young studs into the mix. There is still some deadwood that needs to be phased out [i.e. Carter, Feldman, MarGo], and there are some experiments that are just not working out well enough to get us to the big time [i.e. Gattis, Conger]. But there is already help on the way through the system in each of those areas. Meanwhile, our rookies – except Correa, it appears – just need some time and experience at this level to shine at the level at which they are capable of shining. I am talking about Tucker, McCullers, and Velasquez right now. Hopefully before the year – or at least the offseason -is over, the philosophy shift will be in place and Kemp will replace Gattis, Devenski and Appel will replace Feldman, Heineman will replace Conger, and challenge Castro, Singleton or Reed will replace Carter, and Sclafani will replace MarGo).

    Next year, the little things should look even better.

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  4. Dan,

    I wrote this around breaks on the novel I’m working on. Totally missed the fielding point (though I did give a shout out to an error Villar committed a year ago).

    But I was watching the game and saw Correa make a throw that crossed up Chris “Good Glove, No Hit” Carter, and I was shocked. Shocked to see anything other than perfection defensively from our shortstop.

    And that’s a nice new little thing.

    Look, Villar was as capable as anyone of making an amazing play. We’d all seen him do it. But we’d also seen him phone in throws on routine plays, and dial the wrong number in doing so.

    And the resiliency comes from the fact that there are fewer holes in this lineup on a daily basis. And when Lowrie gets back, there’ll be even one less hole.

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  5. What are the little things that have made a difference?
    !. Valbuena has been much better than Dominguez in run production and in not GIDP.
    2. Jake was an All-Star in April and tons better than Fowler in April of last year, and April was when we built our lead this year and fell behind last year. Ditto that for Altuve.
    3. Springer has been much more productive in RF than the combo we had last year.
    4. Gattis has been a much more productive DH than we had last year
    5. Despite his troubles, Carter has been better this year than what we had at 1B last year.
    6. Our LF combination this year has been much more productive than the one we had in LF last year.
    7. Bullpen has been very good this year vs very bad last year.
    8. Hinch is a better manager than Bo Porter.
    9. McCullers and Velasquez giving up 1 run in five innings is better than last year’s pitchers giving up five runs in five innings.
    10. Carlos Correa, even if for only 15 games.

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  6. The psychological edge gained from having players who can do what was listed above. So, Correa’s fielding relaxes the pitchers, McCuller’s attitude helps Obie step up, Neshek’s success motivates Fields, etc.

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  7. In other news – after trading Mike Foltynewicz and sort of giving up on Asher Wojciechowski, the Astros have given hope to all Spelling Bee enthusiasts by showing interest (according to mlbtraderumors.com) in Jeff Samardzija.
    Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Adeiny Hechavarria and Joe Btfsplk from the Lil Abner cartoon are all apparently unavailable.

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    • It’s a fantasy novel in the YA bracket (think everything from Harry Potter to Hunger Games). Magic, betrayal, romance and a plucky hero who keeps getting caught between rocks and hard places. My younger daughter made me make up some bedtime stories for her. Slowly it developed into a book idea (which she thinks is the coolest thing ever).

      And since that SciFi novel on my laptop needs more work than I want to give it, this seemed like a good project.

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  8. 20 year old Akeem Bostick, obtained in the Corporan trade takes his 6′-6″ frame, 1.50 ERA and 0.762 WHIP from the friendly confines of Quad Cities to the wind tunnel in Lancaster. Good luck to that young man.

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    • I’m not sure very many people remember that when he was in college and beginning with the pros he was Akeem Olajuwon (my son has a mounted jersey with that name on it) and then one day he announced it was really Hakeem….If Mr. Bostick becomes 1/2 the player his namesake was we still have a stud.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fresno gets to face Matt Cain for the second time in ten days tonight in Fresno. It will be easy to gage his progess in his rehab if he faces the same team again. Brady Rodgers gets the start for the Grizzlies. I expect it could be a sellout in Fresno.
    Tomorrow they get to face Jhoulys Chacin of the Diamondbacks.

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  10. Aren’t we looking at a ten game improvement right now, not 20?

    I place a higher value on wins for starters than the most of the stat-based community. There are outliers that give credence to their view, like Roger Clemens in 2005 and Jeroime Robertson in 2003, but by and large a starting pitcher has to keep their team in position to win the game, go five innings, and actually exit with the lead. If doing those things were easier, you would see all sorts of starting pitchers win double digits every year.

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  11. I keep thinking this your must be a dream…….someone pinch me! I know we piled on Qualls yesterday, but he really is the Kyrptomite (spelling?) outta the bull pen right now. There is sooo much talent emerging out of AA and high A ball it’s amazing! Whether or not we make it to the play-offs is beside the point, this team has made baseball fun for the city of Houston again, and that’s what it’s all about!
    Correa is making some eye popping plays…….isn’t that just GREAT??!!!
    Next up to the big club is……….???

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    • Becky, you asked a very hard question. I think the Astros are pretty happy with the team they have now and there are very few players on the 40-man in the minor leagues right now who are ready to contribute. There are also two players who will return from the DL in the next few weeks, Lowrie and Feldman.
      The best bet to return may be Singleton, if Carter gets moved, but that still may be a long way off.

