Houston Astros: the wrap-up


Raise your hand if you spent the entire 2015-1016 off-season riding the high of meaningful baseball in October, for the first time in 10 years, in Houston. Yes, it was all of us. The Astros jumped ahead of schedule in 2015, gave an impressive showing in the postseason, and had the city chomping at the bit for a legitimate Pennant run in 2016. The front office made some moves in the off-season that seemed to trend towards tweaking the roster just enough to fix a few roadblock issues from 2015 – among those were Doug Fister for the starting rotation, and Ken Giles as the up-and-coming closer. Chris Carter was traded, and one of two promising rookies would be sent to 1st base for their debut.

Contracts were also extended to a vets, including Colby Rasmus and Tony Sipp. Both Rasmus and Sipp shined in 2015 during some rather rough patches for the rest of the team, and the hope was that they’d hold their numbers through 2016, and possibly improve upon them. Additionally, the decision was made for Gattis to eventually take back-up catching duties, which led to Hank Conger being traded off, and Erik Kratz (remember this guy?) temporarily brought in to cover while Gattis transitioned. The moves, outside of the Giles contract, were somewhat conservative, but they seemed to be the right moves to strengthen the roster overall.

Then 2016 happened. Specifically, April 2016 happened. The Astros went .292, 7-17 to start the season. We were discouraged, but didn’t outright panic because 5 more months of baseball was coming. Surely they could get back on track and still make a showing. If they pulled together and fixed the hemorrhages. Among these nasty leaks were starting rotation, bullpen, defense, and total offense (including stranding runners and bad base-running). In April, the only thing that did not completely stall was the at-bats – but you wouldn’t know because runs and RISP stranded were basically equal, which meant the line up was out of whack and not reflective of the batting.

The 1st half or May showed similar results, but a few changes that helped. The lineup was finally adjusted to reflect hitting patterns, and the Astros started winning. Even though they came back hot at the end of May, throughout June, and headed into the All-Star break, the slow start of the season was simply too much to overcome. Even though the Astros pulled within 2.5 games of the AL West lead, their inability to shake the mental block that has formed against the Rangers kept them from being a real contender for that spot. In fact, the combined April/Rangers losses for the season was 29 – that’s 18% of the total games played and almost 40% of their total losses.

Let that one sit for a minute.

Those were the two fatal blows dealt for the 2016 season. The slow start and the Rangers record. You can argue a number of things – lack of trades at the deadline, injury, poor AB production, poor pitching performances, young roster – it doesn’t matter. It comes down to 29 losses that stalled the Astros run for 2016. The Rangers spent money, both in the offseason and at the trade deadline, to make a legitimate run. The Astros didn’t. That still didn’t make the difference, however. The path to the playoffs went straight through South Oklahoma, and the Astros couldn’t get past that wall. The most inexplicable thing about this is that the Rangers didn’t even have their best games vs the Astros.

The Astros just sucked worse against the Rangers.

Neither one of these fatal blows were because of lack of trades. In fact, I’m happy the Astros didn’t bet the farm for a maybe. That’s what it was this year at the deadline – a maybe. There were already too many holes to be filled to make a meaningful trade, and then the injury bug hit. McCullers went out. Valbuena was lost. Rasmus struggled. Gonzalez spent some time on the bench. Gregerson went out. And then Keuchel. These were some pretty big injuries to deal with, along with a few Correa and Bregman misses. However, this didn’t sink the Astros. It just didn’t help. Overall, the Astros had the fewest number of injuries in the entire league. Check it out.


The impact of these injuries hit a little hard, but it was nothing that any other playoff team (outside of the Dodgers and Cubs – perhaps) didn’t roll through. It did expose the ultimate lack of depth and experience with the club, but that is what will happen with a young team. It’s part of the process, and either you have a coaching staff that can shore things up and move forward, or you don’t. The Astros don’t. Some of that has been discussed here, but both Luhnow and Hinch deserve some credit for mishandling their roster both throughout the season and especially during these injuries that hit. We’ll discuss that a bit later, though.

We can also take a look at a primary recipe for success or failure when it comes to a young roster. Since depth was one of the issues shown after the 2nd half injury, the need for the right investment in veteran players has been shown. This was a weak link for the Astros, who went with players such as Rasmus, Gomez, and Valbuena, as well as pitchers like Fiers, Feldman, Fields, Sipp, and Gregerson to get them through. There’s no star in that line up (although Valbuena did start to heat up before injury, his fielding and ABs left a lot to be desired in the first half). There’s no strong veteran leadership on the team, outside of Altuve – but as great as he is, he can only do so much.

In hindsight, the front office was a little too conservative moving into the 2016 season, fresh off the 1st postseason run since the 2005 season. Perhaps you can count this for a little inexperience all-around, with Crane being a relatively new franchise owner, Luhnow’s first stint as a GM, and, well – Hinch has been around the block. The team’s young age factors into this greatly, which is why strength is needed in veteran contracts – it gives the team a few years of overall experience, as well as depth in core positions. This season certainly doesn’t spell out disaster in the long run. It points to a learning experience for the whole club, and a great opportunity to improve on mistakes.


