Houston Astros: It’s not, oh whatever. It is over

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There is really no nice way to say this, so I am going to simply throw it out there. In the month of May, the Astros playoff hopes have been squashed. In almost a 2 month span, the club has managed to string together 18 wins out of 46. That’s 5 games out of .500, which .500 is what the club is sitting at in May alone, but 7 wins in April does actually matter, as it turns out. If the Astros finish out the month of May above .500 (for the month of May, since it’s already impossible to even the season record to .500 with 7 games left), that will leave an average of 16 wins needed in June, July, August, and September to tie last year’s record.

Hey, a bit of good news: that’s possible. That would mean a series win with the Orioles, the Angels, and an even split against the Diamondbacks in the 1st 2 of the 4 game series. That gives 4 more wins for May, a month above .500, and a reasonable goal for the remaining season. After such an abysmal start, a tie with the previous season’s record would be a saving grace for the club. That would mean 2015 wasn’t a fluke, and that the Astros are still on track. That would mean the changes and progression is working, but 2016 hit a bump in the road. Unfortunately, that means ending the season without a playoff run, because last year’s record will not be good enough to make it.

The Seattle Mariners are currently winning 60% of their games. The Mariners are 9.5 games ahead of the Astros (or, a win-out vs the Mariners for the rest of the season). They are currently on pace to end the season with 97 wins. That’s 11 games more than the Astros had to make it to the playoffs in the wildcard spot. That’s 9 games more than it took for the Rangers to take the AL West. That is big league playoff numbers, and that’s also the trend in the AL. Current wildcard contenders, which are the Orioles and the Rangers, are on pace to win 90+ games, (98 and 91, respectively). That means the Astros will need to pull off as many wins per month for the rest of the season as they’ve reached 2 months in.

Sorry for the buzzkill, but these are the numbers they are looking at.

Now, I am not saying that the month of May is the ideal time to crunch the numbers in order to determine playoff berth by any means. Out of the 3 AL division winners in 2015, 1 of those teams were sitting below .500 in the month of May before picking up the pace and eventually taking their division. The Toronto Blue Jays were sitting at 23 wins at the end of May 2015, and then they started June with an 11 game winning streak that bounced them to the top, and they never looked back. They also knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs, which gives them infinite karma credits. So, there is still time for the Astros to turn their season around. It’s baseball – anything’s possible.

However, this means consistency for the rest of the season, at bat and on the mound. This means no more games that got away from the club. This means winning out over games that go into extra innings, just like the Astros pulled off last night. I do not want to take away from that clearly much-needed win, but that win was because of bad fielding moreso than it was over the Astros pulling out the strategic win. Tony Kemp’s triple was a triple because the CF was playing rather shallow. They underestimated Kemp’s power at bat, and he gave them a show of it. Again, that’s not to take away from what Kemp pulled off at his last bat, but that is not a mistake that will be repeated by the Orioles.

So, will they make it?

Reasons they can:

Starting Rotation. After the April start, the starting rotation has settled in and has pulled out some quality starts. Doug Fister has been the most consistent of the group, with a 3.09 ERA. Fiers and McHugh have both improved, and McCullers is getting back into the swing of things, with 5 hits and 2 earned runs in his 2nd game of the year. Outside of Dallas Keuchel, the SR has an average ERA of 4.11, which is an entire run less per 9 innings than their April ERA of 5.11. This is not ideal for a club moving forward into must-win situations, but this does show an improvement and a step toward more consistency in the starting rotation, overall.

Bullpen: The bullpen went from an ERA average of 5.57 in April to 2.13 in May, which is is a loss of over 3 runs per 9. In a single month. They’ve not only settled in, but have battened down the hatches and are ready for a storm. The Astros bullpen is arguably one of the top in the league coming into June, and with last night’s 7 inning, 16 stike-out shutout over the Orioles, they are bullpen to fear. Luke Gregerson, closer and current weak link, has blundered some saves in the past few weeks, and is struggling. He should probably have a rotation with Feliz or Harris, but the bullpen is otherwise solid.

