Looking ahead: It’s not all about 2017 for the Astros

I’m still a Jeff Luhnow fan. His resume as the Astros’ general manager is replete with success stories. Yes, sure, just as with any leader in an organization, you can point to weak spots or failures. Overall, though, Luhnow has guided the Astros to the best record in the American League. He has used every tool in his belt — including an open check book from the owner — to navigate the hazardous stream to the top. Yes, it took him several managers, a few dozen trades, countless minor-league signings, some high draft picks and even a few radio and TV teams, but today, the Astros are one of the best organizations in all of baseball.

No one can argue otherwise. No one can take that away.

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Maybe all this sudden greatness has spoiled us all

Yes, the Astros have the best record in the American League and the second-best record in baseball. Just doesn’t seem like it some days.

Yes, the Astros have a 15-game lead in the AL West and the other four teams in the league are looking like “wait ’til next year”. But on some days, it seems like the most precarious 15-game lead in history.

Yes, the Astros have the best batting average (by 15 points), the best OBP, the best slugging percentage and even the best OPS (the next closest team is .47 behind Houston!). Not only in the AL, but in all of baseball! Some days though, that just doesn’t seem like enough. Heck, some days, that is not enough!

The ship seems so easy to right. Get Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh (and Lance McCullers Jr.) back in shape by September. Hope Will Harris can get back. Hang on until Carlos Correa and George Springer get back in the lineup!

But is the ship really off course? Or is this just a late summer diversion that is giving the stars some down time that will actually keep them fresh in the long run?

Yes, the American League pennant can still go through Houston, that’s for sure. But Houston is still eight games behind the National League juggernaut Dodgers too!

Back on Opening Day (April 3), everything was working just like Dr. Jeff had prescribed! Keuchel was dominant, Luke Gregerson and Ken Giles were boom-boom, and that lineup had nary a hole!

In fact, compare the lineup April 3 with Sunday’s makeshift card. It’s not that Derek Fisher, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Reddick and others aren’t good players. In fact, each in their own right is quite good. But that April 3 lineup was killer. Springer is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. As the Astros have discovered, you can’t replace Correa. Yuli Gurriel is a better seven-hole hitter than cleanup hitter. Marwin is the best reserve player in the game today.

April 3 August 6
Springer Fisher
Bregman Altuve
Altuve Reddick
Correa Gurriel
Beltran Gonzalez
Reddick Beltran
Gurriel Bregman
McCann Centeno
Aoki Marisnick

When each player can settle into his particular role, his just-right spot, he performs better. That’s why the best teams are the best teams. Not because they necessarily have all the best players, but because they’re able to play each player in the place he performs best. And there are no holes.

Can you imagine how Fisher will perform when Springer and Correa return and he can move to the spot in the lineup where he can truly shine?

Right now though, the Astros are being forced to play day in and day out with a patchwork lineup that — even at its worst — is better than many teams’ best lineups! That explains four straight winning months, great offensive numbers and a 15-game lead.

The big questions, however, are how long can they keep this up, and can Luhnow and A.J. Hinch turn this around? Because — yes, let’s face it — the ship is taking on water fast. The injury demons that hit the pitching staff early on have now infested the lineup (Correa, Gattis, Springer, McCann et al).

Houston should coast to the West Division title simply because the rest of the division is lacking. After that, though, tough questions abound.

  • Is it possible the team will implode and give up the biggest lead in major league history?
  • Is it as bad as all that? Or is this just simply a summer solstice in need of a major Return of the Jedi in September?
  • Who does this team miss more: Correa, Keuchel, Springer or someone else?
  • You’re writing the prescription: What is the antidote?

The Devo-lution of the Astros’ bullpen

This is not to blame the crash and burn of the bullpen on one man, Chris Devenski, because the failure lately has been a team effort similar to the team’s offensive production. But just in the wrong direction. Devo was the poster boy for how good the bullpen was and now he is a focal point for how much they are struggling. So let’s take a quick look at Devenski and at other members of the bullpen.

