Houston Astros: Go big or go home

The Houston Astros pulled off a 2-1 game series win over the Rangers for their final home game series, and that series win kept the Astros hovering just half a game above the Los Angeles Angels in the 2nd wildcard spot, and 1 and a half games above the Minnesota Twins.  With each of the teams having only a handful of games left (Astros have 6 games remaining and the Angels and Twins have 7) and less than 2 games separating any of these teams from the wildcard spot, the Astros have to show up every single day of this last 6-game road trip.

The Rangers are in the rear view mirror, and so is the chance of reclaiming the AL West lead.  There is a narrow margin still that can bring back that title to the Astros, and that would involve a full sleep of the remaining two series, an end-of-season collapse for the Rangers, or a series of numerical combinations of both.  If the Astros go 6-0 and the Rangers go 4-3, there’d be a series tie and playoff.  If the Rangers went 3-4, the Astros would take it, as well as going 5-1 with a Rangers 2-5 finish, and so on. Possible – but not probable.

The wildcard is possible, but still not guaranteed for any team.  Any loss will be a tremendous gain for any team still in contention. A single loss for the Twins is equivalent to 3 for the Astros, and 2 for the Angels.  In turn, the Twins would have to win twice the number of games as the Astros in the final stretch in order to take the spot, as well as finishing 1 game over the Angels.  With that deficit, one cannot rule out the Twins for the final wild card spot, but it’s likely as probable as an AL West title for the Astros.

So, with the wildcard within reach, and a slim half-game lead over the Angels, the Astros need to start strong.  A loss wouldn’t necessarily sink the Astros, but it could take them out of a possible playoff spot for the first time in the season with an Angels win. In my own humble opinion, if the Astros lose the wildcard spot with any loss or losses to start the final week of the season, they won’t be taking it back.  That’s why it is essential to come out strong in this final stretch.

There is only so much a person can say about the last 6 or 7 games, but it’s all nerve and willpower at this point.  It’s do or die.  Go big or go home (quite literally for the Astros).  Stats of our success at home or on the road won’t tell us the winner here.  Win/loss percentages for each opponent the Astros face won’t tell the tale.  How much the Astros want this and can play outside of their own heads will decide who wins this.

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Houston Astros: The final countdown

I am a baseball fan at heart, and I believe in superstition.  For these reasons, I will have to wait until the series with the Rangers is complete before I give you a rundown of what I think the Astros will do.  Which pretty much tells you what I think anyway, but I’m still not going to say it.

Yeah, it’s gotten down to this.

Stay tuned.

We’re still going to find out our destiny in October.

Pay attention to the pitching and the changes in the bullpen.  They’re happening, and being managed.  It’s a good thing.  Hinch is taking over.  The Hinch we finally need.

Houston Astros: The fall of the bullpen

September is a fantastic and frustrating month for baseball.  It is fantastic if you’ve got a team marching strongly into the playoffs, or if your team is out of playoff contention altogether (because the season is coming to an end).  It is frustrating if you’ve got a team in the mix of the playoff push, where each and every team controls its own destiny.  Astros fans this year get a mix of both.  Our team is in contention again, after a 10 year drought.  However, our team is falling fast in September, and our playoff hopes are slowly slipping away.

The Astros started September 1st place in the American League West.  With a record of 73-60, a 96% postseason probability, a 3 game lead in the AL West, all we really had to do was keep cruising on, and finish above a .500 for September and we’d break through to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.  The worry about this was the long road stretch to start the month, and the road stretch to finish the season.  The Astros, lately, have not been able to get much done on the road, but a 9-day home stretch placed right in the middle of this harrowing road schedule made this a direct possibility.

Then September baseball got underway, and by mid-month, the Astros had lost all but 2 games on the road, the AL West Lead, and was hovering just above the Minnesota Twins in the 2nd Wildcard spot.  Crash and burn would be appropriate to describe September for the team thus far.  To add insult to injury, the home series stretch has added a measly 3 more wins, and an even split, with one series win and one series loss.  And now the team faces the Rangers in their last home series of the season, and this series will likely cement not only the AL West leader, but the chances for a playoff run for the Astros as well.

So what went wrong?  Was in inexperience?  I wouldn’t say as much, since our rookies and younger players have been outperforming our vets this month.  Are we not bringing runs in?  We’ve had a big problem with stranded runners and RISPs this month, but we’ve also had the highest average for runs per game in September.  Unfortunately, we’ve also allowed for the highest number of runs scored by opposing teams in this month, as well.  Opposing teams are hitting against us, more than they have all season, and we have no answer to it.

How bad is it?  Well, let’s look at a few charts that measure the earned runs average (ERA) for the full bullpen.

Houston Astros Pitching Rotation v Bullpen ERA by Month

Houston Astros Pitching Rotation v Bullpen ERA by Month

This tells you what you need to know, more or less.  We’ve had some pitching struggles that started at the end of August, and haven’t improved.  In fact, our Bullpen/relief pitching has, for lack of a better word, completely tanked in September.  The starters have found some struggles as well, especially in a few hallmark games (one notable game being the Keuchel appearance in the 3rd Rangers game), but everyone is going to have a bad game.  Unfortunately, most of our starters had a bad game in the same road stretch, and that set the Astros on a tailspin.

However, the current starting pitching rotation is pretty balanced and even.  Performance has slacked some, but there is some consistency coming into September, as shown here:

Houston Astros Pitching Rotation ERA by Month

Houston Astros Pitching Rotation ERA by Month

The rookie, Lance McCullers, after a disastrous half an inning right before being sent back to the Minor Leagues in August (a move that was determined prior to the game with McCullers being notified), has improved notably since being lassoed back to the MLB, and has done an outstanding job in September.  Everyone else – pretty consistent.  We haven’t had some of the strongest starts (all of our starters have had a shaky game in September), but the range is something to be expected at the end of the year.  So, let’s take a look at the numbers for the bullpen:

Houston Astros Bullpen ERA by Month

Houston Astros Bullpen ERA by Month

Now I think we see the problem.  And, this isn’t meant to point fingers at any particular player, although there are some issues with a few guys in our bullpen, but to take a more distinctive look at what is killing our game in the final stretch.  Now, I understand the ERA isn’t the tell-all in showcasing a pitcher’s total game, but it is certainly indicative of the main problem we’re facing: opponents outscoring us consistently throughout the month of September. This chart, also, doesn’t point out bad pitchers, either, but it does point out some managerial issues within the club.

