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.

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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.

Houston Astros: Ground control to Major Keuchel

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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:

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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

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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.

Houston Astros: The final piece (May Edition)

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It’s coming together now. This morning, the Astros announced a surprise move to call up in field (3rd base) prospect Colin Moran from the Fresno Grizzlies. Moran has been on a pretty nice streak in the AAA. He’s currently tied with the most RBIs on the Grizzlies roster and has been a much-talked about prospect rumored to be making a debut this year. Along with this call up is the designation for assignment for Fresno Grizzlies pitcher Asher Wojciechowski, previously on the 40 man roster, as well as assigning Carlos Gomez to the  15 day disabled list for a bruised rib cage.

The injury may be legit, after the hard slide back into 2nd on a base check in Sunday’s game, as well as further aggravation  after being hit by a pitch in the same game. Of course, the injury may be an excuse to give Gomez a much needed break to get himself back on track. His overall performance and regression this year has really put a big question mark on his overall health. The decline at bat can be chalked up to a slump, or even a failure to adjust (which has been an overall team issue, primarily at pitching), or even a decline in health. Add on his loss of speed in max throwing attempts, and you’ve got yourself a real theory.

Loss in throwing speed is symptomatic of injury (prolonged, improper rehabbing, new injury), loss of overall strength, or general wear and tear. This isn’t an issue that just happens because the player has lost his mojo. So, maybe there’s something to the injury. Or maybe a bruised ego is actually a legitimate injury to overcome. If there is a real, prolonged injury that has been affecting his game, I fear 15 days won’t bring him out of it. If he was rushed back too soon after last year’s stints, this will be a prolonged problem that won’t be fixed.

Or perhaps it’s just something new that’s been lingering, with Gomez wanting to work out of it and not cause another knock on his value in a contract year. Either way, we should all hope for an improvement when he comes back in June. What’s good for Gomez is good for the team. Let’s face it – he’s part of this team, a beloved part of the team, from the player’s perspective. What other outfielders would come together and do the dab after every win if they didn’t hold their fellow teammate in high regard? No team would do that. So, for a third time, get over it. He’s still going to be a part of the team in the short term.

Moran, though, brings some needed relief to the infield. Gonzalez has been run ragged, and this move opens up more options for Valbuena to cover other infield positions to give a rest in the interim. Kemp adds to that additionally, as well as OF relief, and both players called up are expected to improve the team BA. It’s a try out, with more moves expected later on in the year. AJ Reed is still expected to make his MLB debut in 2016, along with Joe Musgrove, RHP just recently making his debut in the AAA with the Fresno Grizzlies, and it’s possible that Alex Bregman will come up in the near future as well.

The bright spot in this season will be a lot of young talent coming up to fight for a spot on the team. This will be as exciting to watch as it is frustrating, as it may tell the tale of another season spent in a rebuilding phase. The Astros will soon find out if this is the case, with 3 tough series coming up in May. The first with the Chicago White Sox, 1st place in the AL Central, starts tonight. Right after, there’s another tough series with the Texas Rangers, and then following that, with a single day’s rest in between, another match up with a 1st place team in the AL East, the Baltimore Orioles.

That’s 9 games that may very well tell the story of this season. That’s a stretch that the Astros desperately need a winning record against (especially when it comes to the league contending Rangers). These next 3 are almost must-win series if the Astros want to keep the hope of a playoff run alive. If they don’t come out with an overall win for this stretch, that doesn’t mean it’s over, but it does begin to make a playoff push border on insurmountable. The new team members will slowly be added into this mix, so we’re really looking at a grand experiment in a vital stretch of the season. Let’s hope it works well.

With Gomez being listed on the DL, I would expect Kemp to start making it into the OF rotation relatively soon. Neither new addition are expected to start tonight, because tonight is the start of a tough series. No need to be throwing the young to the wolves. However, both new additions will be added into the rotation in a tough stint, so their test will come soon and it will be abrupt. Hopefully the roster additions will breath some immediate life in this stagnating club, and hopefully we’ll see it tonight on the field. Overall the additions should spark that new life, and that new life couldn’t come at a better time.

Houston Astros: Kemp it is

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This morning, the Astros officially announced AAA Fresno’s Tony Kemp would be the newest rookie making a debut for the Astros in 2016, behind now RHSP Chris Devenski and 1st base/DH Tyler White. It wasn’t the decision I expected, but it makes some sense. Kemp is an infielder and outfielder, and is a left handed hitter that will likely make it to base more often than not. I’m not sold on his hitting capacity in the majors, but that’s one of the tests when being brought up to the MLB. With this call up, Luhnow made some strong remarks about the future of the OF, and specifically Carlos Gomez. This may bring some relief to the struggling Gomez, who isn’t working his issues out on the field as hoped.