Devenski. His overall numbers for the season are good to very good  (2.82 ERA, 0.841 WHIP, 11.7 K/9 IP in 44 games and 60 IP). But a few numbers highlight his recent struggles. In his last 10 appearances he has a given up four HRs and has a 7.00 ERA. In his first 34 appearances he had given up four HRs and had a 2.09 ERA. In his first 37 games he only allowed 4 of 22 inherited runners to score. In his last seven games he has allowed 5 of 10 IRs to score. In his first 12 games he was striking out 16.4 batters per 9 IP. In his last 32 games he is striking out just under 9 per 9 IP. Is it overwork? Well not lately – he has only gone 2 IP twice in his last 12 appearances and has pitched less than 1 IP four times in those 12 games.

Michael FelizIt is hard to remember that through June 5, Feliz had been one of the better members of the bullpen with a sterling 2.10 ERA in 23 appearances and allowing 6 of 17 inherited runners to score. Since then he has a 9.00 ERA in 19 appearances and has allowed 7 of 9 inherited runners to score. His ERA has soared to 5.04 and his WHIP has bloated to 1.478. He is on the DL with throwing shoulder soreness which might be a good explanation of what has happened to the young man.

Will Harris and Brad PeacockIn his 2+ seasons with the Astros, Harris has been all you could ask out of a reliever who was asked to man the seventh, eighth and occasionally the ninth inning. His numbers are sterling with the Astros (2.23 ERA, 0.967 WHIP, 4.19 Ks/walks in 168 appearances). So his absence as he fights shoulder soreness opens a big hole in the late inning pecking order of the Astros’ bullpen. Similarly, Peacock’s very successful role as substitute starter has opened another gash in the bullpen that is not being filled successfully at this time.

Tony SippThe good news is that Tony has taken that really bad 1.603 WHIP of 2016 and reduced it to a decent 1.313 in 2017. Unfortunately, the bad news is his bad 4.95 ERA has risen to a brutal 6.47 ERA this season. Left handed batters have a poor .226 BA against him, but a very good .810 OPS. Now the Astros went out and traded Nori Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez for Sipp’s rental replacement Francisco Liriano and in his first appearance he gets out a RH batter (good) and then gives up a hit and a walk to two left-handed batters (bad) on the way to losing a precious lead to the Rays.

James Hoyt/Francis Martes/Reymin Guduan/Dayan DiazWith the absence of Harris and Peacock – folks like Hoyt, Martes, Guduan and Diaz have had to make 63 appearances out of the bullpen. This has resulted in some ups and more downs over the last quarter of the season. Folks are getting experience, but games are being lost too.

The bullpen as a whole. With the exception of Ken Giles who has been strong lately, the Astros’ bullpen has been a shambles and has fallen from an early season perch in the top 3 in the AL to where they have the 12th best ERA at 4.44 and as they say, with a bullet…..downward.

What can be done?

A few thoughts:

  • Looking down….. maybe bring up Jumbo Diaz, Brendan McCurry or Kevin Comer or bring back James Hoyt?
  • Looking outward ….. see if there is a good reliever that can pass through revocable waivers and who can be had for the rest of the season?
  • Looking forward….the team really needs Will Harris back and probably need to send Brad Peacock back to the bullpen when and if Lance McCullers returns to the rotation.

What do you think?

July ChipalattAwards: Offense, offense, offense

Despite losing two of their best three offensive players during the month (Carlos Correa and George Springer) and despite having to deal with shorter starting pitching stints for replacement starters and returning starters and despite having some really crummy bullpen support, the Astros finished the month of July with a 15-9 record. That would be on pace for 101 wins for the season.

How did they perform so well as a team in July? Historic offensive numbers is the answer. The team put up a .323 BA/.380 OBP/.948 OPS for the month. This would be like having a whole team perform like Marwin Gonzalez has performed in 2017 for the whole month. According to Tuesday night’s broadcast that .948 OPS for the month of July is the highest number for a team for a month…..ever.

Now pitching? Well that’s another story. Anyway, here are the ChipalattAwards for the Month of July.

Player of the Month. Jose Altuve.