If we want to get a better picture, overall, let’s take our current bullpen and look at playing time and damage for the month of September (the ERA measures are enough to give an overall consensus of what’s happening in the season, overall).Here are some basic stats, ranked by playtime, that can give a clearer image of what’s going on in the bullpen:

Velasquez: 9 innings played, 10 hits, 9 runs, 6 walks ERA: 9.00 (season ERA: 4.47)
Harris: 8.2 innings played, 10 hits, 5 runs, 4 walks, ERA: 5.19 (season ERA: 1.89)
Fields: 7 innings played, 13 hits, 10 runs, 3 walks ERA: 12.86 (season ERA 3.75)
Qualls: 6.2 innings played, 9 hits, 3 runs, 0 walks, ERA: 4.05 (season ERA 4.07)
Feliz: 6 innings played, 6 hits, 5 runs, 3 walks, ERA: 7.50 (season ERA 6.43)
Neshek: 6 innings played, 11 hits, 7 runs, 3 walks, ERA: 7.50 (season ERA: 3.54)
Gregerson: 5.2 innings played, 3 hits, 2 runs, 0 walks, ERA: 3.18 (season ERA: 2.86)
Perez: 3.1 innings played 2 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk, ERA- 5.40 (season ERA- 4.10)
Sipp:3 innings played, 4 hits, 1 run, 0 walks, ERA: 2.45, (season ERA: 2.16)
Thatcher: 1 inning played, 1 hit, no runs, 1 walk, ERA: 0.00 (season ERA: 3.60, but last played in July with a 21.6 ERA)

Overall, the earned runs for almost every relief pitcher has almost doubled, if not tripled.  We’ve got some guys that aren’t getting a lot of playtime (as opposed to season play) in September that could be pulling us out of tight spots.  The numbers here are not indicative of the talent we have in our deep bullpen – the same deep bullpen that is largely responsible for getting us to September #1 in the AL West and in playoff contention.  So how are we mismanaging this?

Our worst performers; Fields, Velasquez, and Neshek, are still consistently being used even though they’re clearly struggling.  These three guys have either doubled or are projected to double their walks,hits, and runs and they’re still being thrown to the lions.  Then we’ve got Sipp, who’s barely been utilized, Gregerson, who’s performed well in September but sparingly, and – I really hate to say it – Qualls, who’s been the most consistent overall but isn’t even being used for an entire inning.  The scrutiny of matching pitchers to batters has been massively overthought, and it’s showing in our numbers.

Also – we really need to move beyond that horseshit chess game that was pulled in the first loss to the Angels in this past series, especially if our normal bullpen rotation is bottoming out.  Leave that game to the experts, Hinch, because you’re clearly not there yet.  Concentrate a little more on properly managing the bullpen rotation where it currently stands now, which is one foot off the gutter.

I’m not going to blame the poor performance on the bullpen.  They’ve gotten us this far, and clearly have the talent.  From here on out, it’s mental, and it’s also strategy that comes from Management that knows more about baseball than stats.  Maybe they’ll get around to reviewing individual performance, and make some adjustments instead of kicking their bullpen further and further to the curb with every passing game.  Or, maybe next year…

Houston Astros: How important is the Rangers series?

It’s crunch time, and it’s still anyone’s game and division. As it stands right now, the MLB ranks both the Astros and the Rangers as having a 91% probability of playing in the postseason.  That probability (combined with the 5% probability that the next-up contender of the 2nd wildcard spot, the Minnesota Twins) tells us that, if the teams keep playing how they’ve been playing in the last couple of months, we’ll see both Texas teams in the postseason.

The big question is which team will take the American League West?

There are a lot of variables to look at when predicting how the season will end for both of these teams.  Among those variables are post-All-Star performance, home versus away games, divisional opponents versus non-divisional opponents, as well as league versus inter-league play.  Most importantly, team versus team.  All of these factors are at play in the next 2 weeks, and in the next 11 games for the Astros and 13 games for the Rangers.

That leads to a lot of uncertainty, which will likely lead us to knowing the division winner, as well as who makes the playoffs, no later than early October.

As it also stands right now, the American League West title will likely go to the Rangers, while the Astros will likely end up in the 2nd wildcard spot, leading to a single-game playoff against the Yankees on the road.  The Astros recent history suggest that this would be a nightmare scenario for the Astros (considering road game wins have dwindled down to just 20% in this past month alone), but it isn’t the nightmare that it seems, given the last road game series won by the Astros was vs the Yankees.

That being said, the Astros would have a higher probability of getting valuable playoff experience sitting atop the American League West running into the playoffs, instead of facing a 1-game elimination round on the road.  This is a daunting task for the Astros to pull off, and it relies on more than just the Astros winning; it also relies on the Rangers losing.  However, there are advantages and disadvantages for each club, respectively, in their final 2 weeks of baseball, that could give either team the title of the American League West Divisional Champs.

Let’s take a look at some of these factors, starting with how each team broke out of the All-Star break.

The Astros had a better first half of the season than the Rangers; there’s no doubt about that.  Heading into the All-Star Break, the Astros were 49 wins and 43 losses, with a win percentage of .532.  The Rangers came in with 42 wins and 47 losses, with a win percentage of .471.  Post All-Star Break, the Rangers came out with guns blazing.  Their second half record of wins and losses, respectively, stands 39 – 22, with a win percentage of .639.  The Astros have remained fairly consistent with their first half, garnering a win-loss ratio of 31-29, and a win percentage of .517.