In the long run, this move is hard to decipher. Immediately, there’s a chance for a new, fresh player to inject some energy AB and in LF, while letting Gomez take a time out. It won’t be permanent, so don’t take out your Gomez is gone pom pons just yet. Kemp is still a year or two away from regular starting potential, and his earlier projections had him entering the MLB in 2017. This is an early call-up, and a quick fix injection to a team that just needs a few things to go the right way to start consistently winning both on the road and at home. This doesn’t signal permanency, but it does open the doors for a few different directions that the club can go, as far as position players in the outfield.

One door that it opens is some possible time off for the seasoned veteran in CF to get his head back in the game. And guys, we want Gomez to get over this decline. The spirit of the Astros fanbase seems to point to Gomez having an attitude problem without the stats to back it up. There doesn’t seem to be any real chatter coming from the clubhouse to substantiate this, but Gomez has certainly grown more defensive as his season has regressed. He’s a fun, spirited player to watch and root for when he’s playing well, but the hate as he’s going through this slump is uncalled for. No fanbase should ever root for one of their team’s players to fail.

Additionally, Gomez came into the Astros with a very impressive potential in CF to replace Marisnick. Let’s not forget that. He’s still outperforming Marisnick in CF and AB (barely AB, though). He’s still a better option at CF until he starts sliding defensively as well. There is no player in the farming system that can come in and replace the hole he would leave. The outfield can be moved around to fill these gaps, but Gomez is being paid to fill this gap through this season. You can complain about how terrible this aquisition was (Milwaukee didn’t celebrate the departure) but Gomez was given a short contract to see what he could do for the team, and while he’s here, we should root for him to give back.

Gomez will either rebound or he won’t, but Tony Kemp is not going to be anymore than what Gomez was – a stop gap with some potential. This isn’t the difinitive answer moving forward for a team with a horrendous stranded RISP rate per game, starting pitching rotation with a bottom of the barrel ERA, and team BA lower than opponents played. It opens up the opportunity for Gomez to sink or swim, and also opens up the eventual opportunity to option Marisnick down to see if he can finally get the work he needs AB (although that clock is ticking as well). This also affords Preston Tucker the opportunity to work on his own consistency AB, and provides some novelty relief infield, as Kemp has previously played 2nd base.

The move also trends toward the belief that A.J. Reed will soon join the team to give Tyler White some help at 1st base. The clubs trend toward utilizing Marwin Gonzalez heavily at 1st shows the need to have support brought up at 1st, with White not being the immediately clear starter for the position. And we can’t forget the overall struggles the team has had both AB and on field (as well as pitching). In fact, the entire regression of the team (with the exception of Altuve, who is having a landmark year and is the only consistently bright spot in the line up) speaks more of personnel issues than any one player could produce. As the club’s personnel scrambles to stop the hemmoraging of the 2016, there’s got to be a point to where that management is called into question.

I will still stand by the prediction that this doesn’t mean an end to Gomez’s career with the Astros. Motivation, perhaps, is a player in this call up, with an opportunity for Tucker to gain some consistency AB, or for Marisnick to be optioned down to do the same. Gomez may get some time off, but he’s not going on a permanent hiatus. So, while this all plays out and falls into place, perhaps it would be a good idea to get behind struggling players that have already proven they can be a positive force for a team, instead of singling them out and booing them off the field for playing par for the course of the team so far? Gomez at his best would be a far better option than Kemp in his rookie year. So let’s stop hoping and praying for an implosion, and instead start rooting for a trade to work out for once.

Houston Astros: Roster Redux

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Get over it, he’s not going anywhere. At least not any time soon.

Let’s just gogo ahead and get that out of the way. Carlos Gomez, current CF in the last year of his contract, being paid $9 million, or a lot more than what he’s currently giving back to the Astros, will not be released. He’ll play out his contract and, depending on whether or not he can turn his season around, he’ll extend in Houston or find a bigger contract elsewhere. Six weeks into a season isn’t going to tell the story of a seasoned veteran who is in a bad slump, and had a really bad outing in the final game of the Red Sox series, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how much longer, AFTER his contract, Gomez will remain in Houston.

