Houston Astros: the wrap-up

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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.

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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.

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Houston Texans: Buckle up

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One quarter of the season has been played, with the Texans sitting atop the AFC South and a 2 game cushion, at 3-1. Not a bad start, with a brand-spanking-new offense and some key injuries on both sides of the ball. The offensive line is still shaky, with Duane Brown hinted at coming back this week, after his season-ending injury last season, and the defense lost their top player, JJ Watt, for the season. O’Brien has taken play-calling duties over for Godsey, who couldn’t figure out a way to use the running game’s biggest weapon, Lamar Miller, in 3 games.

The team is finally showing some flashes of greatness, stalled by some bad decision turnovers from Osweiler. Hopkins hasn’t yet been utilized to his 2015 playtime, with most of the turnovers coming off of forced passes to him. The stumbles and stalls haven’t stopped the Texans from picking up a winning record so far, and gaining that 2-game cushion on the rest of the flailing AFC South (including what shouldn’t have been such a nail-biting game against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday). Each game brings a few signs of improvement (we’re not going to talk about that one game).

The Texans have a powerhouse defense that can keep the offense in the game. Even with the loss of JJ Watt, the Texans have bounced back with other key players like Mercilus, Clowney, Cushing, and Simon, with Wilfork putting in a heck of a season so far. The CB depth is enough to keep the passing game in check (although there are still some tackling issues being settled). The offense, however, doesn’t create a march down the field with the same ease, and has had some pretty rough turnovers in the interim. And special teams is finally figuring out that you get 25 yards on a return by taking a knee.

If you’re like me, you’ve been scratching your head at the ST kickoff return game plan in the first few games of the season, considering the new touchback rule that adds 5 yards to the line of scrimmage. In at least 1 game when we’ve seen turnovers after a returning from the endzone, you’d think the Texans ST coach is crazy. They’re not alone, though. Despite the rule’s intentions of lessening the chance of injury in those rough, full velocity return tackles, returns have actually increased throughout the league. That hasn’t worked well for the Texans, though, and it looks like they’re finally getting wise to this.

But the meat of the schedule is about to start, and we’re left to wonder if they’re ready for it. The Texans are next facing the undefeated and rather mesmerizing Minnesota Vikings, who lost both Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson within a few short weeks. Despite losing their 2 top offensive weapons, they’ve managed to go 4-0 with Sam Bradford, now seemingly healthy and playing with a vengeance, without even a hiccup. Led by a top defense, the Vikings have capitalized on creating turnovers and then scoring on them, but can just as readily march down the field for a touchdown.

With Osweiler as a continuing work in progress (and I hate to break it to you, but this work in progress looks like it will be continuing throughout the season), are the Texans going to play conservatively to lessen the chance for turnovers, or keep forcing him into making better pressure decisions? I’d bet on a little bit of both. Duane Brown’s impending return will be a great help with keeping Osweiler out of such pressure situations, as it will open up the possibility of shuffling the line around to bolster it on both ends. This will open up the running game down the middle a bit more too.

That’s not likely to all click in place this Sunday, so I’d expect to see more conservative calls on offense to keep from giving the Vikings an opportunity to do what they do best – force a turnover and turn it into points. That may also mean that Hopkins will see a few more games without a target – which may work out best for him and the team in the long run. One of the keys to this offense is having limitless targets on field, and it seems to be working so far. That lingering if/when will Osweiler clean up his throws and make better decisions will decide what level the team will eventually play at this season.

Moving forward? Remain cautiously optimistic. Osweiler’s struggles with decision making under pressure are not an anomaly from a newer QB. I don’t care when he was drafted, he’s not even had a full season starting under his belt. That matters, because you don’t pick up experience to improve on the bench. He’s also got a brand new offense to work the kinks out with, as well. So, be prepared for this to be a season-long test. It should be, when you’re giving a new QB the opportunity to be the franchise QB. We’re well past the days of next QB up. It’s new territory, guys, and the rules are different.

And, at the end of the season if he doesn’t pan out, it’s really not as bad of a deal as you think. Osweiler is guaranteed for 2 seasons at 18 million per season. That’s the average pay for a starting QB in their second contract in the NFL. And if he still continues to have some of the problems under pressure, then the concentration in the free agency and draft for 2017 will beQB and o-line. He’s our guy for at least this season and next, so let’s get used to that. For the time being, recognize he’s in his 2nd year (and 1st full season) as a starter, and give him the room to improve.

Minnesota may not be a win, but it won’t mean the season is over. This won’t be an easy win for either team, and it won’t be another blow out embarassment for the Texans. I’ll put my predictions that far. What we’ll see from the Texans, hopefully, is an extension of the improvement on the running game seen last week, with some quick, up-tempo short passes to move the ball down the field. If Duane Brown returns, that puts a little more strength on the o-line (especially if Clark can slide down to RT for a few plays). I’d really like to see some movement on the o-line with Brown’s return.

