I believe you can divide up the 2016 season into four distinct parts. Today we'll look at the first of those eras: Opening Day-May 2.
We should have seen it coming. We were basically given the script for how the season would go on the first day of the season. No, not the first game of the season - a 5-3 win over the Yankees - but the first day. Opening Day should have been Monday, April 4, but because of cold and sleet the opener was delayed until the next day. An off-season full of expectations about how wonderful and magical could be, the (somewhat controversial) acquisition of Ken Giles, a full season out of Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, the reigning Cy Young champ looking for an encore, the best hitter in the game playing another season. Coming off a post-season run that felt more like a beginning than a missed opportunity, we as fans were ready to go. Five long months of just waiting for Opening Day and then? Gotta wait another 24 hours.
Were there questions? Sure there were. I don't think anyone expected Colby Rasmus to become the first player to accept a qualifying offer. Did that $15.8m limit the Astros in any other way? Who's to say? Could you expect a reasonable follow-up from Collin McHugh? How would Tyler White do at 1B?
That 1-0 record would very quickly turn to 3-7 after the first ten games as the Astros simply could not get their offense going and by the time A.J. Hinch made a significant change (more on that in the next post) the Astros would be 8-18, seven games back after 26 games.
So what happened? After 26 games the Astros were hitting .227/.312/.405 or, roughly, a team with offensive production like Adam Lind. They struck out almost ten times a game - 257 strikeouts to 98 walks. The early 2016 Astros hit 32 home runs in their first 26 games (10 in the first five games of 2016), but 22 of those homers were solo shots highlighting the season-long issue of getting a "clutch" hit or homer. You can live by the homer, but if you live by the solo shot you will find yourself dying very quickly.
With nobody on base Astros batters hit .233/.318/.432, and struck out in 29.6% of ABs. With runners on base they hit .218/.303/.366, and struck out in 31.1% of ABs. With two outs and runners in scoring position (102 plate appearances), they hit .129/.206/.290, striking out to end the inning 36 times. Whichever way you look at it, they struck out a lot but couldn't overcome it with clustered hits and runs.
In this first period of the season the Astros were only scoring 3.6 runs a game. They scored three or fewer runs in 13 of these first 26 games (2-11). The other problem is that, those other 13 games where the Astros scored 4+ runs? They went 6-7. A 16-6 loss to the Yankees in G2, two 7-5 losses. It stacked up. Snowballed.
So who struggled early? Not Altuve, of course, he was hitting .301/.395/.621. This was the era of Good King Rasmus, too - hitting .241/.369/.530 with seven homers, 26K:18BB. Springer was doing fairly well: .269/.333/.471. Correa? .258/.383/.416 - which is fine, but not quite what any of us were expecting, but still...he's 22. Everyone else? Brutal.
Tyler White: .235/.304/.469 (remember his Ruthian first week of the season?)
Evan Gattis: .216/.281/.353
Carlos Gomez: .212/.241/.275
Preston Tucker: .200/.241/.436
Marwin Gonzalez: .196/.241/.333
Luis Valbuena: .180/.296/.246
Jason Castro: .175/.299/.263
Folks let me give you some #hot #analysis: this is bad. The bottom half of the lineup couldn't hit - Valbuena and Castro both had a higher OBP than SLG. The #5 spot (mainly Gomez) and the #8 and #9 spots were hitting under .180. When a third of your lineup has 101 strikeouts in 259 at-bats and OPS's under .550.../throws computer.
Pitching? Yeah, let's talk about that.
In the first 26 games the pitching staff as a whole had a 4.85 ERA/1.44 WHIP. The starting pitcher had a Game Score of 60+ just five times (and still lost one of those games). Conversely, the starter had a Game Score of 30 or lower six times. The Astros allowed 5+ runs in 11 of their first 26 games and didn't win a single one of those.
Overall they allowed a line of .281/.333/.467...an .800 OPS-against. With the bases empty, Astros pitchers allowed a .280/.326/.461 line. With runners on, Astros pitchers allowed a .283/.343/.476 line. Consistently not good.
There were basically three reliable pitchers in the first 26 games, and they were all relievers: Luke Gregerson (10IP, 1.80 ERA/0.70 WHIP), Chris Devenski (18.2IP, 1.45 ERA/1.07 WHIP) and Will Harris (11.2IP, 0.77 ERA/0.77 WHIP). The rotation was brutal, and also inverted. They were getting better results from the bottom of the rotation than the top:
Keuchel: 37IP, 5.11 ERA/1.57 WHIP
McHugh: 21.2IP, 6.65 ERA/1.89 WHIP
Fiers: 29IP, 4.97 ERA/1.28 WHIP
Fister: 29.1IP, 4.60 ERA/1.43 WHIP
Feldman: 22.2IP, 3.97 ERA/1.63 WHIP
Of course McHugh had that 16-6 loss charged to him in G2, skewing his numbers. Two of Keuchel's first three starts were gems: The Opening Day win, and eight scoreless innings at Detroit (which the Astros won, 1-0). Otherwise he was meh.
Eight pitchers - EIGHT - allowed a .500 SLG or higher through those first 26 games: McHugh (.571), Giles (.612), Feliz (.588), Fields (.543), Fiers (.526), Feldman (.500), Sipp (.583), Neshek (.542).
They were 4-11 on the road, and 4-7 at home. Pitching struggled. Hitting struggled. Everything was a struggle, and that struggle was very real.