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  12. Just announced [by the Skipper] – Carter and Santana will be sitting tonight. MarGo will be on first [wish it was Lowrie!], and the outfield will consist of Springer, Rasmus, and Tucker. And look who has been penciled in at clean-up.

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    • I’m liking this lineup. That’s another little thing. There are options each night. Real Major League options. And that’s made a difference this year.

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  13. The Lineup

    RF George Springer (R)
    SS Carlos Correa (R)
    2B Jose Altuve (R)
    3B Luis Valbuena (L)
    DH Evan Gattis (R)
    CF Colby Rasmus (L)
    LF Preston Tucker (L)
    1B Marwin Gonzalez (S)
    C Jason Castro (L)

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    • Kevin, I rely on baseballreference.com for most of my basic player information. Check it out sometime. He’s making just under ten million on the year, so Luhnow might be willing to pay half of that if he’s not giving up too much in the way of prospects. The Sox are not going to give him away either. He is a free agent going forward, so that should soften the blow a bit. But unless Luhnow wants to sign him long term, I don’t see a deal getting done. And I’m not sure why our GM would want to pay him what some other clubs will.

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    • And then there is the question of what you would get out of Samalphabet for the remainder of the season. Last season he was putting up numbers like Keuchel did this year like Feldman.

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      • Always a crap shoot, but he has been pretty steady over the past few years, prior to 2015. 118 hits in 100 plus innings is not very enticing however. I’d pay for half his season, because it helps resolve the McCullers/Velasquez issue, and might by extension give us options if Qualls continues his decline. But I don’t want to give up first class talent for a summer rental either.

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    • Don’t count out the A’s as a division contender. They have a plus run differential and I expect them to make a run in the 2nd half. They are a much better team than their record indicates.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We should never count anybody in our division out as a contender. But whoever is closest to the Astros in the standings has a constant target on their foreheads. This week it is the Rangers.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Just checking game day and I see that, for what must be the first time in living memory this season, all our batters have an average above .200. I know BA is not the most important, but still.

    Small steps, but not as bad as usual!

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  15. I would like to comment on Qualls and the game yesterday. This is not in his defense as he has not pitched well. If you look at and stop the replay, here is what I see. The count is 1-1, with 2 outs. No one is on first. Carter (for perhaps a good reason) is playing at the grass cut like one would play to cut off a runner at the plate. But as noted there are two outs. The pitch was outside and was hit off the end of the bat. It lands on the infield dirt over Carter’s head. It is a legit game winning hit. But I can not fault any pitcher for giving up that type of hit. Again, not in defense of Qualls, but it was just a soft hit that found the ground and the game was over.

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  16. The hug between Keuchel and Hinch after the game spoke volumes. No way Bo Porter lets Keuchel face that final batter, but Hinch does and the reward is a win and a pitcher who will do anything for you.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Awesome simply awesome!!!! My daughter lives in Michigan and she called to ask me who this pitcher was!! I love the gutsy way Dallas k e u c hel pitches every single time he takes the ball! What a role model for these young pitchers…

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great win for the Astros. Win 4-0 with no homers. Now we throw some right handed heat at them tomorrow. I hope VV has a fine start!

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  19. “Hinch asked how I was feeling, and I said Danndy, and he said good let’s finish this I want to go home” One of these days (sooner rather than later) Dallas Keuchel is gonna throw a no hitter! Did you get a look at the folks that sit in “Keuchel’s Corner”?? NOW…..that there’s funny, I don’t care WHO you are!!

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  20. We are singing Hinch’s praises but I have to eat some crow as I bet do others because I wasn’t crazy about his selection as manager. I don’t know about you but I like my crow with a lot of Bar-b-que sauce.Makes it more palatable.Kudos to Hinch!

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    • I’m with you there Zanuda – I was on his case for his pinch running decisions in the previous game, so I beg some forgiveness, though in truth I think that is the first time I’ve criticized him all year.

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    • I’ll admit I was one. The story that he lost the clubhouse so quickly in Arizona was what scared me. I wonder whether those reports were accurate … he seems like a player’s manager thus far.

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  21. Trying to remember the last time the Astros sent a draft choice straight to low A. That’s where Bregman’s headed. Anybody with a good memory out there?
    Anyway, that gives us an idea of how much the Astros think of their top draftee.

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    • Well last season they sent Fisher to rookie ball first, but they sent Reed to A- Tri-City, so I guess they do do it based on backgroundand age….

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      • Tri City is short season. The last time the Astros sent a draftee to full season low A ball was first round pick Chris Burke(2001), who went to Michigan, which was the Astros Class A Midwest league affiliate, full season.
        Before that, I found Lance Berkman sent to High A Kissimmee in 1997, where he was a teammate of Julio Lugo and Chris Truby.

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  22. We’ve traded Richard Rodriguez (AAA reliever) to the O’s for $$$$. He had decent numbers, but has never come up in the conversation here. We probably figured better to get a little bit for him and clear a spot.

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    • The first time I ever noticed Richard Rodriguez was July 8, 2013 when he came in to pitch the 10th, 11th and 12th innings of a game for TriCity against Abedeen. It was a 1-1 tie and he struck out 8 of the ten batters he faced, giving up one hit. Ryan Dineen presented Rodriguez the win with a walkoff homer in the bottom of the 12th.
      By the way, going 4 for 5 in the leadoff spot for TriCity that day was a hitter named Anthony Kemp, as he was known as at that time.

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