If we determine the seating arrangement based solely on this performance, we’ve got the Rangers taking the top spot, naturally.  They’re a game ahead, and have a better winning percentage.  Based on these results, alone, the Rangers would finish out with a record of 88-74, and the Astros would wind up with a record of 86-76.  That would mean the Minnesota Twins would have to win 10 of their 12 remaining games to knock the Astros out, so the Astros would likely take the wildcard spot, and the Rangers would take the Division.

Why the division series is important: if we are basing it on the statistics of wins and losses in the 2nd half of the season,there would be a 2 game difference between the clubs.  Statistically speaking, the series would go 1-2, in favor of the Rangers.  If the Astros pull off a sweep, then we have a tie, and a tie-breaker game to determine the overall winner.  And boy, wouldn’t that be exciting?

Likewise, if we looked at the home versus away win probabilities of each team in the second half of the season, we’d have similar results.  The Astros and Rangers a one game difference at home record in the 2nd half, with 23 wins and 10 losses, and 23 wins and 9 losses, with a winning percentages of .697 and .719, respectively.  However, the Astros seem to sink on the road, winning only 8 out of 28 away games, at a winning percentage of .286.  The Rangers dominate, with 16 wins out of 29 away games, at a percentage of .551.

Following this trend, this leads the Astros and Rangers to a 3-game difference at the end of the season:the Rangers would have 88-74, and Astros would have 85-77.  The 3 game series wouldn’t hold as much strength in determining the Division winner for the Astros, as they’d be slated to likely win 2 of 3 in this scenario.  However, A sweep or winning series for the Rangers would certainly clinch the Division Title for the Rangers.

For the final 2 weeks, both the Astros and Rangers have a 3-game, non-divisional series, and remaining games are divisional.  Both teams have the same winning record against non-divisional opponents in the second half of the season, but the Rangers, who struggled early in the season with divisional opponents, now have a .606 winning percentage against divisional opponents, versus a .387 winning percentage for the Astros.

Given these percentages, if the teams follow this trend, the Astros would fall to 83-79, and the Rangers would stay at 88-74.  A 5 game difference would also put the Astros in jeopardy of possibly losing the wildcard spot or playing a tie-breaker game with Minnesota for the final playoff seat. Our record against Minnesota in the 2nd half is even, so it could be anyone’s game (although slight favor would be Minnesota, as tie-breaker procedures would likely put the game at home for them).

There are a lot of different, independent variables that affect each team, and we can scrutinize more stats to give or take a game or 2 from each, but the most important factor here is the anomaly that does not follow any of the general stats that each ball club has.  This factor is the head-to-head competition.  The Astros have won 4 games out of 16 against the Rangers this year, and haven’t won a single game v the Rangers since July 19th. The last 2 series have ended with Rangers sweeps, and we have 1 final series in the last 2 weeks of the season.

This is immeasurable, as far as stats go.  This is the 90% mental aspect of baseball that Yogi Bera was speaking of (rest in peace, great legend).  It’s the mental block that keeps the Astros shaky when entering this series.  The stigma surrounding the Astros weary record against his haphazardly forced in-state rivalry IS the reason why this series is so important.  It’s the Tal’s Hill of the schedule – and the Astros usually fall when scrambling up it.

For the Astros, going into this series is the test of sink or swim.  We’re down to the final count in the season, and this is a major series.    Of course, every game from here on out is important.  When we’ve got a season dwindling down to nothing, and the final count is going to knock teams out by less than a series-worth of games, they’re all meaningful.  However, this last home series v the Rangers is what will define this Astros season – whether we can persevere, or fold under pressure and try again next year.

This final series is about pride.  If the Astros take it, they can take the West.

Houston Astros: Playoff-Bound? What is going to get us there?

The Houston Astros came into September in prime position:  A number one position in the American League West with a solid lead over all divisional opponents (a 5 game lead over the #2 ranked team, the Texas Rangers), a 6-game lead in the wildcard race should that top position in the American League West be taken, and a 7-3 winning streak coming out of August.  Playoff hopes were high, almost at a lock, and the first post-season appearance since the 2005 season and World Series appearance was the Astros’ spot to lose.

Needless to say, after a rough road-game series start to September that garnered only 4 wins, a bump down to 2nd place in the American League West, and a 5-game losing streak that caused said demotion, it seemed like the Astros answered that statement with a single phrase: Challenge Accepted.  The beginning of the end was upon the team, and nobody could step up to the challenge of overcoming the late-season slump, whether it be pitching or base-hitting.  All seemed to be lost within the Astros organization, and losses kept piling up.

After the ill-fated, 10-game road series, the Astros returned home to start a 9-game series that would hopefully pull them out of this slump.  The first game almost dashed all our hopes.  After taking an early 3-0 lead by the 3rd inning, they failed to produce another run, and the Athletics rallied in to win the game by a single run.  After that 3rd inning, the Astros only produced 1 run to base, and 1 walk, and the team looked thoroughly defeated on field. All signs pointed to demise after the first home game of the series, and fans were coming to terms with the possibility that it was all over.

Saturday night, the game started out similarly.  The Astros got a jump and were up by 3 early on in the game.  In the 2nd inning, the Athletics answered back with one of their own.  A few innings later, they’d tie the game, then go up 3 runs ahead, while the Astros remained unable to get another runner across home plate.  But then something happened.  The Astros started hitting again.  We came back alive in the 6th, and then Evan Gattis knocked in a 3-run HR in the 7th which put the us ahead and sealed the game.  A few more runs were added to the 8th, and the Astros finally had their comeback, with a final score of 10-6.