Houston Astros: Dave Hudgens needs a new job

MLB: Houston Astros at Arizona Diamondbacks

The Astros hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, needs a new job.

Before we get out the pitchforks and place the blame solely on any shoulders, however, let’s take a look at what a hitting coach realistically does, and how this job affects the team. Typically, the hitting coach’s involvement is analyzing player at-bats in the game versus batting practice. He sees the technique used, and works with the player if there are huge discrepancies between practice and games. He also works with players to tweak performance, in the event that a player’s hitting technique declines over time. This position certainly cannot be blamed for the season – the season play was indeed a team and staff effort – but there are some numbers that I find pretty discouraging, as far as how a hitting coach can and can affect a game or player, and with Hudgens’ own track record as a hitting coach. Let’s take a look.

Dave Hudgens was hired in the 2014-2015 offseason, after being fired from the Mets organization toward the beginning of the 2014 season; his 4th year as hitting coach for the Mets. One could say his firing was a simply casualty in the organizational shake-up for the Mets that continued into last year. Many people do. However, there exists some decent evidence that the Hudgens hitting philosophy and approach (as quoted in a now-defunct chron.com article as being rather relaxed, with the simple goal to get on base no matter what) did not cut it for the Mets organization. Here’s 3 years of batting stats for the Mets (collectively) with Hudgens as hitting coach:

Batting Average

2011 – .264 (Ranked 2nd)

2012 – .249 (Ranked 10th)

2013 – .237 (Ranked 14th)

On-Base Percentage

2011 – .335 (Ranked 2nd)

2012 – .316 (Ranked 11th)

2013 – .306 (Ranked 14th)


2011 – 1,085 (Ranked 13th)

2012 – 1,250 (Ranked 7th)

2013 – 1,384 (Ranked 1st)

Not great. In fact, there’s a steady decline in offense performance by the total team. Does this reflect as a negative pattern for Hudgens, or is it simply the outcome of a Mets organization that didn’t expand their purse strings in order to pick up quality players? Obviously, a hitting coach can only do so much as far as improving a team’s at-bat. Once a player gets up to the MLB, they are pretty set in player style and ability. So, we can’t expect miracles. However, as discussed above, the main goal of the hitting coach is to keep that consistency the player has shown, whether it be analyzing swinging technique, or offering tweaks when necessary.

In Hudgen’s final year as a hiting coach with the Mets, one stat was fairly noticeable – a much lower production in at-bats at home versus away. Hudgens took this split difference to the team about a week before he was fired, the stat was simply washed away as a player problem – with the home field stadium getting to the heads of the players. A mental block when playing at home. This makes some sense – there’s extra pressure to perform at home versus away, when the team is directly and primarily playing for their fan base. This could also be a fluky situation that bears no responsibility from the hitting coach. Unless there’s a pattern that begins to emerge. Let’s look at some team stats for the Astros with Hudgens as hitting coach:

Batting Average

2015 – .249 (Ranked 23rd)

2016 – .246 (Ranked 24th)

On-Base Percentage

2015 – ..315 (Ranked 16th)

2016 – .319 (Ranked 19th)


2015 – 1,406 (Ranked 2nd)

2016 – 1,438 (Ranked 4th)

I’m adding one more stat, to make sense of some of these numbers


2015 – 3.02 per game (Ranked 11th)

2016 – 3.42 per game (Ranked 7th)

Of course these 2016 stats will change slighty, given there are 2 more games left in the season, but not much. What we can see is, overall, a dip in batting average, a slight rise in on-base percentage (walks being added to show one reason for that slight rise), and higher strike-out rate from Hudgens year 1 vs year 2 with the Astros. That’s only 2 years worth of stats, but it does show a similar pattern to the decline at-bat for the Mets. Also somewhat alarming to what could be a pattern developing is the Astros dip in performance at home for 2016 versus away. In 2015, the Astros had a BA/OBP of .247/.310 away vs .253/.321 at home. For 2016, the split was .255/.327 away vs .238/.311 at home. So, either the Astros have developed the same mental block of playing at home as the Mets did during Hudgens’ tenure, or Hudgens isn’t a great fit for the young, growing team.

I tend to think it is the latter, and we’ll take a look at 2 players that went into a serious decline with the Astros in 2016 to break this down. I think we all know at least one of the players we will be discussing here, and nobody really wants to bring it up – but, this player’s performance is key to uncovering what may be a big issue with Hudgens as hitting coach. The other is a player who has seen a steep decline at bat during Hudgens’ tenure as the Astros hitting coach, as well. Both are stars in the centerfield, and have struggled at bat with the Astros. So, without further adeiu, let’s take a look at the yearly stats of Carlos Gomez and Jake Marisnick, prior to working with Hudgens, during his tenure with the team and, for Gomez, after being picked up by another team.

