Hold Off On Judging The Floundering Astros, Or Judge Away!

For a fan, and probably for the players themselves, a baseball season’s opening month or so is a time of particular tension between expectations and results. The sample size does not advance in proportion to the panic inspired by a lousy start. Analysts and prognosticators will tell you that the awful bullcrap on your television six days a week has little or no meaning, even while it is actively driving you to an early grave. You were given to believe that some number of these sprightly young turks would make a big leap; you were assured that some of these mid-career mediocrities would continue to shuffle along non-disastrously; you were comforted that some of these moldering old veterans would stave off putrescence for at least one more year. Your team is both floundering and foundering. No one seems to care enough about it. How much of the season must a fan smile through in vacant serenity before they are allowed to flee the room burning away around them?

Take, for example, the Houston Astros: They’ve won the American League West in six of the last seven years, have advanced to the ALCS or further seven consecutive times, and have played in four of the last eight World Series. The last time the Astros failed to finish a non-pandemic season with a winning record was 2014. The 2023 campaign was somewhat of a disappointment, by recent standards: The Astros won just 90 games, only secured the division crown in the final game of the regular season, and were booted out of the playoffs by a hated AL West foe. Still, their roster entering this season appeared as strong as ever, and various projections had them winning somewhere north of 90 games, easily capturing their division, and making a strong push for another championship.

You would not guess from their play over the month of April that the Astros are supposed to be good. They entered Saturday with just seven wins in 26 games, a worse record than all but two teams across the majors. Their pitching stinks: Astros hurlers have allowed the third-most earned runs per nine innings in baseball, largely a result of having issued more walks than all but one other team. Their hitting has been fine, but not fine enough; Houston’s run-differential, entering Saturday, was just one run better than that of the Vagabond Athletics, a team that has scored fewer runs to date than everyone but the insanely and possibly historically awful Chicago White Sox. Were it not for the surprisingly excellent Ronel Blanco, a 30-year-old career minor-leaguer who made the team as the last pitcher to survive spring training and who has now started half of Houston’s wins, the Astros might today have the worst record in the league.

Are you, the conscientious Astros fan, allowed to panic? You are not. The Astros are considered by several perfectly serious power rankings and projection systems to be better than a handful or two of teams with significantly better won-loss records. This is not all about the lingering force of those preseason expectations, although they’re in there somewhere. MLB’s Statcast service is waving its mechan-o-hands animatedly about the true quality of Houston’s pitching: The Astros are among the best in baseball so far in limiting hard contact, and they’re in the top third of the league in expected slugging percentage. Hitters, it seems, have been overperforming their expected results against Astros pitchers pretty much across the board. Meanwhile, Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez have been out with injuries, and Justin Verlander only joined Houston’s rotation on April 19. Bad luck of this sort is expected to self-correct over the course of 162 games.

Houston’s offense appears also to be suffering from bad luck: Per MLB’s stats, the Astros have the fifth-best OPS in baseball, and their action-y hitters have the fewest strikeouts in the majors. Entering Saturday they led the American League in hits and batting average but were sixth from the bottom in runs per game; a website called Team Rankings says they are one of the three worst teams in baseball at stranding runners in scoring position, which would almost have to be true, unless Astros baserunners are being caught stealing at historic levels (they’re not). Houston’s hitters went a disgusting 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position during a recent three-game sweep in Chicago. Here again Statcast invites us to ignore the scoreboard: By a stat called Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA) the Astros have the seventh-scariest lineup in the league. If that tells a reasonably accurate story about their hitting prowess, it is inevitable that they will soon start to score lots of runs. Time is expected to reward the patient Astros fan.

Saturday the Astros beat the absolute hell out of an opponent. Houston hitters batted .500 with runners in scoring position, and socked three mighty dingers, including two Yordan Álvarez sockdolagers that traveled a combined 922 feet.

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Blanco was again on the mound, holding an overmatched lineup to five hits and two runs and coming one out short of a fifth consecutive quality start, bringing his earned-run average on the season to a pristine 1.65. These looked like the True and Real Astros, the ones fans were promised and have come to expect. The usual caveats apply, of course—it’s just one game, an even smaller sample size than the 26 games of worrying futility that preceded it—but it doesn’t take much of an imagination to detect a healthy regression in Saturday’s smooth meeting of performance and outcome.

Unfortunately, some unusual caveats also apply: The game was played at 7,349 feet of altitude, in air so thin it makes the rarefied environment at Coors Field in Denver (5,200) look like a Carolina swamp and allows otherwise routine fly-balls to travel approximately forever (a Kyle Tucker fly hit Saturday at a relatively modest 97 miles per hour landed 409 feet away). And the opponent was the utterly woebegone Colorado Rockies, one of just two teams in MLB who awoke Sunday morning with a worse win percentage than the Astros. Still, since we are squarely in the part of the season where conclusions are inherently ludicrous, feel free to have learned whatever it is you prefer to have learned! To me the Astros are crud and will remain so until the last possible second.

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