Houston Astros: off field concerns

As the Astros have settled in and started playing more to the potential that fans and analysts alike predicted in 2016, primarily in May, and headed into June after a terrible start, a few glaring issues remain. Those issues tend to come up when playing high caliber teams – the exact teams that the Astros need to play consistently well against. Most obvious would be the South Oklahoma Trashcans Texas Rangers, and many arguments can be made for why the team struggles so mightily against the Rangers. And have been, so we’re not going to rehash. The struggle is largely mental at this point, and we’ll leave the team problems at that.

However, when spreading the blame around, we can target the players, as a whole and individually, only so much before that blame starts seeping out into the leadership roles of the team. I’m not talking about the veterans on the field, but the leaders in the dugout. With a young team, patience is key. With a young team lacking adequate leadership and development, patience is non-existent. The latter is about the place that most of us are sitting these days. As we come to realize that 2015 was more fluky than natural progression of the team, but the talent of the core is set to trend towards an eventual championship season.

In the interim, the team that is going to get us there isn’t going to do that this season. While drastically improving from April, core problems with consistency still allows for winnable games to get away. Primarily speaking, except for a token game here and there, the Astros can’t hit the ball consistently – at least at the right times with RISP. Worth noting: during the start of the season, the team was improved AB. Hits, batting averages, slugging, on base – all improved over the prior season. Runs were down, and allowed runs soared. Then pitching and batting did a 180, with AB production dropping while pitching and defense allowed for fewer opposing runs, and it’s been shaky since.

There are hints in these numbers that point outside of player performance, and rightly call in to question the capabilities and efficiency of management and coaching staff (emphasis on management). A caveat – it’s debatable on precisely how much the coaching staff can and does influence teams, as far as development is concerned. Given this, there are many adjustments and signal calls that fall primarily on the shoulders of this staff in the dugout during games. It is only fair to scruitinize these behind the scenes movements if we can single out individual player performance from one game to the next. Essentially, the player is responsible for performance, but that performance is part of a team vision.

In the next few installments, I will be breaking down a few primary positions in the coaching and management staff, including history and current relations with the team. We’ll start at the bottom, with the coaching staff, move to the Hinch management era, and conclude with the Luhnow role as GM with the Astros. None of these are mutually exclusive, mind you, but each level has a basic role. Of course, there are details that most of us will never be privy to, unless a disgruntled foermer player/coach decides to speak out and spill the beans about the evils of his former organization. Barring firings or cuts, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Stay tuned for the first installment on the Astros coaching staff.

Houston Astros: Here we go again

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Another Astros vs Rangers series, and another disappointment for Astros fans. Another game that got away against the thorn in their sides for this season (possibly for years to come), and another loss to add to the now 7 game winning streak the Rangers have over the Astros. There are 9 games left against the Rangers this season, and 2 more losses means another forfeit of the Silver Boot. Barring a miracle, that’s gonna happen. Not even half the season is down, and the Rangers have cemented the prize. Maybe next year…but, pride aside, the Silver Boot is only a side story to the season.

I can go on and on about how the Astros should be winning some of the games they’ve played – out of 7 games this season, 4 have been 1-run games. We can excuse a few of those 7 losses, because the Astros were terrible in April. There are, however, a few things that cannot be excused or overlooked, and that’s what we can talk about today. I’m not going to talk about the Astros side of the ball, though. That’s been done, and done, and done. This time, we’re going to look at the Rangers side of the ball, and how they’re managing to walk away with every win so far this season.

The Rangers have their own issues playing the Astros. Fans aside (and what horrible, terrible children the Rangers have for fans, really), the team does not walk into an Astros series betting on a sweep or win. Their own struggles on the field are apparent when playing a series versus the Astros. Most apparent are fielding errors. On average this season, the team is 23% more likely to commit a defensive error against the Astros, thus giving advantage on base, than any other team they play in the MLB. They also tend to strike out more against the Astros vs the rest of the MLB.

Shaky fielding and strikeouts show a team that is a little less than confident when facing their in-state and divisional opponent. The stats can show the wariness of the Rangers when hitting the field against the Astros, but the actual play can tell a lot as well. Throwing hesitations, excessive pick-off attempts on base, and even Jeff Banister’s shuffling around with the starting rotation in the earlier series show that the team understands the talent behind the Astros club. And what about last night’s on-field celebration for the walk-off? Only the Astros are allowed to celebrate like they won the WS during regular season play, guys. Come on.

Fortunately, for the Rangers, their formidable opponent tends to get a lot more shaken up when playing them, on all sides of the ball. Starting rotation ERA jumps from 4.73 to 5.26 against the Rangers. The same number and likelihood of fielding errors exists, and desperate offensive performance is clear (the Rangers starting rotation has an ERA of 3.44, but it dips down to 2.13 vs the Astros). As much as the Rangers have been giving the Astros numerous opportunities to win, the Astros have managed to return the favor tenfold. Pretty soon, the Rangers are going to catch on to this and play more confidently.

Last night’s game showed an Astros presence against the Rangers that hasn’t been seen all season, which was a step in the right direction. Last night’s game, in any other circumstance, would have been exciting and engaging for both Astros and Rangers fans alike, because it was a challenging, competitive game. Unfortunately, the lingering possibility of an 0-7 losing streak made the game unbearable instead of engaging, and then 0-7 happened. In 2 more games, 0-9, and a loss of the Silver Boot before midseason could be the reality. If that happens, it doesn’t matter what the Astros do against the Rangers the rest of the season, because the Rangers will officially own us, once again.

How the Astros can turn around vs the Rangers:

Take a look at some game film. Specifically, take a look at the basic fielding errors the Rangers have committed against the Astros this year. Look at their record against similar opponents this season: swept by the Athletics and the White Sox, and the Angels and Mariners have at least managed a series tie vs the Rangers. Watch the highlight reel from last night’s game, look at how inefficient the Astros were playing on both sides of the ball, and then recognize this game almost went into extra innings. Finally, recognize that the Rangers are using Ken Giles’ own words as motivation for tonight’s game.

Seriously – Ken Giles is right about the team. The Astros have the better roster, and the better team. His closing statements can be the reality, but the team needs to get out and prove all of this. And soon. For what it’s worth, it is meaningful that the Rangers chose these words as motivation for today’s game. Fan bias aside, the team knows what the Astros can be. So, it’s now time for the Astros to understand that, and start playing the part.