The Astros are at the halfway mark of an unexpectedly good season, but again it is only the halfway point and a lot can and will happen between now and October. In 2014, the Blue Jays were ahead in the AL East at mid-season at 45-36, but ended up not only behind the Baltimore Orioles, but out of the playoffs at 83-79. The A’s (51-30) were 5-1/2 games ahead of the Angels at the halfway point and then watched the Angels go on a 15-2 tear in late August to mid September to run away with the division as the A’s limped into the wildcard.
But this post concentrates on looking back at the first half of this season not peering into the darkness to come. So, here are surprises, disappointments, keys to success and the turning point from the first 81 games of this marathon called a baseball season.
- The Astros as a team. It would be fair to say that the expectations for the Astros 2015 season by the fans represented here would have put them in a range from 75 to 85 wins. Some of us would not have been surprised if the Astros got off to a good enough start to be leading or near the lead after a few weeks, but no one, absolutely no one would believe they would take sole possession of the lead on April 19th and still be holding it 70 games later.
- Run production. The fact that the Astros are so successful scoring runs this season flies in the face of baseball reason and tradition. The top five teams in the AL in runs/game are the Blue Jays, Yanks, O’s, A’s and Astros in that order. Do you believe in batting average as the bellwether? The other four teams are in the top six in BA, but the Astros are 13th. Maybe you are a Moneyball enthusiast and believe that OBP is god. The other four teams are in the top eight, but the Astros are 11th in the AL. Now if you believe like I do that OPS is a more accurate harbinger of runs scored, you may be closer to what the Astros have done. Instead of raising BA or OBP significantly (their numbers are almost identical to 2014), the Astros have raised the other component in OPS, slugging from .383 to .426 and this has raised their mediocre OPS from .692 to .735 and their R/gm from 3.88 to 4.46. It has been an unorthodox, but an effective way of improving while waiting for the cavalry to arrive.
- Promotions. Speaking of the cavalry, there were two good surprises relative to promotions. After holding back (it felt like) on promotions, the front office surprised the fans by promoting Preston Tucker, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr., Vincent Velasquez and Domingo Santana during a shining 5 week period. The second surprise was that even with a few bumps along the way, all of these young men looked like they were up to the challenge or at least not overwhelmed. Heck, Correa looks like he may claim the crown of greatest Astros’ SS ever in short order.
- Jake Marisnick for a month. Though it was short-lived, the hot start of JFSF led to an April where he, Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve kept the offense alive while it waited for help from the bigger guns in the lineup.
- A.J. Hinch. Hinch’s hiring was looked at as: 1) A cheap hiring of someone who would actually take the job or, 2) A pointy headed professor who would get along with the front office and alienate the players. Instead he has come across as a sharp, young man who learned a lot in his first managing job and has applied it well to his second chance. He seems thoughtful, supportive, but still in charge and he is doing the one thing many folks loved most about Larry Dierker. He is letting the starting pitchers stretch out and learn to work through tough spots.
- The “original” starting rotation. OK, the disappointment does not include the continuing brilliance of Dallas Keuchel. Collin McHugh – 4.80 ERA (before his great Sunday start) / Scott Feldman – 4.80 ERA and then on the DL / Roberto Hernandez – 5.18 ERA before being taken out of the rotation / Sam Deduno and Asher Wojciechowski combining for a 10.45 ERA in 5 early starts. Note: For perspective, in those starts Deduno and Wojciechowski gave up 24 ER in 20.2 IP – Keuchel has given up 28 ER in 116.1 IP. So yuck!
- Chad Qualls. In 2014, Qualls (3.33 ERA and 19 saves) and Tony Sipp were the only relievers who did not make the fan-dom wince when they entered the game. In 2015, Qualls is the only current reliever, who is making the fans reach for a cold one and a Tylenol every time he enters the game. In his last 12 appearances he has given up runs in five of them, blew a save, took two losses, and allowed an inherited runner to score the winning run. His ERA of 5.11 stands out in a bad way in a bullpen where five guys are posting ERAs under 2.90.