Marisnick is finishing up his 3rd year with the Astros, and 4th year in the MLB. He’s a great asset in centerfield, with his speed and depth, but has stalled out at bat. His at-bat performance in 2015 was a primary reason, actually, for bringing in Golden Glove CF and slugger Carlos Gomez. We know how that turned out, though. But let’s specifically examine Marisnick’s at-bat stats over the 3 years he’s been with the club:

Batting Average (career: .223)

2014 – .272

2015 – .236

2016 – .204

On-Base Percentage (career: .267)

2014 – .299

2015 – .281

2016 – .253


2014 – 48 (out of 51 games, .94 per game)

2015 – 105 (out of 133 games, .78 per game)

2016 – 81 (out of 116 games, .69 per game)

Marisnick’s BA and OBP both declined steadily since 2014, but hey – fewer strikeouts! Fewer strikeouts is a good thing, as it means he’s taking pitches and waiting for more pitches in the zone. However, this isn’t improving his performance at bat – at all. Here are a few more numbers to show just how much he’s declined since his 1st year with the Astros:


2014 – 47 (out of 51 games, .92 per game)

2015 – 80 (out of 133 games, .60 per game)

2016 – 57 (out of 116 games, .49 per game)

Runs Batted In (RBI)

2014 – 19 (out of 51 games, .37 per game)

2015 – 36 (out of 133 games, .27 per game)

2016 – 20 (out of 116 games, .17 per game)

Pretty terrible decline overall, especially considering Marisnick only in his 4th year in the MLB. One could argue that he’s an on-the-fence player who may not belong in the major league (if you take out his OF performance, that is), and that he had a breakout year when he came on with the Astros. This is a possibility. Or, perhaps he needs some more hands-on coaching.

Now, let’s look at Carlos Gomez. This, perhaps, is the most damning evidence that there’s some deficiency in Hudgens’ philosophy of – well, the trend seems to be get on base no matter what, especially if that means taking pitches and being walked. There has been a pretty distinct overall surge in walks for the team, and I’m not sure this is the best philosophy for a young growing team. But, I digress. Gomez stats (we’ll look at the same 3 year average, with direct splits between teams played for):

Batting Average (career: .257)

2014 – .284

2015 MIL – .262

2015 HOU – .242

2016 HOU – .210

2016 TEX – .289

On-Base Percentage (career: .312)

2014 – .356

2015 MIL – .328

2015 HOU – .288

2016 HOU – .272

2016 TEX – .367


2014 – 141 (out of 148 games, .95 per game)

2015 MIL – 70 (out of 74 games, .95 per game)

2015 HOU – 31 (out of 41 games, .76 per game)

2016 HOU – 100 (out of 85 games, 1.18 per game)

2016 TEX – 35 (out of 32 games, 1.09 per game)

And further…


2014 – 163 (out of 148 games, 1.10 per game)

2015 MIL – 75 (out of 74 games), 1.01 per game)

2015 HOU – 36 (out of 41 games, .88 per game)

2016 HOU – 62 (out of 85 games, .73 per game)

2016 TEX – 33 (out of 32 games, 1.03 per game)

Runs Batted In (RBI)

2014 – 73 (out of 148 games, .49 per game)

2015 MIL – 43 (out of 74 games, .58 per game)

2015 HOU – 13 (out of 41 games, .32 per game)

2016 HOU – 29 (out of 85 games, .34 per game)

2016 TEX – 16 (out of 32 games, .50 per game)

Aaaaaaannnnndd 31 HRs for MIL in 2014-2015 (.14 per game), 9 HRs for HOU in 2015-2016 (.07 per game), and 8 HRs for TEX in 2016 (.23 per game). Gomez virtually falling off the radar during his short stint on the Astros roster is pretty telling. We can bring up that he had some injury issues during this time (he did – with a stint on the DL for a knee injury in 2015, as well as a stint on the DL for something (although it seemed like more of a timeout) in 2016. But, the sharp jump in performance since finding a new team in 2016 can’t be ignored.

While 2 players can’t tell the whole story (since perhaps Marisnick had his peak, and Gomez simply struggled with injury), we can also look at Chris Carter’s stats – which made a measurable dip in 2015 before being sent off to MIL to resume his high strike out/high HR performance. Feel free to take a look at his 2014-2016 stats here to see for yourself. It’s rather telling. And honestly, if you have taken a look at Gomez as a Ranger, his AB presence is night and day (and you can check out his full AB history, and the dynamics and tweaks made to boost his overall slugging performance here).

Perhaps we can still say that coaching staff doesn’t make or break the team, but there seems to be no denial that the hitting coach (specifically) can either help boost or stall a team. For the Astros, the stats point to him simply not being the right fit for the young, growing team (and his history as a hitting coach and slight patterns emerging point to the possibility that he’s not right for the MLB, period). What if we did have someone who took the time to work on Gomez and his swing this year, and he ended up hitting for the Astros like he now is hitting for the Rangers (killing it, by the way)? Would that make a 4-5 game difference and put the team into the playoffs? Probably. Would that have made a difference in a few of the 27 games lost by 1 run or extra innings? You betcha.