The Astros started the next game revived.  They held the Athletics to 1 run, and had a few powerhouse hits throughout to take the game, and win the first series they’ve won since the first weekend in September.  That series, by the way, was with the Minnesota Twins, who are just behind the Astros in the wildcard race.  Perhaps this was the spark that they needed to get back on their feet.  Maybe this was the trend the team has fallen into since June, starting out slow with road games, and finishing strong in the second half of the month.

The question that lingers on everyone’s minds is whether or not they can keep moving forward with the same momentum.  The playoff hopes seem to be coming down to their performance this week, at home, against 2 divisional opponents.  The 3-game series with the Los Angeles Angels starts tonight, in which the Astros have a winning record against (9-7 season series, and 5-1 at home).  The Astros have only lost to the Angels in 1 game at home this season, and the last home series was a sweep.  Do the Astros still have the power and will to win another series at home?  Statistics say yes.

The hardest series will be against the Rangers, which directly follows the Angels series, with 1 day off in between.  This will be the true turning point, as the Astros are currently on a 7-game losing streak with the Rangers, with the last 2 series being swept. If the Astros come out with a series win with the Angels (and even possibly have a series sweep), there may be enough momentum to carry them over and win a few games with the Rangers.  The big question will be if momentum is enough.  The Rangers seem to have our number, and know how to rack up the base hits.

If the Astros want to make it to the post-season, they’ll have to turn up some decent games with the Rangers.  They have to win at least 1, ending their losing streak with their toughest divisional opponent, and possibly win out on the series.  What that takes is a balanced, disciplined bullpen, precision defense in the outfield, and patience at bat.  With these combined efforts, the Astros can defeat the bane of their existence (and roadblock to the playoffs).  The Astros have what it takes, but they have to execute.

Houston Texans: The QB Situation, part 2 of 2.

The Texans entered the off-season with 2 Quarterbacks signed to 2-year contracts: Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer.  At first glance, this seemed like a reasonable option for the Texans.  This allowed the Texans to trade then-back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick to the Jets for conditional draft picks (7th round compensatory picks, which could become 6th round based on Fitzpatrick’s playing time – it bodes well for Texans that Fitzpatrick is starting for the Jets this season and into the future w/ Geno Smith injury).

The signing of Hoyer, by all appearances, made it clear that the starting position was up for grabs again.  Hoyer, who was at the end of his contract with the Cleveland Browns and was a free agent, had just finished off a 2-year stint where he was named starter on a week-to-week basis in Cleveland in 2013, until an injury ended his season.  Hoyer went into 2014 as the starter for the Browns, but lost his starting job to the newly-drafted Manziel after his 6-3 start turned into a 7-6 record with a playoff spot on the line.

When looking at Hoyer’s recent track record, one would question why a former back-up-turned-starter, largely by default, just finishing off a downward spiral season and being benched for a drafted rookie would be the Quarterback signed to compete for the starting job in Houston.  Fitzpatrick would have been an immediately-cheaper option (negotiable, considering the future compensatory draft pick), and already knew the system.  Fitzpatrick had given the Texans an even split, 7 wins, 7 losses, in the games he played.  However, Fitzpatrick was never brought in to be a potential starter, long-term.

So, why was Hoyer considered?  His career playtime didn’t outshine that of Fitzpatrick.  By all appearances, Mallett was firmly considered to be the eventual starter for the immediate future back in the 2014 season.  QB Tom Savage was drafted in 2014, and given a 4-year contract, leading one to believe that Savage would eventually be given a real shot to compete for the starting position.  With the Texans recent record of QB woes, it certainly made sense to have 3 QBs on the roster, and Head Coach Bill O’Brien’s philosophy was one of direct competition for each and every roster spot.

The competition aspect is why Hoyer was chosen to compete with Mallett for the starting position, instead of letting Fitzpatrick ride out his contract.  Both Hoyer and Mallett, as mention previously, competed for the back-up position for the New England Patriots after Mallett was drafted in 2011.  Hoyer eventually beat Mallett out for the spot, until his release (essentially pre-determined with the drafting of Mallett).  Mallett then took over and was back-up QB until the 2014 draft yielded another back-up QB for the Patriots.  Essentially, Hoyer was meant to light a fire under Mallett and get him to perform at the level expected when he was going into the draft.

This wasn’t a bad angle to try.  After all, Mallett had originally been considered to be the top QB of the 2011 draft class by the Patriots (a draft class that also included first overall pick Cam Newton, as well as current starters Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, who were all eventually picked up before Mallett) but had some character and maturity concerns heading into the draft. This most likely dropped his draft stock from the originally designated likely 1st round pick to his actual 3rd round position.  In fact, 6 other QBs were drafted before him.  Even with this dramatic fall-off, the Patriots were lauded with his pick.

So, was it character and maturity issues that made Mallett’s draft stock slide, and were these character issues still a lingering factor for Mallett?  When enough rumors about his past drug issues were too loud to be ignored, Mallett opened up to NFL teams before the draft about his past drug use. This may have turned some teams away.  Other character issues, such as ego and attitude, also came into play pre-2011 draft, which likely further sullied his reputation as a potential long-standing talent in the NFL.  He was still eventually picked up by a team that was already building a reputation on having a keen eye for QBs, and that can’t be discounted.

If Mallett was chosen to be the starter, and now his former teammate and competition was brought on to be his new competition for the starting position, one could surmise that perhaps Mallett still had some “intangibles” to check before assuming the leadership position for the Texans.  If Mallett’s ego and attitude still needed to be corralled, then bringing back a former competitor that beat him out for a spot makes perfect sense.  If Mallett still needed to step up his game and throw with more accuracy, who would be better than a former competitor to make him rise to the occasion or fall flat?

Bill O’Brien knew exactly what he was doing when bringing in Hoyer to compete with Mallett.  This move was not so much about the potential that Hoyer could bring to the Texans organization.  This move was all about pushing Mallett to the next level that he could go to, and beyond.  This was as much of a psychological move as it was a physical move, because the NFL is as much of a mind game as it is a body game.  O’Brien didn’t see anything in Hoyer that made him think Hoyer could eventually be a starter after a long-standing career as a back-up with several teams, and a short stint as a starter by default.

