Yes, this was a ball club many experts thought would contend for an American League pennant. They had young firepower, a solid starting rotation, and a a dominant reliever on the way. But then came April, with its rain and flooding and wretched baseball. For weeks, fans encouraged by the energizing 2015 playoff race were subjected to spotty (and soft-tossing) pitching, untimely injuries, and a top-heavy lineup that struck out with startling regularity.
Center fielder Carlos Gomez has slugged a pitiful .322 since he was acquired, with enthusiasm, at the trade deadline last July. Most troublesome was the performance of Dallas Keuchel; the reigning Cy Young Award winner watched his walk rate balloon just as his vaunted ground ball rate and velocity dipped; of 103 qualified Major League starters, a full 79 have walked fewer batters per nine innings than Houston's majestically bearded staff ace. At the season's one-quarter mark, the Astros' odds of qualifying for postseason play had nosedived by 30 percentage points, according to projections at the stats bible Baseball Prospectus, more than any other franchise. "Frustrating" is a word that wormed its way into post-game recaps.
So just when it felt like all the wheels had fallen off, the Astros quietly won seven of eight games, striking out every Oriole in sight and climbing, ever so gingerly, out of the AL West cellar. They finished May with a respectable 17-12 record, even as Carlos Correa slumped. (That'll happen to a 21-year-old with a fedora fetish.) And with four months left to go, there's now genuine reason for measured optimism. To wit:
- George Springer is raking: The Connecticut native blasted eight homer runs last month, and feels comfortable in his new role as leadoff hitter.
- Jose Altuve is raking, too: The diminutive second baseman added a new dimension to his game this winter, nearly doubling his isolated power—a stat that shows how often a player hits for extra bases—and terrorizing opposing pitchers in the process.
- Michael Feliz is blazing: The reliever has turned in one of the most dominant 20-inning stretches in franchise history, anchoring a pitching staff that lead the league in FIP last month, after finishing 25th in April.
- A.J. Reed and Alex Bregman are coming: Two of the organization's most prized prospects could see big-league action sooner rather than later.
Will it be enough to salvage that miserable spring? It's hard to say. Fangraphs projects the Astros will finish with 82 wins, five back of their division rivals in Seattle. Nobody knows if or how the patient front office will augment the existing roster.
One thing we can predict? If you go cheer on the ‘Stros tonight, you’ll only pay $1 for a hot dog.