With the Astros 2016 season winding down with no playoff spot, and a slightly worse record than 2015 (even if they win the last 2 games, they’ll still be a game under last season’s record), it’s quite possible that there will be some changes to the coaching staff, along with the necessary changes on the roster. All the coaching positions (as well as management) need to be scrutinized at this point, and Hudgens seems like the weakest link on the coaching staff. There may be more (and we’ll get into that in the next week), but the team’s overall offensive decline cannot be ignored – especially the stalled out veteran player whose hitting technique suddenly improved with a 258 mile northern migration. What also cannot be ignored is the emerging pattern in Hudgens as a hitting coach with 2 different teams, with both teams suffering a decline AB during his tenure.



Houston Astros: Limping towards the finish line

Correa nets 22nd Homerun of the Season

Okay, before we talk about the latest Astros struggles, let’s just do this and get it out of our systems.


Okay. I feel better, how about you? No? Well, a collective anger isn’t going to change yesterday’s game, so it’s best to move on and focus on the remaining 22 we have in the season. We can be mad at Jim Joyce, who obviously learned physics differently than the rest of us, or his officiating crew who not only couldn’t see a ball hit the dirt then shoot up toward the area of the checked-swing bat then magically do a 100 degree change in trajectory and bounce off into foul territory, but couldn’t hear the distinct noise of a leather ball hitting wood and not dirt, or a leather glove.

Or we could be mad at arbitrary replay rules that don’t allow such blown calls to be reviewed, regardless of how clear they are, while having the ability to replay base running  ad nauseum or, even more comparatively, turn a homerun into a foul ball. I know the argument toward reviewing plays like this could lead to the want and need to scrutinize every ball that crosses the plate, but that is a hyperbolic retort if that is being used. In calls like this that lead to runs scored, review should be allowed. That’s precisely how the rule should be changed, too. Questionable calls involving runs scored, and leave it there.

Or course this will likely upset MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who is already looking for ways to keep the average baseball game from hitting 3 hours (hint: 1 less commercial per break will solve this, Manfred. Seriously – I don’t think any of us need any advertisement reminder from the MLB or our respective teams during the game we are actually watcing. We’re pretty self-aware of our role as fans, in that regard. Considering we’re watching the damn game). All I can say is to this is, well, deal with it. The integrity of the game shouldn’t be cheated based on time constraints.

. . .

Anyway – now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems (kind of, not really), let’s move on to the latest injury report from the roster. Carlos Correa was sent back home to Houston a few days back with an inflammation in his shoulder. He is currently day-to-day, as with his previous ankle sprain, but will be held out of the lineup for a third consecutive game vs the Chicago Cubs tonight at Minute Maid Park. This is slightly worrisome, but with Alex Bregman heating up at bat, and Yulieski Gurriel coming into his own and effectively covering 3rd base, this isn’t as bad as the starting rotation struggle.

Starting ace Dallas Keuchel is still out of the rotation with shoulder inflammation, Lance McCullers is just beginning to start throwing from his DL stint, Collin McHugh continues to be unpredictable McHugh, Mike Fiers has somewhat straightened up enough to start winning games again and staying out on the mound for more than 3 innings, and Fister is sliding downhill fast. Then we have the 2 rookies, Joe Musgrove and David Paulino, who both would clearly benefit more this season from developing in the bullpen with a few stints in the starting rotation, instead of being thrust in, due to injury.

And then the real tragedy is PCL Pitcher of the year and latest call-up to the roster, RHP Brady Rodgers, who has been a disaster in his first 2 games in the MLB, with a total of 9 hits, 10 runs scored in 1.2 innings (5 runs in each game played), and an embarrassing ERA of 54.00. I’m sure he’ll eventually even out, but he’s not someone that the Astros need in the bullpen for the final 22 games of the season. The Astros are already carrying 18 pitchers on the active roster (including 7 SR and 11 BP), which is at least 2 more than the average. Rodgers is a waste on the roster in September, plain and simple.

What I’d rather see, instead of carrying dead weight in an already robust bullpen, is a final shot for AAA Fresno 1st Baseman Jon Singleton.

Before you react, hear me out. You may think I am clearly insane for suggesting the call up of a once highly-touted but recently fallen from grace (but still has potential) 1st baseman that was beat out by 2 other 1st basemen who have stunk in the MLB this season. After all, he’s been less than impressive overall this season with the Fresno Grizzlies, but his averages have been pretty great (especially his slugging and on base percentage) facing RHPs. He can handle the fielding at 1st base (which was never the issue), and can be used in a pinch hitting situation.

He wouldn’t be a savior by any means, and he’d be getting this last-ditch effort in the MLB for the Astros no doubt, but he’s being paid and he would be a fresh player for a week or two.  He’d be a good strategy substitution in late innings with weaker bullpens, and with RHPs who struggle with lefties at bat. Whether we trust Hinch to be able to pull off those strategic moves is another conversation, but we’d at least be giving him the ammunition needed going into the final few weeks of the season. If we’re going to carry some relative dead weight on the roster, we may as well exercise all our options.