When Hoyer was picked in the preseason to start the 2015 season, it wasn’t because Hoyer out-performed Mallett.  The common fan could see this in their direct competition on field in the preseason, and Hoyer was named starter half-way into the preseason.  The most telling aspect that everyone saw (in-part, thanks to the Texans starring role in HBO’s Hard Knocks) to why Hoyer was chosen over Mallett was the now-infamous incident of Mallett missing practice due to oversleeping after being knocked out of the starter position.

Perhaps his days of partying are over (Mallett has never tested positive for any substance, both in college and in the NFL), but perhaps he still needed to build upon his overall character.  One can certainly argue that his attitude and ego were put in check when he lost his starting position to a mediocre-at-best Hoyer, who also beat him out in a previous challenge.  One can also argue that Mallett has done an about-face, as far as discipline, in practice after being bumped and after being told to go home when he arrived late that fateful day in practice.

Also, one can easily surmise, after watching both Hoyer and Mallett play in the first game of the season, that Mallett has a clear talent and physical force on field that Hoyer lacks.  We also saw a thankful and humble Mallett during that game (stepping up next to Hoyer and congratulating him, as well as standing in for the post-game presser with a stone-cold sobriety that one would expect after such a game), which could mean that he’s turned a page in his book of character.  So, if we are to assume that perhaps, just perhaps, Bill O’Brien was trying to build a formidable player in Mallett, could we assume that Mallett is finally going to get it?

Only time will tell.  However, starting out the season 0-2, after a heart-breaking loss in Carolina, the time-clock is ticking.

Houston Texans: The QB Situation, Part 1 of 2

If you’re a fan of the Houston Texans, then the word “quarterback” has almost become a swear word to you, making you cringe and take offense.  In our short history in the NFL, we’ve had a lackluster bevy of :”franchise” quarterbacks on the roster.  David Carr started it out, and his sac-tastic start and failure to bring wins (which, of course, one could argue were heavily influenced by lack of offense, and one would be correct) brought us Matt Schaub, a back-up from Atlanta who, arguably, could have taken us all the way in 2011 if not for a season-ending injury, but relied more on his team’s strengths than his own when it mattered.

In between, we’ve had a scattering of forgettable (unless you’re a Cougar alum) back-ups and placeholders.  With former Head Coach Kubiak’s insistence that he could turn both Carr and Schaub, successively, into formidable players, we held onto both perhaps a few years too long.  Of course hindsight tells us that a little more clearly, as nobody could have predicted the downfall of Schaub.  However, the colossal meltdown that was our 2013 season brought in an urgent need for a new game plan.  We didn’t even wait until the season end to bring an end to the Kubiak era in 2013, and Schaub followed shortly in the off-season.

O’Brien came in to build a new team in 2014 and all eyes turned to the quarterback selection.  Widely known in the football world as a quarterback guru, although primarily for his work in the defiled Penn State football program and not for his role in building Tom Brady in New England, O’Brien would surely turn his attention to the top quarterback prospects in the 2014 NFL draft, and use his influence to turn away from the purported “once in a generation” Defensive End talent, Jadeveon Clowney, slated to go #1 overall.  Certainly, O’Brien would manufacture a trade to nab any one of the propects in the saturated Quarterback class, in which few were arguably 1st round material – if not, that is, for the veritable need to fill holes in the NFL.

But, lo and behold, we signed consummate journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick as Quarterback, drafted the #1 overall projection, Defensive End Jadeveon Clowney, and yanked up Tom Savage, Quarterback from Rutgers/Pittsburgh.  A questionable pick, as it seemed that Savage spent as much time transferring schools than starting in the NCAA, but a pick that also made it clear that we were going shopping elsewhere (or, to a few diehard fans, maybe we were keeping fan-favorite Case Keenum, who came out and dazzled with his passes, but just couldn’t get a win).  Rumors pointed haphazardly around the league, but one such rumor seemed legit – a possible trade with the New England Patriots for back-up Quarterback Ryan Mallett.

The move made sense – O’Brien had a year with Mallett in New England in 2011, and knew what he could do as a first year rookie back-up. He was there in the backroom discussions when the Patriot chose Mallett in the 2011 draft (3rd round, 74th overall).  The Patriots knew they’d have an aging back-up on their hands if and when Brady finally retired, and were looking to release Mallett from his contract (a move made obvious with a 2nd round QB pick in the 2014 draft). So, the Texans worked up a deal, including trading a compensatory draft pick (6th or 7th round, depending on Mallett’s playtime), and added Mallett to the roster. Finally, we had a possible contender.

A contender, though, who had less than a game’s worth of experience in his 4 year career in the NFL.

The move was lauded by some and questioned by others.  Fans started chanting “New England South,” excited by all the Patriot throw-backs the organization was collecting.  Skeptics started pointing out other failed Head Coaches from the Belichick era coaching staff. Hopefuls celebrated his success in turning around a heavily-sanctioned college program in the span of a couple of years.  Everyone pointed out this was his first jab as a Head Coach in the NFL, so nobody really knew what we were getting into. And now we have a new, and relatively unknown, Quarterback.

However, Mallett was not relatively unknown in the 2011 draft.  He was widely discussed as a potential future starter in the NFL, and was even projected as a 1st round pick.  His weaknesses included consistency and footwork, but also a few off-field concerns.  Nothing, physically, that could not be worked out with some training and work in the NFL.  What made his draft stock fall, however, could have been his “other” concerns.  He was arrested on a public intoxication charge his sophomore year, and rumors of partying and drug use were rampant (but unconfirmed).  College antics, perhaps, but nothing should be overlooked when picking up a player for the NFL.