What is apparent is that something’s gotta change with Gomez. He’s been in a hitting slump since joining the Astros mid-season in 2015, and he’s lost some power both AB and outfield. The day off is certainly needed for not only the club, but Gomez in particular. His hitting slump spilled out on the field today, and what we witnessed was a player trying a little too hard and not getting it done. Gomez wasn’t Gomez in CF in this one game, but it’s not enough to take him off the roster or send him down. If anything comes of this, some injury rumors may spark up and land him on the DL for a stretch, but it won’t happen anytime soon with today’s roster moves.

So, just move on from that. Gomez is here for the season, whether you like it or not.

That being said, there were some poignant roster moves made today. Say goodbye to Erik Kratz, who made us all wonder how this player is still in the MLB with every plate appearance he had. Evan Gattis is coming back to back up Castro and take the DH spot. Also being optioned down to the AAA is DH/LF Preston Tucker. Tucker has seen more ABs and has been given ample opportunity to boost his stats and start hitting, but it hasn’t happened. With no real spot for him on the roster this season (LF is a position that is coming hard for him, with limited ability in speed and throwing) and Gattis coming back up, he’s the odd man out.

The upcoming announcement on who is getting called up is the big question. Will it be depth in the outfield, since Tucker represented the second back-up spot? Will it be a power-hitting infielder to take some time of Gonzalez and split time with Gattis and Tyler White as DH? Will relief pitching come into play, with the extra innings popping up in the past week? The delayed announcement is intriguing, and with a spot on the 40 man being vacated (Kratz), anything’s possible. There are a lot of deficiencies right now and there is not a single call up that will answer them all. So, what will make the best impact for the Astros moving forward?

Run production.

First thing first – don’t assume that it will be an outfield replacement since Tucker is moving down. Marisnick has the speed and defensive ability to cover as the back-up, and there’s no need for a 5th player in the depth chart for the outfield. Not as long as Marisnick’s still up in the majors.  The main designation will likely be DH for the call up, because the Astros are anemic at bad, and need some cleanup with stranded RISP. Also noteworthy is that there’s no true starter at 1st base. Currently, White is splitting time with Gonzalez, which is pushing the rest of the infield on rest days. Eventually, we’ll see A.J. Reed move up to split that time with White at 1st, but with his DL designation, it’s not going to happen today.

The other big hint is the recent move in the minors, expanding Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) SS Alex Bregman’s playtime to 3rd base last week. This could be a fast track to the majors, or it could be a position move to clear the way for another 3rd base call up, Colin Moran, 3rd base for the Fresno Grizzlies (AAA). Another position player that’s been discussed in this mix of potential call ups is Tony Kemp, 2nd base for the Fresno Grizzlies with OF experience. Kemp is an interesting choice for a few reasons. He can be an infield/outfield plug in, and can eventually allow Marisnick to be sent back down to AAA to get more plate appearances and work out his hitting situation.

The decision maker will likely fall into who can prosper best as DH, however, with some emphasis on plugging into infield positions when needed. To me, this eliminates Tony Kemp. Kemp is a left-handed batter, which will draw more walks, but he’s not a big hitter. He’s not going to be driving in runs, and he won’t be hitting it out of the park. He does have some speed (baserunning, OF coverage, and overall defense) that helps, but his arm strength won’t win battles in the OF. Also, as noted, Marisnick is the 4th man in the outfield, and there’s no need to cover bases in the OF with Marisnick backing up. Kemp could help infield, but he won’t help in run production.

Bregman’s move from SS to 3rd base with the Corpus Christi Hooks put him on the radar as a potential fast track with a lot of talking heads, which makes some sense. Currently, SS is pinned down by Correa, and a MiLB prospect isn’t going to bump Correa to another position. Correa may have experience at 3rd, but that’s not going to happen with another rookie coming up. So, Bregman playing a different position lends speculation that he’s going to be part of an upcoming move. It’s not likely to be a jump from AA Hooks to the MLB roster, though. Not this year. More likely, he’ll be promoted up to the AAA Grizzlies to make room for a call up.

Which leads us to who I think will be joining the team shortly: Colin Moran. Moran is a constent hitter who can bring home runs as a DH, and can back-up Valbuena. This is needed for two reasons: Valbuena hasn’t been at his best defensively on 3rd, and Gonzalez is splitting time with White at 1st. Oh, and there’s that thing about how Luhnow loves Moran, and brings him up every chance he gets. Calling Moran as being on the short list of call ups while being a slump or injury away from the MLB is a big nod toward who is being brought up. I could be wrong, but all signs point to Moran being called up to the roster on the off day in Chicago.