I’d honestly rather see Devenski bumped up to the starting rotation in place of Musgrove, but it seems that Hinch has got him firmly stenciled in as the mid-long relief once Musgrove, Paulino (although it’s too soon to tell), McHugh, Fiers, or even Fister putter out in the 3rd-5th innings. It could be a gamble to take a solid long reliever out of the BP (and is also why the Astros are carrying extra weight in the BP), but it’s an equal gamble to leave him there so he can minimize runs in a game already lost. That doesn’t sound like it is going to happen, so I defer to the why the hell not option, above.

Whatever is done in these last few games, one thing seems certain. The club’s going to have to find out a way to win 16 of the last 22 games. That gives the team 90 wins and a shot at the WC (taking the averages of both the Orioles and the Tigers). That means 6 more losses where the Astros will face 3 playoff contenders in 12 games. In order to get there, the Astros have to play perfect baseball. They have to get by the next 6 games against the NL 1st place Cubs and the AL 1st place Rangers with at minimum 1 win per club, and pull off series wins in the remaining games against the Mariners, Athletics and Angels.

Your move, Hinch. Make it count.

Houston Astros: Wheels off, again


The most unduly anticipated event in the MLB, outside of the midseason trade deadline (and often coinciding with the necessity for some trades) is the dreaded injury bug that usually rears its ugly head around the All-Star Break. Over half of the season has been put in, and the daily grind begins to show the wear and tear of our guys on the field. No team is immune, no matter what preparations are made, and a few key holes in a line up is enough to unravel any team.

For the Astros, the injury bug started hitting just after a phenomenal June record of 18-8, and an almost equally impressive July record of 12-7. Baseball was fun again and both the team and the fans enjoyed the games. Perhaps a little too much. To go off course a second, I want to take a look at the schedule in June and July, which led to an amazing catch-up run. From June 1st to July 24th, only 18 of the 45 games played were against playoff contenders, yet the win/loss percentage was steadfast .667 against both playoff contenders and non-playoff contenders.

Many of those games were divisional, and sometimes divisional opponents are tougher to face, given the number of times the respective clubs play throughout the season. For the Astros, the record for non-playoff contender divisional opponents was 15-4. For playoff contender divisional opponents, the record was 6-4, with an overall 21-28 record in the AL West. In essence, the Astros own the AL West except for 1 stupid team. Ironically, that 1 stupid team will keep the Astros out of 1st (and possibly the playoffs) because of whatever voodoo they have used hold the Astros down.

Outside of the division, the Astros have managed to dominate playoff teams 6-2, while losing against non-contenders 3-5. That’s an odd statistic, and it is hard to say whether it points to a definite pattern, given the small sampling size (16 games total), but within the record 30-15 comeback to relevance stand the Astros had, it does show that the Astros tend to play to the opponent outside of the division. The problem with that is, with teams you should be dominating, you’re giving them a chance for a win. In a streak that boasted a 30-15 win loss record, that seems almost inconsequential – except it wasn’t.

Because when the Astros hit the meat of their schedule against a husky group of playoff contenders, the injury bug hit and the wheels came off. The Astros went from being within a couple of games within 1st place in the AL West, to 3rd place in the division – all in a 2 week span. Then 10 grueling days later, the Astros found themselves 10.5 games out of 1st and 3.5 out of 2nd. Tragedy. This stretch of games against high caliber teams mirrored the awful April start the club had (7-16 and 7-17 records, respectively). Two reasons for this: injury and absolutely no plan b.

Injury is unavoidable in the sport. It it indiscriminatory. The 2 injuries that hurt the worst during this time were the hamstring and wrist soreness that knocked Marwin Gonzales out of the lineup several times during this stretch, and Luis Valbuena’s season-ending hamstring strain. Gonzalez started missing time July 24th, and Valbuena left the game July 26th. Subsequently, Gregerson, McCullers and Rasmus suffered injury or setbacks that yanked them from the lineup. And with all those injuries clustering around the meatiest stretch of the schedule, the Astros had zero back-up plan.

There were no big trades (although I’m not completely opposed to that), no rookies were quite ready to be pulled from the farming system, and no help from any veteran signings over the past few years, as far as offense is concerned. In reality, almost 100% of the run production in this stint were home grown players in the 1-4 slot in the lineup. You could pretty much guarantee, aside from the occasional walk, zero bases every second and third inning as it was, but when Valbuena was lost and Gonzalez started disappearing from the lineup, offense fell flat.

Eventually, with some hap-hazard call-ups, rookie Alex Bregman finally getting his footing, and the signing of Cuban superstar Yulieski Gourriel, the Astros offense has steadied and is back into producing runs and wins on a regular basis. So what better time than to hit a snag in the starting rotation pitching? With McCullers already on DL and Musgrove showing he is clearly not ready for prime time, Dallas Keuchel has been taken out of the rotation indefinitely, and there is no clear answer to who his replacement should be, or even if/when Keuchel is coming back into the rotation.