So, Mallett would be groomed to be the future starting Quarterback for the Houston Texans.  Fitzpatrick held down the fort while Mallett was trained into form (and for as long as he could without doing too much damage so we would lose a 7th round pick instead of a 6th round), and Mallett finally got his start in the 10th game of the season against Brian Hoyer and the Browns. It was a great time to start, as Mallett would be competing against another former Patriots team member, whom he competed against and lost the #2 back-up quarterback position to in 2011.

Mallett won that quarterback shootout, and played a great game against a Cleveland Browns team that wasn’t yet collapsing on itself.  Mallet completed 20 of 30 passes, throwing a long one at 42 yards, and finished with 2 touchdowns, an interception and a 73.1 quarterback rating.  Not elite level, but a sound start for a first game – and he looked good on field.  Unfortunately, due to an injury during warm-ups for the next game against the Cincinnati Bengals, his stats wouldn’t hold, and he’d be knocked out for the season when it was discovered that injury was a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery.

This is where things get interesting.  And no, I’m not going into the scramble we had in the last few games of the season, burning through 3 different Quarterbacks.  The interesting story begins in March, when Mallett was re-signed to a 2 year deal, and Brian Hoyer inked a 2 year contract with the Texans right on his heels.  Hoyer, the former rival in Mallet’s first start, and former teammate with whom he competed for a back-up role to Brady (and lost) was coming in to compete with him again.  What brought about this about-face?  Did O’Brien lose his confidence in his former choice?  Was there more to the story?

Houston Astros: All Stats Point To…

This year has been an exciting year to be an Astros fan since the 2005 World Series run season.  Let’s face it, since then we bottomed out, walked through purgatory, and have finally started to climb back up to the status of a team that can play.  We went through an ownership and league change, hit rock bottom, and started building a new team from scratch.  Today, 10 years after our first and only World Series appearance, we are posed to get back into the playoff race.

Unfortunately, with every road game we’ve had in September, that dream has slowly eroded.  Last night, in the walk-off heart-breaking loss to the Rangers, we lost our top spot in the American League West, as well as the Silver Boot.  We’ve had what looks like the worst start for a month since the season began (although that’s only half-true), and we’re now looking at the Minnesota Twins as our direct competition for a spot in the post season (currently, the Twins stand 1.5 behind the Astros for the 2nd Wildcard spot).

If you compare our W/L stats for the first and second half of the season, we’ve actually remained pretty consistent – slipping only marginally.  In the first half, before the All-Star break, we had a total of 49 wins and 42 losses, which put our winning percentage at 53.8%.  In the second half, we’ve had 28 wins and 27 losses, which puts our wins at 51%. That slight slide, unfortunately, has been the difference of remaining the top team in the American League West, and stepping down to second place.

That slight slide has only cost us a single game, but a single game (at this point) is all it took to dethrone our reign at the top of the American League West.  The Astros have remained pretty consistent in their overall W/L ratio, but the Rangers have picked up speed.  Their first half gave them 42 wins and 46 losses, with a winning percentage of 47.7%, but the second half has given them 35 wins and 21 losses, with a winning percentage of 62.5%.

If both teams keep going at the same pace, well, I’m sorry folks, but it looks like we’ll have to settle for #2 in the AL West, but we’ll still have a shot at the wildcard. It’s not the glory we’d hoped for, but I’m really not sure that anyone expected us to be here to begin with.  After all, we started the season with only a 14% chance to play in the post-season, at now we’re sitting at 85%. We were dead last in our division to get there April 6th, and 5 months later, we’ve got the best chance in the division (but the gap is closing).

Now, the big question is, will we be able to pull off a comeback in September?  After all, this is a young, inexperienced team and, as a team, we have never been anywhere near a playoff push in the American League.  The Rangers are old pros.  Even the Angels are.  In fact, everyone in our division has a range of experience in the September playoff push but the Astros.  Is that particularly meaningful?  Yes and no.

We have 2 teams literally battling it out to get to the post-season, and 1 team that is still on the cusp, but not probable.  Nobody has been mathematically eliminated yet, but there isn’t a world that exists that I can see the Athletics winning 90% of their remaining games, while everyone else loses out in the season.  It’s not likely for the Mariners, either. So, we have 3 teams that could make it, 2 that are probable, and 1 that will be the shoo-in.

Given all the statistical information up top, I predict the Rangers taking the AL West, and the Astros taking the 2nd wildcard spot. Which, if I can recall correctly, is where we were sitting in 2005.  No, I’m not getting crazy and insinuating that we’re gonna make it to the Pennant Championship this year, but we’ll bring some playoff action to the Astros (and maybe to Houston) after a 10 year hiatus. And I will tell you why.

Remember when I said that it was only half-true that we’ve had the worst start of a month that we’ve had all season, in September? Well, that’s because September shares that designation with July of this season.  In both months, the Astros won only 4 of their first 13 games.  In July, though, we came back strong and won 7 of 10 games in the second half of the month. I know that doesn’t prove that we’ll have an identical month, but the Astros also started slow in the months of June and August, both with only 5 wins in the first 13, and a strong finish of 10 of 6 and 10 of 5 games won in the second half of the month, respectively.

So why is that? Well, for the months of June and August, the first half of the month had more road games than the second half (much like September).  In July?  We lost Springer and had to re-group.  In May, our road/home games were evenly distributed, so we had a pretty consistent month.  In April, we had quite a few away games, but the Astros started out hot with something to prove.  Interestingly enough, we actually had a better winning percentage on the road than we did at home in April.  There’s always an anomaly, though.

I know there’s been a lot of talk about the Astros sliding off in September, especially since it’s the last full month of baseball before the playoffs.  However, as you’ve seen above, this isn’t necessarily true.  The Astros are simply on the same trend they’ve been on, with a slow start of the month and a strong finish, that they’ve been on since June.  If we’re doomed to repeat our recent history, we’ll finish out the season with 11-12 wins.  I predict that will keep us just ahead of the Twins (although it could come down to half a game) to secure the last wildcard spot of the season.