This one was obvious to anyone who watched the team during July. Jose Altuve seemed to be on first base more often than the opposing first basemen. .485 BA – look out Ted Williams!! .523 on base. 1.251 OPS. 22 runs scored/10 doubles/4 HRs/ 20 RBIs in 23 games. You may never see a month to rival this again in your life.

Runners up. Carlos Correa and George Springer.

Imagine if they had a whole month of Correa or Springer doing that thing they do.

In 10 games Carlos scored 9 runs, hit 4 HRs and knocked in 14 runs with a .417/.500/1.333 slash.

In 18 games George scored 19 runs and knocked in 14 with a .403/.456/1.083 slash.

Starting Pitcher of the Month. Brad Peacock.

In his four starts for the month he was 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. Oh…and he would have undoubtedly been 4-0 in his starts but he was only allowed to pitch three innings in the Astros’ rain delayed 13-4 win over the Phillies. Oh…and he came in when Dallas Keuchel struggled in his first game back from the DL and threw four solid innings of relief and earned a fourth win for the month. And we want him out of the starting rotation, why?

Runners up. Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton.

Fiers had the better ERA at 2.89 and gave them a shot in his starts despite the 2-2 record. Morton came off the DL and was 4-1 with a 3.23 ERA and a 0.946 WHIP. His .165 BA against and .258 OBP against were standouts. So Morton is Runner up 1 and Fiers 1A.

Reliever of the Month. Ken Giles.

In a month where the offensive show did not allow for that many save opportunities, Giles hit his stride with very strong pitching. His 1.23 ERA and 0.682 WHIP were strong but the .130 BA /.192 OBP / .366 OPS against were microscopic. He walked two batters during the month, gave up 0 HRs and interestingly struck out less than one batter per inning, which really did not matter. Throw in his four saves and he was just so good in July.

Runner up. This space for rent.

Except for two scoreless innings out of rookie Reymin Guduan, no other reliever in the Astros bullpen had an ERA below 4.00 for the month and that matches the eye test that the fans took during the month…..

Lone Wolf Award. Brian McCann.

McCann’s hitting line for the month (.169/.258/.597) was in another world from the rest of the team and it was not a good world. For the 13 main hitters for the month of July, the next worst BA was .268 (Jake Marisnick), OBP .318 (Josh Reddick) and OPS .749 (Carlos Beltran). Those are all in another zip code.

In a Limited Role Award. Tie Evan Gattis and Derek Fisher.

Gattis was an under the radar main contributor to the great offensive month for the Astros. In only 15 games, he scored 11 runs, hit 6 HRs and had 14 RBIs along with a very sweet .322 BA and 1.060 OPS. Mr. Fisher looked like anything but a rookie in 6 July games as his .348/.423/1.032  made guys like Nori Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez look expendable.

The Hope It Is Because Of An Injury Award. Lance McCullers Jr., Michael Feliz and Tony Sipp.

The threesome has seen better days than what happened in July and all three are currently on the DL.

Sipp. In 10 games (shows how many games the Astros were murdering the opposition) 12.46 ERA and 1.846 WHIP along with .316 BA/ .372 OBP/1.214 OPS against

LMJ. In four starts, 0-2 record, 9.64 ERA, 2.304 WHIP and…. .386 BA/.480 OBP/.950 OPS against

Feliz. Over the Lucas Harrell line with a 10.57 ERA, 2.870 WHIP and yikes .421 BA/.489 OBP/1.357 OPS against

Comeback of the Month Award. Alex Bregman.

Not that he was playing that poorly before, but Bregman was a big performer on the field even as his tweeting skills were getting him in trouble off the field. In July he had 24 runs scored, 11 doubles, 3 HRs and an excellent .329/.413/1.021.

The Taken for Granted Award. Marwin Gonzalez.

If he was on almost any other team his month would have been the big focus. Here he is just one of the guys despite scoring 17 runs, hitting seven doubles and six HRs and knocking in 18 runs. His .307/.378/.978 slash? How pedestrian….

So, it’s your turn. What do you want to award to whom? What do you agree or disagree with above?