In the meantime, Hinch is again hap-hazardly juggling with call-ups and rookies to mend the starting rotation. Once again, a rookie pitcher will have his MLB debut this Thursday, in another tough stretch of playoff contenders before finishing off the season with less-challenging divisional opponents. It’s not looking great for the post season, but the Astros are not out of it yet. If rookie RHP David Paulino can make a splash in his debut, then the Astros can pull of a series win (or even sweep) against the Tribe. This would balance out the starting rotation and keep the bullpen stocked up.

If not, well…better luck next year.

Houston Astros: what we’ve learned


I promised some articles on coaching and management deficiencies, and that’s still coming. There are still issues in the management department, and that has become a little more clear despite the run the Astros have been on. Let’s catch up with the past few months, though.

The Astros have given us a wild ride in the past few months. They’ve gone from almost out of contention and a below .500 finish at the half, to a spectacular June/July run to put them back into contention for both the AL West title and the playoffs. Just when we all breathed a collective sigh, and baseball became fun again in Houston, the wheel started coming off, again. After an impressive 19/8 run (from my last posting) going into the All-Star Break, and a .575 run since mid-June (that’s counting today’s probable loss, sorry), the writing on the wall is becoming perfectly clear: too little; too late.

How can I say this, you may be thinking, when they’re 10-2 9-3 in the last 12 games? Because the Astros will likely be 8-4 in the last 12 games after today, possibly 7-5 after tomorrow, are 2-12 (or 13, depending on when you read this) against the Rangers, could end up being 2-14 by Sunday, have another series with the team that they simply cannot beat, and have WC contenders in 17 or the next 27 games to finish out the season. In that span, the Astros will need to gain 3 games, finish with at least 89 wins, and go .675 for September. This means winning out in every series left, or a few sweeps if they’re going to continue to be fully dominated by the Rangers.

Hey, it can happen. Stranger things have occurred in the month of September in the MLB. In fact, the Astros were in a similar spot this time last year – sitting behind the Rangers and right in the mix for the WC spot. We already knew, about mid-season, that the Astros would need a better record than 86-76 to go to the post season. Currently, they’re sitting at .530, which is where they sat at the end of the 2015 season – just enough to scrape by. This season, .530 will get another 86 wins, but they’ll miss the playoffs by 3 games (with current estimates). Also similar to last year, they’re 2 games into a 13 game stretch that will make or break the season.

Going back to my previous post, I still feel the season was over in May. The good news in that is that I don’t expect them to sink below last season’s record, but I also don’t expect them to be playing more than 2 games in October. For the sake of the game, we can still have the fun of comparing 2016 to 2005 (which seems to have become the thing to do amongst the Astros fandom in the last stretch), because – schedule wise – there have been some particularly similar patterns of winning/losing streaks between the 2 seasons. Or, we can chalk it up to a year with no growth, but no real regression, and hope some of the right moves are made going into 2017. I know which one I’m doing. How about you?

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


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.

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


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.

Houston Astros: Ground control to Major Keuchel


What has happened to our ace?

Dallas Keuchel, our top of the line up starting pitcher, is venturing through some hard times. The 2x Golden Glove winner, and Cy Young Award recipient of 2015, is cruising through a low point in his 5th season of the MLB with the Astros. What started out as another promising season, Keuchel took the mound against the 2015 Wild Card rival New York Yankees on April 5th (after a 1-day rain delay), posted up 5 strike outs, 3 hits and 2 runs in a season opener victory. The Astros hit the gate running, but quickly tripped and fell, landing square on their face.

The rough start, minus the opening day win, was highlighted by poor pitching from the starting rotation, and compounded by poor and inconsistent at bat appearances. April’s 7-17 start began to slowly be erased from our collective minds with an impressive start to May: 8-6 in the first 2 weeks, and eventually rounding out to 10-8 and a vital on-the-road series win against the Chicago White Sox before heading home to face the Rangers. By all appearances, the pitching had settled in and the team was waking up at bat. Even though the team appeared to be on the mend, there were some games that got away.

That’s another story, though, because we’re here to talk about Keuchel.

Keuchel’s season, in the first couple of weeks, didn’t immediately plummet. By the end of the 2nd week, Keuchel’s record was 2-1, with a total of 5 earned runs over 3 games and an ERA of 2.18. He should have been 3-0, but the pretty pathetic AB showing against the Milwaukee Brewers made nothing come of a 1 run loss in a low scoring game. Keuchel did his job, but the offense failed him. And then the Astros went on to face the bane of their existence: the Texas South Oklahoma Rangers, in Arlington. As with the rest of the team, the Rangers have sunk deeply into Keuchel’s head.

For the most part, it appears that the Rangers broke our ace. They posted 13 hits, 6 runs, and a 1st home run off Keuchel for his season, and accounted for Keuchel’s first loss in which he bore the responsibility for. Anything over 4 runs, and you’re not giving your offense a fair chance. This, though – this wasn’t the game that broke Keuchel. This was the beginning – to fans it was Keuchel playing his part in getting a rough start over early, like everyone else in the starting rotation. It was, at that point, still early: 3 weeks in, and hopes and dreams of the team and fans not terribly crushed.