Bold prediction for tonight?  We’ll finally get some veteran HRs in this series, as well as a comeback HR from Springer (who hasn’t hit a HR since his injury), and a win that will put us back into the #1 spot in the AL West one final time. Tonight, our comeback begins.

Houston Astros: Can One Game Save A Season?

The 2015 Astros have surprised us all.  I remember seeing the light at the end of the tunnel last year, when we had our first season in 4 years to pull out of the 100+ loss club.  We saw some of the talent coming in, and our roster start to open up a little (as well as salaries for players), and started gaining some hope for the team.  The farming system was gaining some national spotlight, and even Sports Illustrated boldly predicted a Pennant Championship by 2017.  Not that Sports Illustrated can be counted on as a solid predictor of outcomes, but still.

The Astros were finally shaping into a team we could really root for.

This year, the young and talented team has given Houston a possible run for the MLB playoffs for the first time since our first and only World Series appearance back in 2005.  This was unexpected.  We all expected the Astros to be more competitive this year, and a future contender, but playoff thoughts were still realistically a year or two away.  The team started off strong, and flipped back and forth until they became the somewhat dominant leader in the AL West with an Angels sweep in July.  We’ve held strong up until September, when the playoff race got real.

September found the Astros starting to slip.  In fact, the month of September hasn’t been kind to the Astros at all.  In the past 11 games, the Astros have only had 4 wins, and they’re currently in the midst of a brutal away-game stretch that has them finishing it out with a team that is now only 1.5 games behind, and has an overall 8-4 win-loss record over the Astros.  In fact, the Rangers are our toughest divisional opponent, with the Athletics (ironically) getting the best of us 50% of the time, and the Angels and Mariners coming in 3rd and 4th, winning 44% and 37% of the time, respectively.

With over a third of our remaining games being against the Rangers, that playoff push seemed to be slowly fading away.  It seemed really distant in yesterday’s game, up until a well-placed ball hit by Correa seemed to turn the momentum around for the ball club. Until that moment, the Astros had 8 stale innings, having more hits than the Angels, but leaving every single hit stranded.  Two bats had produced two outs, and it seemed like it was all over for the Astros.

Preston Tucker came up to bat, and cracked a solo-HR to keep the team alive, making it 3-1 Angels, with still 2 outs in the top of the 9th.  Springer follows up with a triple, and came in to make it 3-2 after an Altuve base hit.  Then Correa came up to bat.  Cetainly Correa had what it took to knock in the tying run, or maybe even get the go-ahead with a home run.  And he hit a strong, solid, fast ball right down the field, and looked like a promising base hit that would get Altuve to 3rd, or maybe even home, until the Angel’s 2nd baseman, Taylor Featherston, made a diving catch to keep it infield.

And with that, the game was over.  So, I thought.

But it wasn’t.  The ball was hit so hard that it stuck in the webbing of Featherston’s glove, and the few seconds it took for him to wedge it out of the webbing also gave Correa time to safely get to 1st.  Still, with 2 outs.  In a matter of minutes, this game went from probable loss to a miraculous last-minute comeback.  We had a tying runner on 2nd, the go-ahead run on 1st, and a series of hits since that 2nd out that breathed new life into the game.  We still had hope.

And Jed Lowrie came up to bat and made that hope a reality with a 3-run homer that put the Astros 2 runs ahead, for the first time in the game.  The Angels finally closed out the top of the 9th, but failed to produce any more runs, and the Astros had made the comeback of the year.  And boy was this win needed.

Yesterday’s game was a must-win.  Yesterday’s game began to shape up like the beginning of the end for the Astros post-season hopes.  I know I would effectively put them out of the running because we’d be going into Arlington just 1 game ahead, and with a lousy away-game losing streak of 1 win and 5 losses.  Had we not turned this road series around before the Rangers, I feel that we would have sealed our fate.  Luck was with us yesterday, though.  In fact, that game almost felt like kismet.

We still have a tough road ahead – all but 3 of the final games are divisional, and we’ve got 2 serious contenders for the AL West title.  The Rangers are right on our heels, and could overtake the lead in this next 4-game series with a sweep.  The Angels shouldn’t be counted out, either, considering they have the best win/loss ratio over divisional play, and that’s pretty much all we’ve got left in September.  The Yankees are slipping as well, which makes the final wildcard spot a possibility for an AL West team, as well.

Predictions at this point would lead me to say that it is literally anyone’s spot.  The Angels could take it all back.  The Rangers could grab the lead and take it home.  We could use this game as momentum to keep the top spot here.  With a majority of our games left being home games, that gives a slight edge to the Astros – but that’s a very slight edge.  We’ve got 2 changes – either keeping the top spot in the AL West, or squeezing in as the final Wildcard.  The second chance holds the bigger possibility, as I don’t see the Astros falling behind both the Rangers and The Angels.

I do feel that the winner of this Texas series is going to take the AL West, though.

With that being said, and game time being just under an hour and a half away, I say let’s play ball, and go out swinging!

Houston Texans: Is there really a QB controversy?

The season opener for the Houston Texans yesterday was anything but optimistic.  The team did not look ready to start the season, on any front.  In fact, the 3rd game of the preseason with a mixture of starters and players trying out for the squad looked like a more intact, complete team on field than we did yesterday against the Kansas City Chiefs.  It didn’t start that way, though.

Texans won the coin toss, and in what has become routine fashion, deferred.  The opening drive for Chiefs offense was shut down, and Hoyer and co hit the field.  First play and first pass of the 2015, and Hoyer throws an interception.  In the red zone.  Commence the flashbacks of the Schaub era, and the disaster of the 2013 season.  In almost an instant, the Chiefs were up by 7, and were the first team in the NFL to score on Sunday.

What a way to start.

