Tuesday, July 12, 2016

State of the Astros: 2016 All-Star Break Overview

Last year at this time we posted a State of the Astros piece, analyzing how things had gone for the Astros to the All-Star Break. Now that it's the 2016 All-Star Break, and I'm struggling for #content, it seems like a good idea to trot it back out.

So the Astros came into the 2016 season with lofty expectations of a sustained run of success. This was the first year since 2005 that statement could be made. And it took them approximately a week and a half to flush those expectations down the toilet.

A 5-3 Opening Day win in Dallas Keuchel's return to Yankee Stadium was followed up by the Astros dropping 12 of their next 16 games including the first Rangers sweep of the season. From April 19-April 30 they went 2-9, dropping series at Texas, at home to Boston, at Seattle and at Oakland.

The Astros salvaged the series finale at Oakland on May 1, and then dropped the series opener at home to Minnesota. At this point - following the events of May 2 - the Astros were 8-18, seven games behind the Rangers. The Twins' win on May 2 dropped the Astros into a tie with Minnesota for the worst record in the American League, and only a game and a half better than the Braves for the 29th-best record in all of baseball.

As a team they were "hitting" .227/.312/.405 with 257 strikeouts in 26 games. Oh yeah, and 98 walks. So that's a 2.62 K:BB ratio for Astros hitters. Twelve of those first 26 games saw the opposing starter throw up a Game Score of 60 or better. In games in which the opposing starter threw a 50+ Game Score, the Astros went 3-14. Ay yo a 50 Game Score isn't great, so that was all on the offense. But it also means that the Astros only went 5-4 when the opposing starter threw a Game Score of <50. That's on everybody.

You might think of May 3 as a turning point, and it sort of is a turning point. Like last year, I think of the 2016 Astros as a team in three eras. Opening Day-May 2 was an awful stretch of baseball. May 3-May 22 was a stretch in which the Astros were just mediocre. They went 9-10 in that span, but it also included the 2nd sweep of the Astros by those satanists up north.

As a team they hit .232/.311/.397 in those 19 games with 188 strikeouts, 76 walks. This is a slightly better 2.47 K:BB ratio than what they had put up in the first era. But it included the Astros scoring 78 runs - 22 of which came in two games against the Twins. So that's 56 runs in the other 16 games. If you count a 7-1 May 9 win against Cleveland, and a 10-9 loss at Boston, that leaves 39 runs in 14 remaining games. They were okay. They showed flashes, but just couldn't put it together for more than two games at a time. It was better than not being able to put it together for more than one game at a time, but

That 2nd Rangers sweep marks the end of the 2nd Era of the 2016 Astros, because May 24 marks the dawn of the 3rd Era - the unstoppable Astros. In these 44 games - just over 25% of a baseball season - the Astros have gone 31-13, hitting .259/.336/.427. We'll get to the pitching tomorrow. Maybe Thursday - I'm tired.

The crazy thing is that this 31-13 record includes going 1-3 at Arlington in early June. So the Astros are 30-10 against the Not Ramgers since May 24. That's a ridiculous(ly easy) .750 win percentage. Completely unsustainable, but it's been a fun six weeks.

From where have the successes come? The Astros swept the Orioles. They swept the A's. They won both games at St. Louis. They swept the Mariners. But honestly they just beat the hell out of the Angels. The Astros played nine games against Anaheim over the last six weeks and went 8-1 (eight straight, by the by). Against AL West teams in the last 44 games, the Astros are 17-6. Three of those losses were at Arlington. They're 16-3 against non-Greater Waxahachie AL West teams in their last 19.

They're also getting better - or luckier - at close games. In the first 45 games of the season, up to the start of the 3rd Era of the Astros' season, they were 5-9 in 1-run games and 10-16 in games decided by one or two runs. Since May 24 the Astros are 11-5 in 1-run games and 17-8 in games decided by one or two runs.

These Astros have also performed much better on the road. Up to May 22 the Astros were 7-15 on the road, which follows a fairly predictable pattern dating back to...I don't know...2006? But since May 24 the Astros are 13-7 on the road. It could indicate their competition - the only marginally impressive road series win in this span would be the Royals. They took both games at St. Louis, but there is evidence that the Cardinals are somewhat awful right now.

So here's where we are: the Astros' 2015 season started out hot and they were able to ride it out until the All-Star Break with the promotions of Correa, McCullers, and Velasquez (RIP). This year Astros started out terribly and have had to claw back.

The weird thing is that the Astros and the Rangers have flipped each other's script from 2015. On June 20, 2016 the Astros were 11 games back of the division lead - they've now cut it in half. At the 2015 All Star Break were a half-game back after pissing away a 7-game lead.

BUT! The Astros were up 5.5 on the Rangers. After the 2015 All-Star Break the Rangers were 7.5 games better than the Astros and of course Northeast Burleson won the division. Now the Astros are 5.5 back of the Rangers. Will they be able to do to the 2016 Rangers what the 2015 Rangers did to the Astros? It depends on whether the Astros can actually beat the Rangers.

Dallas has a demonstrated ability to beat the dog piss out of the Astros. The Rangers are 7-22 against South Frisco from the beginning of 2015 to present. The Astros have nine games left against Grand Prairie: six at home and three on the road. But the Astros have 37 games left against AL West teams - 28 against non-Euless teams, against whom the Astros are 20-9 to this point in the season.

The Astros simply can't keep losing to the Rangers. They seem like a different team since the last time they've played (i.e., a .750 team as opposed to a .450 team) but if there's a psychological barrier they have to bust that up like the Kool-Aid Man will straight bust up your den. I'm a big believer in regressing to the mean, but as of right now (and by "right now" I mean "for the last two years") losing to the Rangers is the mean and they have to fix that crap.

There are 73 games left, and nine are against Gun Barrel City. Let's say the Astros go 4-5 against the Rangers down the stretch. 4-5 would feel like a damn pennant win at this point. The Rangers would then automatically be 6.5 better than the Astros. So in the remaining 64 games the Astros would have to make up seven games to get over that hump. If the Rangers go 32-32 (round numbers here), the Astros would have to go 39-25 to match them.

Or the Astros just do what they've done and win 3/4 of their games from here on out and just get in the playoffs. Either way that's the goal because it's a crapshoot after that. Should the Astros make a trade? Sell Valbuena? Acquire pitching? I literally have no idea, and the lack of a HAWT TAKE makes this post automatically suspect. For the 1st quarter of the season the Astros were terrible. For the 2nd quarter they have been amazing. Which one is real?

The answer most likely lies somewhere in between. But, like the 2015 Rangers, the Astros are going to need some help to get to mid-October. If 2016 is a mirror of 2015, then that means the Rangers take a dump while they puke in the bathtub and hand the division to Houston.

I don't know what's going to happen. I'll get in to the ins and outs of the pitching and hitting in the next couple of days. But this is what the Astros are up against. They crapped the bed early, were mediocre in the middle, and have been unbelievable for as long as they were pooping and mediocre. Does this mean that they're as unbelievable as they are just okay? "Okay" is a standard we would have killed to reach just three years ago.

What a difference a season makes.