Defense needs to keep being defense. They’ll have a tough time getting to Bradford, but should have some success shutting off the running game. Time to start forcing some turnovers, as well. The Vikings haven’t faced a defense like the Texans just yet, so that should shake up Bradford and co, and make them reach outside of the comfort zone. This will be another game where the defense will be counted on to carry the load, but I’ve got the confidence they can step up and do this. Secondary will have to make some leaps in this game as well, because Bradford can use his arm effectively.

And the Fuller on ST was a nice trick, but I wouldn’t use it for this game.

I predict the Texans will come out of this with their second loss, but still sitting on top of the AFC South in 1st place (and it’s quite possible to keep that same 2 game cushion). This is an early test for the readiness of the team, and it’s fine if they don’t pass. There’s still a lot of season left to improve on offense (which is the game changer), and like I said, it will take the season to vastly improve. The next few games should show whether or not Osweiler begins to make better decisions under pressure, and I’d expect him to. But if he does, and starts throwing it away, don’t scold him for that.

Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got.

In the long run, if the Texans can manage to dominate the AFC South (and currently signs point to that being quite possible) then they have some wiggle room to improve the offense overall. They’re actually quite fortunate with that this season. It’s the same circumstance that has put the Andrew Luck Colts in the playoffs practically every year, but the key difference is that the Texans have actually build a team. This next game may not be pretty, and the season may not be pretty, but it’s a season going on a learning curve that will eventually pan out.

Houston Texans: How Belichick emasculated O’Brien

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It began Monday morning, but we didn’t realize it. Reports that Garoppolo would sit the game out, 3rd string rookie Jacoby Brissett would start his 1st NFL game. Back up to Brissett would be WR, once QB in college Julian Edelman. He didn’t even bother the insurance of a FA QB signing in the interim. For once, Bill Belichick did not hide his game plan for the short week and Thursday night game, and this game plan told the story of what we saw unfold last night.

On Monday Belichick’s actions said, without saying a word, we don’t need to prepare for the Texans; the Texans need to prepare for us. It was a call to the Texans, and a challenge to Bill O’Brien. It was cocky, insulting, and downright genius. And it got in their heads. Belichick, with that small, yet bold, move, won the game before it even started.  And none of us realized it until the Texans hit the field and started crumbling before our (and the nation’s) eyes.

In those three days – that short week to prepare for the Patriots game Thursday night, it’s hard to really see exactly what the Texans did to prepare. Granted, they were at the slight disadvantage, having to face a rookie QB with half a game’s worth of NFL film on him. To the Texans advantage, however, they were facing a rookie QB in the 1st start of his professional career, so simplified play-calling to this rookie QB’s strengths would likely be the game plan.

Through most of the 1st half, this is exactly what we saw from the Patriots on offense. Conservative plays, ball protection, and limited drives. Enough to manage the game, protect the young QB, and eliminate turnovers. Enough to take Texans strongest weapon – the front 7, out of the game. On defense, all they had to do was cover receivers. That’s it. The Texans o-line destroyed everything else, as well as Godsey’s terrible usage of Lamar Miller. Their game plan was simple, and almost relaxed.

After that relatively simple prepwork, all the Patriots had to do was to sit back and watch the Texans defeat themselves; overcompensating for how little Belichick and the Patriots took this match up seriously. Because that’s pretty much how predictable the Texans play-calling has already become this season. And defeat themselves they did. The bonus for the Patriots was the lousy Texans special team play, which allowed the Patriots to not only defeat the Texans, but humiliate them on National TV.

The good news out of this is that the Texans have a good core of veteran players that don’t give up, and can lead their team. This is 1 game, and 1 loss. The better news is that this core group usually comes back steaming mad and ready for revenge when they have a terrible game like this (see Falcons and Dolphins games in 2015). The best news is that the team has upgraded their talent since 2015, and the team and staff have a long week to start working to fix these issues.

The bad news is that our special teams unit has not improved over last year. Tyler Ervin has shown, in his special team appearances, that he may not be ready for the pros just yet. Charles James II has no margin for error moving forward. The whole unit needs to make some drastic improvements, and rely on conservative play in the interim. THIS MEANS TAKING THE DAMN KNEE IN THE ENDZONE. That’s 25 yards, every time. Take it. Please. We all beg you.

In the interim, Godsey’s got to take some time making plays that utilize Lamar Miller’s strengths, as it is clear that one of Miller’s strengths is NOT running up the middle. This should be obvious by watching him with the Dolphins, as well as recognizing his build. He’s got speed, use it. And use Jay Prosch on 3rd and short. That’s why he’s on the roster. The stalled running game needs to be worked out immediately – like in this long week ahead in preparation for the Titans.