The next series had the KC offense and Travis Kelce (who seemed to go uncovered a majority of the game) putting up another 7 on board, and the Chiefs led 14-0 in the first quarter.  Defense looked terrible on this run, and KC quickly learned out to immobilize our front 3 and put them out of the game with a very well-executed quick release passing game, led by Alex Smith.  One would begin to wonder whether it was Crennel who knew more about his former team’s coaching, or his former team knew a little more about his.

However, it is worthy to note that this would be the only touchdown drive KC had without explicit help from the Texans offense.  As much as our defense left people wide open and helped Smith build up a stellar QB rating, KC scored on only 2 more full drives, and were held to field goals both times.  You could give some props to defense for making adjustments along the way, but leaving key players open and and having a number of missed tackles shows a need for improvement in one of the supposed top-rated defenses of 2015.  They certainly did not earn that distinction yesterday.

I am somewhat loathe to credit the 14 points off turnovers in the red zone to defensive points allowed, because that type of turnover is a momentum killer for both offense and defense.  However, outside of a pick-6, defense still has at least a single opportunity to stall a touchdown drive on a turnover in the red zone, and hold the opposing team to a field goal.  This isn’t an easy task for even the best defense, when the opposing team gets amped up and ready to take quick advantage of such a scoring opportunity, but it can be done.  This is where some of our rookies will need to simply learn from experience, shake it off and keep playing.

After a quick 14 by the Chiefs, the Hoyer-led Texans offense finally seemed to wake up and start playing by executing an almost perfect 80 yard, 10 play touchdown drive.  Almost perfect because the passing game opened up, pass protection was solid, and the team effectively and efficiently marched down field with the confidence we were waiting for.  That drive made the Texans offense look outstanding.  Then we had another first of the game – the first extra point missed with the new extra point rule of moving the extra point back to the 15 yard line.

Interestingly enough, in a league where only 8 extra points were missed in the entire 2014 season, there were a total of 4 extra points missed on Sunday.  Bullock was the first, but her certainly wasn’t the only victim.  So lay off the kid.  He was likely one of the best Special Team performers on field yesterday. And Special Teams yesterday was almost a new level of disastrous for the Texans – Marciano level disastrous.  But that’s another story.

That successful drive by the offense was followed by a pitiful return to the running game, after defense held KC to a field goal.  Three and out, and a punt, and another series held to a field goal by KC.  From this vantage point, I began to worry about offense and defense collectively, as offense was no longer producing and defense was allowing points with every KC drive.  Adjustments were not coming quick enough for the Texans, and KC was taking full advantage.  The next drive by the Texans offense made it perfectly clear, however, why we switched back to the running game.

Hoyer started the series with a pass attempt.  Well, he was in the process of a pass attempt, and was sacked, fumbled the ball, and it was recovered by KC.  Another turnover in the red zone that turned into a touchdown.  It wasn’t until this fumble that I saw just how long Hoyer was holding onto the ball during pass plays.  In the first half, Hoyer had the pass protection needed to remain comfortable in the pocket and make plays.  However, he wasn’t quick enough with the release.  A few times it was due to coverage on the field, but more often than not he simply wasn’t quick enough to zero in on eligible receivers during the play.

Our O-line protection has been an issue for a few years.  This is how you get record sacks and injured QBs.  It has improved this year, but a quick way to deplete your O-lines effectiveness in a game is to make them work longer than they need to.  The protection was there in the first half.  It began to fall apart in the second, and I’m confident enough to state that one reason for this was Hoyer veritably setting up camp in the pocket with every passing play he made.  This is the only reason that I can see for going back to the run, run, pass every other series.

After the 2nd touchdown due to turnover, defense seemed to catch on with the game plan, for the most part, and effectively neutralized the KC offense.  That last touchdown was the last scoring drive KC would see in the entire game.  So, we can give a few props to defense for turning it around on their side.  What we wouldn’t see from Hoyer again, save 1 last drive in the half for a field goal, was another successful scoring drive.

The second half, offensively, was mired by incomplete passes, three-and-outs, and a bevy of sacks.  Hoyer’s head was no longer in the game, the O-line was rendered useless to protect him in the pocket, and it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of a second half of defensive production that kept KC from scoring.  I understand the choice to let Hoyer continue and give him the opportunity to get himself and the offense out of the hold they dug in the first half.  It never happened, though, and in the final 6 minutes of the 4th quarter (after a sizable percentage of people switched to the Astros game) Mallett was put in under center.

Part of me really wonders if that move was done to get people to switch back to the Texans game, as the change was literally made 10 minutes into the first pitch of the Astros game.  I’d like to see the ratings chart on that.  Seriously, though, this was a chance to see how Mallett performed in a clutch situation.  I mean, in the grand scheme of things, it seems pretty apparent that Mallett is being conditioned to be the potential long-term starter.  Whether it be consistency issues since his injury, personnel issues, or a combination of both, one cannot seriously take stock in the idea that we’d bring in a QB in the off season who has been on 4 team rosters in 5 years to be a legitimate contender for the starting job in the long term.

That makes no sense.  Nobody would consider a veritable journeyman/back-up for such a role, long term.

I personally feel that Hoyer was brought in to boost competition, and to be the placeholder for Mallett while the coaching staff did the work with Mallett behind the scenes.  Work on his consistency, and let Hoyer cover until he’s ready.  In theory, this idea works.  In application, I think it’s the wrong plan.  I think O’Brien made a mistake by starting Hoyer, because it’s clear he’s not the long-term solution.  He never was.  The best experience is gained on field in the season, and that’s precisely why Mallet should have started the season.

I could be wrong about why Hoyer was brought in, but I really doubt this is the case.  it’s not logical to consider a QB that has jumped from roster to roster so many times as a legit contender for the starting role, in the long term, and I think our Head Coach is smarter than that.   For this reason, I don’t really think we have a QB controversy in Houston.  I think we have a plan that failed, and now we have to look at plan B.  Plan B is to end this whole Brian Hoyer experiment, and continue with Mallett for the rest of the season.  If he’s going to be our potential starter in the long run, we need to let him make or break his future with this team.