- Chris Carter. The thought process was that Carter had finally figured things out and that he would continue 2015 as a follow-on to the strong 2nd half he showed last season. Instead he has lapsed back to the badness that was the first half of 2014 like some horrible version of Groundhog Day. The 2014 Astros had to put up with this, but the 2014 version does not.
- Attendance. The Astros are averaging less than 25,000 people per game. They are 25th in all of baseball and 11th in the AL. The team that has had a top two record in the AL for the last 6 weeks should not be struggling to attract fans. It should not depend on the Yanks coming to town.
- Situational Hitting. Even with the Astros scoring the fifth most runs in the AL, there is a gut feeling that if they did not strike out so many times and did not have so many guys who have struggled to hit above the Mendoza line, this would be an even more impressive number.
Keys to Success.
- DK. In Minute Maid Park a plaque hangs above the Crawford Boxes in honor of the late Darryl Kile, that has his nickname DK on it. Soon parents will have to explain that the DK honored is not the great Dallas Keuchel. He has been nothing short of brilliant this season and is the rock upon which the whole starting rotation rests.
- Bullpen. The Astros had the worst bullpen in the AL last season. This year they have the second best. They have improved the ERA by more than 2.2 runs, have the only WHIP under 1.00 in the AL and have held the fort to allow the Astros offense to come back in-game after game. They were the worst part of the 2014 team and are now the best part of the current contenders.
- 10 game winning streak. The biggest key to the Astros success was the 10 game winning streak that the Astros strung together in late April to early May. The streak boosted them to 11 games over .500 and a seven-game lead in the division and though they have floated down a couple of times, they have held their own through May and June. During the 10 games they won five one-run games, two extra inning games, four come from behind games and five games where they scored the winning runs in the 8th inning or later.
- Scoring early / scoring late. Chip hit on this Monday, but their 32-9 record when scoring first and the fact that they have scored the second most runs seventh inning and on-ward has helped them to the solid record they have at the mid-way mark.
- Injuries. Wait a minute, injuries? Really? Injuries to Brett Lowrie, Scott Feldman and Brad Peacock have pushed the front office to bring youngsters like Carlos Correa, LMJ and VV to the majors earlier than anyone would have anticipated. This has helped these young men in getting experience early before the pressure of the pennant race sets in and in the case of Correa has brought up a generational talent to help spur this team to new heights.
- April 24th – 5-4 win over Oakland in 11 innings. They had just killed a four-game winning streak by wasting 10 hits and three walks in a 3-2 loss to the Mariners. Chris Carter was hitting .122 after hitting his first HR of the season and after getting his first 2 RBIs of the season in the last two games. Evan Gattis was batting .109 BA/.355 OPS (that is about as microscopic an OPS as possible) with one homer and one RBI on the year. George Springer was batting .167 with one homer and an almost robust four RBIs on the season. Based on great bullpen work, decent starting pitching and hot hitting by Altuve, Lowrie and JFSF – the Astros were somehow 8-7 at that point. Dallas Keuchel was brilliant, but had nothing to show for 9 innings of 2 hit ball. Keuchel was in line to win after a two-out two-run hit by Marwin Gonzalez, but Luke Gregerson booted the save in the 10th. Robbie Grossman was the hero in the 11th, knocking in two runs and scoring a third and Pat Neshek‘s shaky turn in the bottom of the inning made all of those runs necessary as the Astros barely hung on to a 5-4 win. It was the kind of potential loss that could gut a young club, but it turned out to be the spark to a 10 game winning streak and a lead in the division that the team has not given up to this date.
So, where do you fall in each of these areas?
- What / who has surprised you to date?
- What / who has disappointed you to date?
- What are the Astros’ keys to success to date?
- What do you see as their turning point(s) in the first half of the season?