Onward and upward.

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.

SCREW YOU, JIM JOYCE!

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 Texans:The time is now

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The 2016 NFL season is here, and with that brings a new and (hopefully) improved Houston Texans squad.

In the off-season, Head Coach Bill O’Brien heavily bulked up the offense during the 2016 NFL Draft, drafting and subsequently signing 4 out of 6 offensive positions (primarily WR/RB, and a necessary C to replace defector dearly departed Ben Jones) to add speed and versatility to a Texans offense that has struggled for years. The primary struggles were an ineffective QB, combined with a nearly non-existent passing game, and littered with constant running game injury. To summarize, the Texans offense has been largely one-dimensional, over-utilizing either/or since 2013.

In the pre-season, fans were dazzled (at times) with a promising starting QB with Brock Osweiler, a prolific WR corps, as well as some surprising TE production on offense, but very little showing for the running game.  Special teams came out and showed some notable structure and improvement, with a huge nod to new ST coach Larry Izzo. We also saw some intermittent struggles with the once-again heavily limping offensive line, as well as some customary missed blocked and tackles in the defense secondary. Most of this tightened up with each preseason game, and necessary cuts were made all around.

This had both fans and beat writers at odds with the new squad, wondering if we are going to face another year with a largely one-dimensional offense. Passing plays and attempts were made nearly 2-1 versus running, which made the RB corps seems slightly anemic. However, we can calm those fears by simply looking at all the roster moves in the off-season. The first, and biggest, news is signing Lamar Miller in the free agency. He’s an outstanding all around RB, who was brought in to replace Arian Foster. He wasn’t utilized much in the preseason because his history in the NFL speaks for itself.

This left primarily seasoned RBs and a single drafted rookie RB to compete for the 53. Among those were seasoned vets Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, who essentially had to maintain their performance from previous years, 2nd season players Kenny Hilliard and Akeem Hunt, who had to show necessary improvements to justify a spot on the squad, and newly drafted rookie Tyler Ervin, who was specifically brought in for his speed and depth on both offense and special teams. What this translates to is 2 players trying out, and 1 player justifying why he was drafted.

On the other end, the Texans brought in 2 WRs in the draft, signed an additional 4 undrafted free agents, with 5 WRs already signed to compete for 5 spots on the roster, or a place on the practice squad. Additionally, an undrafted free agent TE was brought in, and specific priority was given to the TE corps which has been perpetually anemic since the loss of Owen Daniels in 2013 to see if O’Brien’s eventual goal to heavily utilize TEs could start coming to fruition. This still has yet to be seen, but undrafted FA Stephen Anderson has already made a name for himself among the Texans TEs.

Will this be enough to give the Texans a legitimate run this season? Only time and the upcoming season will tell. One notable deficiency and area of concern heading into the season is the offensive line. 2nd round draft pick C Nick Martin, who was penciled in as starter as soon as his draft number was called, suffered a season-ending ankle injury and underwent surgery to repair a high ankle sprain was a big blow to the line.  Additionally, T Duane Brown and Derek Newton’s injuries brought on a patchwork o-line in the preseason that struggled to hold a pocket for Osweiler at times.

The good news (I guess) is that Derek Newton is slated to start in the season opener, and Duane Brown has been put on the active roster, meaning that while there has been no timetable set for return, it’s likely that Brown will return within the first 3-4 games since the front office didn’t find it necessary to put him on the PUP list (which would mean 6 weeks, at minimum). Other good news is the return of DE JJ Watt. While it’s unknown how limited Watt will be, he is slated to start in the season opener as well, after an offseason in which basically Watt’s entire lower half was reconstructed.

With the free agency signings, draft picks, current news with injury, along with the preseason performance of a newly-enhanced offense, the Vegas odds for the Texans to reach the Super Bowl have jumped from 40-1 in April to 16-1 in September.  This was the biggest offseason jump for any team considered to be a legitimate contender moving into the 2016-17 season. That’s promising. Looking at the season opener with a Chicago Bears squad that didn’t do much to bolster their roster in the offseason, analysts have pretty much unanimously given favor to the Texans.

My opinion is we should go with that, cast all doubt and worry aside, and let the team prove the hype. Osweiler has something to prove, and he showed us this in the preseason. Hopkins, Fuller, and Braxton Miller are ready to show the kind of versatile threat we want them to be. Lamar Miller is itching to have his breakout season.Special teams is streamlined and disciplined, and ready to be a productive side on the field, and the whole of the defense is ready to rank back up as a top 3 defense. I think they will. So, sit back, buckle up, and let’s all get ready for some football!

Houston Astros: Wheels off, again

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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

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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

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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.

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.