The next game that saw Keuchel taking the mound is what broke our ace. It shouldn’t have, really, but it did. The Seattle Mariners game with the worst strike zone calling to date this season, thanks to home plate ump Brian Gorman, who is known as a hitter’s ump. Basically meaning he’s going to call in favor of batters, although his inconsistent zone in that game wasn’t helping anyone. It did severely mess with Keuchel, though, to the point of making some strong words after the game.

So how did this game break Keuchel? Simple – a low-velocity pitcher counts on his placement. Keuchel throws an relies mainly on his slider and sinker, but can also pitch a good change-up, and has a 4 seam and cut fast ball. And, I use that term loosely, as his velocity averages out at about 90 MPH. So, Keuchel’s asset is in his placement. When that’s gone, he’s useless. That’s not a kind way to put it, but that’s the reality. When a couple of bad outings get in his head, like they’ve done, then he’s in trouble.

Let’s see it in real terms, after the Mariners game:


That chart shows where Keuchel’s sinking his season. His 2015 chart shows command, consistency, and location. 2016 shows a wildly inconsistent, but primarily right over the plate location. Low velocity (less than 90 MPH, on average) strikes right in the zone mean higher hit rates, which is what we’ve been seeing. The Mariners game wasn’t the only off-base strike zone being called, either. Home plate officiating this year seems to be quite a mess so far, but it’s damaging for a location pitcher.

What’s insulting is that he’s been getting the rookie squeeze in the past few games. A 5 year player getting the rookie treatment is almost degrading to a player. Keuchel lost his composure (as much as Keuchel will) with the strong wording surrounding the terribly called Mariners game, and asserted as such that giving him rookie treatment is insulting. Seems like that stuck with him, too, because any weird or bad call sets him off into a tailspin, and he starts missing his mark.

That is Keuchel’s value – that and left-handed pitching. Historically, it is an uphill battle for a pitcher to lack the velocity to regularly throw a nasty fastball in the mix. It’s not impossible, but it stacks some odds against him. He’s been consistent with his location on the edges in the past few years, getting batters to stretch and chase, and often swing and whiff. That’s changing this year. Batters in the AL are adjusting to his presence, and that makes it difficult for him to adjust successfully.

Then you add the strike zone squeeze and that mental stigma leftover from a particularly terribly called game, and you have your current Keuchel disaster. That creates a bit of desperation on Keuchel’s part, which is why we’ve seen the curve ball worked back into his pitching rotation. Not his strong suit by any means, but also not a ball that batters are used to seeing from him. With any hope, he can work a few weaker pitches back in, and continue hammering out that location.

What I think he needs is 1 week off from rotation, and to immediately limit his innings to 5-6. Let him build it back up, and move away from some of those terrible starts. He’s not done by any means, but he’s certainly struggling. And it isn’t a decision that Keuchel would like, but it’s a management decision that is needed for the good of the team. Keep your players happy, but do so responsibly. This is a decision that needs to be made in the next rotation reset, and Keuchel will end up being a better player for it.

Houston Astros: Silver (re)Boot Series


With a series win, and a rough northeast road trip behind them, the Astros come home to face their division rivals, the Arlington South Oklahoma Texas Rangers. No, wait; I’m changing that back to Arlington Rangers. This will be the 2nd of 6 series against the in-state rivals, as well as the Silver Boot Series (the Silver Boot Series, again, being the seasonal trophy for the club that has the most wins vs the other). This series is a matter of pride, with the 1st being in Arlington and ending with an unceremonious sweep by the Rangers. it is also a test to see if the Astros are indeed coming back to the game.

After a terrible series in Boston, one of which the Astros should have come out 3-1 but instead came out 1-3, a roster shake-up was implemented. Erik Kratz was no more, being replaced by Evan Gattis, Tony Kemp was called up, Carlos Gomez was placed on 15 day DL (which could be the first step to sealing his fate for the team, or a much-needed break to get back on track), and then Colin Moran was called up from the MiLB in the final step of the shake-up. This caused a much-needed and highly anticipated boost in the line-up, with the Astros clinching a series win vs the slipping Chicago White Sox in game 2.

Both Kemp and Moran got their MLB debuts in the series – Kemp with a pinch running spot in game one, and both being inserted in the line up, at left field and 3rd base, respectively, in game 2. Both showed a certain spark that led to their call-ups. Kemp, in his first game in the line up, went 2/3 at bat, with a double, a single, a run, and a walked base. Moran was slightly less impressive, with a strikeout, a line out (albeit a solid hit), and a walked base. Both showed an aggressive and energetic defense on the field, which shows a lot of promise in the coming weeks.

This was the series of the rookie. Not only did the 2 newcomers put on a worthy performance, but Tyler White made a comeback at bat, putting in his 1st game of the year with multiple home runs in game 1 of the series. Coming in with a noteworthy mention would be Evan Gattis – not a rookie by any means. However, in his first appearance back from the fast-track to catching minors designation, Gattis came out and hit a 2 run home run in extra innings to clinch the 1st win for the Astros. In between the double sock road series, the Astros pulled out a punch.