Reasons they can’t:

Dallas Keuchel: Another factor in last season’s success was Keuchel’s 20 wins last year, and record for being undefeated at home. Keuchel has lost his mojo, and it is hard to tell if and/or when he’s going to come out of his slump. That 20 wins in 28 starts garnered last year was pretty pivotal in the Astros run in the playoffs, and it doesn’t appear that there will be a repeat this year. If he doesn’t show some improvement soon, he may need to be dropped down a few spots in rotation, as well as have his games/innings limited to lessen some of the damage coming out of a so-far 2-6 record.

Offense: At bats have been horrendous and inconsistent all year. The team batting average is .228 with an on base percentage of .710. The only reason the Astros are no running dead last in on base percentage is because they lead the league in walks. Otherwise, both of those numbers would be pretty pathetic. The team, at bat, isn’t slugging it like last year, either – which HRs were the saving grace on that season. Stranded runners in scoring position accounts for 3 1/2 runs lost per game. It’s not the highest in the league, but most of the teams with higher numbers also have more runs per game, and are winning more than losing.

This is occurring for two reasons. First, there is little strike discipline among batters in the line-up. The Astros lead the league in strikeouts, because each and every batter that gets up is looking to knock it clean out of the park. That creates an overly-aggressive at bat, and a tendency to swing with power at whatever comes across the plate (or even close to it). That isn’t uncommon with a young team. In fact, Altuve has only this year begun to pace himself at bat and look for pitches to hit. Look at the difference this has made, though. He’s a better player for it, and that came with experience.

This leads to the second problem , though – no strategy at bat. There is not a game plan when there are runners in scoring position, except to whack the ball as hard as you can. This is obvious. Embarrassingly obvious. How many times (outside of Carlos Gomez) has the team even attempted a bunt with runners on base? Sacrifice plays aren’t being utilized with runners in scoring position, or to advance runners in scoring position. A walk (which the Astros lead the league in) is a gift from the other team, and the at bats should utilize that gift by moving it around the bases. Currently, that’s not being done.

Fielding: Two issues here; one is minor and one is major. The minor issue is rookie presence on the field. White has struggled at 1st base, but is becoming more confident at the spot. New additions Colin Moran and Tony Kemp are also finding their footing at 3rd base and left field, respectively, but mistakes will occur along the way. I don’t feel this will be a persistent struggle, and these additions are not permanent. It is, however, good to get the feet wet before the post-All Star break push to cap off the 2nd half. A few more moves from the MiLB are likely to be made, too, but this shouldn’t have a hugely negative impact overall.

The major issue is the defensive shift. The defensive shift is not working for the Astros anymore, because gimmicks are not meant to be long-lasting solutions, and the shift is a gimmick. The rise in the usage, since 2010, has increased more than 500% in the MLB, with the Astros employing it more than any other team. The reaction to this, naturally, is that teams are adjusting and the data used to determine the defensive shift becomes useless because it doesn’t adequately measure adjustment rate over historical success. Even as the data is streamlined, this will only give you a probability of which hole in the defense will be less exploitable.

I can tell you which one right now – the traditional defense that spreads players across the field. It was a new to the era strategy that the Astros have employed for a good 3-4 seasons now, but they’re stretching it about 1/4 of a season too far, because it’s not working this year. What it has done is made the Astros defense the most predictable and exploitable in the MLB.  I’m not saying to scrap it altogether, as there are opposing batters that can’t adjust. That’s a small number, though, and far smaller than the percentage that it is being employed by the Astros defense. Lay off, and play ball.

Management: A good number of these issues rely on the right coaching and leadership to correct. Some will come with time and experience – like strategic batting. Others, like a struggling pitcher, player, changing the line up, defense strategies, are called by management and are up to management to correct. WIthout getting into detail, because this deserves its own write-up, AJ Hinch is rather conservative with his management of the team, and has become more reactive than proactive when it comes to addressing issues. I don’t know if this is fixed by Hinch, or something that will be fixed with a new manager and coaching staff. This season will likely make that determination.

The odds are stacked heavily against the Astros for an improbable comeback from this season. I don’t want to be right, but I don’t believe this current team will beat those odds. In fact, I want to be wrong, and proven wrong. This team has a lot of talent that isn’t reflected by a 18-28 record. At the core, it is the same team that came out of nowhere and made the post season a year early, all because of a 10 game winning streak. They could be a 10 game winning streak away, that could happen in June and ignite the team, but that is counting on more luck than consistent play. That’s baseball, though.

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