This was a much-needed road series win for the Astros, the 1st road series won all season, but I would caution those who want to turn that series win into a testament that the Astros are back. The signs are promising, but the conditions were ripe for picking. The Chicago White Sox entered this series on a skid. They were coming in 2-4 in their last 6 games, with 2 consecutive series losses and a 2 game losing streak. Not that the Astros were coming in great, but this recent slide put the Astros in a relatively good position to pull off a few wins on the road.

And boy are we glad they did.

The series win on the road gives the Astros a decent boost coming home to face the Rangers, who are coming out of a series loss and sweep against the Oakland Athletics. That series sweep not only cost the Rangers a possible bump to 1st place in the AL West, but it’s putting their 2nd place seat in danger. Both teams will be hungry for wins. The Rangers will fight to advance to the top spot in the division, while the Astros will fight for another series win at home, and a hopeful jump out of last place in the division. The Astros are also confronting their on-field demons, so to speak.

Since their ascention to the top spot in the division in 2015, and the eventual take-over by the Rangers, the Astros have had some bitter stuggles against the division and in-state rival. They had an embarrassing sweep against the Rangers in Minute Maid Park around this time last year, that kicked off that stigma of facing their rival down the line. The season was marked with 3 series wins for the Astros, and 3 series sweeps by the Rangers, for a final record of 6-13 against the Rangers – their worst record against a division opponent.

This season, the Astros are 0-3 against the Rangers with that 1st series sweep. That series showed 2 teams struggling against each other, with neither playing their best on the field. That series, for the Astros, also marked the beginning of the decline for ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel. Yes, guys, the Rangers are responsible for breaking out star pitcher; get mad. Keuchel, who had a terrible outing in the final game of the earlier series, had 13 hits, 6 earned runs, and the 1st home run in 2016 against him. Keuchel will get his chance to come back from that loss in game 3 of this upcoming series, on Sunday.

This series will, in my opinion, tell the tale of how the Astros will fare the rest of the season. They are facing their mentally toughest opponent, at home, and in the middle of a turnaround month where they currently have a winning record. This series gives the Astros the chance to finally confront their in-state and division demons, and finally get the notion of playing the Rangers out of their heads. With a new injection of energy on the roster and a victorious battle for a series win against a 1st place team in the AL, the Astros could not be more ready. The question is, will they step up?

Noteworthy for this particular series is that it looks like Rougned Odor, who is appealing an 8 game suspension after punching Bautista in the face earlier in the week, will be on the roster for a few, if not all 3 games in this series. The hope that Odor would start serving his suspension prior to this series was pretty good news for the Astros, as Odor has been a force on the Rangers squad, with 28 runs, 7 home runs, 21 RBIs and a .275 BA this season so far. Granted, the Astros own superstar at 2nd base, Jose Altuve, smokes him in every way possible (except throwing punches), but losing him would hurt the Rangers.

It doesn’t look like it will play out that way, however, and the Astros will be facing the full force of the Rangers.

The key to this game for the Astros will be productivity at bat (and subsequently, pitching). Both teams have very similar runs per game and runs allowed per game stats, with the Rangers having the slight edge over the Astros with 4.54/4.24 runs per game, and 4.56/4.81 runs allowed per game, respectively. The Astros have started swinging more consistently over the past week, but stranding runners is still a big problem with the team. There are some tweaks that can happen in the line-up to produce a few more runs, which we’ll probably see in the coming days.

Starting rotation needs to remain steady. McCullers will have his 2nd game of the year starting tonight (under much better weather conditions) and needs to take more command on the strike zone. Fiers, starting in game 2, needs to continue his trend of improvement, now that he’s got the starting job over rookie Chris Devenski (who was dropped to the bullpen yesterday). Keuchel needs to just come back. He looked good in his start against the White Sox in the first win, but couldn’t make it through 7 innings after losing command over the lower outside strike zone.

Bullpen needs to keep the consistency solid. Gregerson needs to start splitting time as closer with Harris, even if it’s just an inning split, if there are any 1 run games. The bullpen needs to be managed more efficiently in this series, especially with Devenksi coming back in the fold. There should be no excuse to lose any tight games moving forward. If Gregerson isn’t having a good outing, then Gregerson needs to be pulled. No excuses, no chances. If the bullpen is managed a little smarter and a little more competitively, there should be no reason for a series loss at home.

Finally, the Astros need to remove the stigma of playing the Rangers from their head. The team needs to get out and enjoy the game, which makes it more enjoyable for all of us. Forget the past, forget the bad April start, and forget the last series sweep against the Rangers in South Oklahoma. Yep, it’s South Oklahoma again. Get out in front of a packed Minute Maid Park and put on a performance worthy of the Friday night fireworks. Let the Rangers know they have a worthy opponent. Most of all, let’s work on a series win and even a 1st series sweep of the seaon in the Astros favor. Let’s play ball.