Pop-Tarts Series: Houston Astros

The Astros made a sharp logo and uniform redesign a few years ago, one that is a big improvement from their past logos.
The Astros made a sharp logo and uniform redesign a few years ago, one that is a big improvement from their past logos.

The latest entry in the Pop-Tarts Series is one that I never thought I would get to say: the first-place Houston Astros!  Let’s review Houston’s shockingly good season.

How’s It Going?

Houston stands at 60-49 and first place in the AL West as of today.  The ‘Stros are 2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Interestingly, Houston is an astonishing 38-18 at home but a very lackluster 22-31 on the road.  This trend could prove troublesome in October come playoff time.  George Springer is the only significant Astro on the disabled list; he is due to return some time in late August from his wrist injury.

Offense:

This is Houston’s calling card.  Minute Maid Park is a very friendly hitter’s park, and the Astros take full advantage of the friendly confines.  Jose Altuve is the Astros’ best player, hands down.  Altuve, all 5’6″ of him, is hitting .294 with 9 homers, 28 steals an above-average .339 OBP, and stellar defense.  Altuve may not have the size of other all-star sluggers, but his heart is much larger than his frame would indicate.  He is supported by his double play partner in rookie shortstop Carlos Correa.  Correa came up in midseason with much hype and has lived up to every expectation.  Correa is the runaway pick for AL Rookie of the Year with stats including a .286 average, 8 steals in 50 games, and 13 homers as a shortstop.  Correa and Altuve may be the finest defensive middle infield in the bigs.  The corner infielders include third baseman Jed Lowrie and a first base platoon with mega power bats Luis Valbuena and Chris Carter.  Valbuena and Carter have combined for a whopping 37 homers, but bat a collective .195.  The all-or-nothing motif continues with designated hitter Evan Gattis.  Gattis is a total masher at the dish, as evidenced by his 17 homers, but also has 87 strikeouts and a measly .276 OBP.  The inability of Houston’s middle-of-the-order bats to get on base is very troubling, but their home run power means that no game is out of reach.  While the Yankees succeed because they have power and on-base ability, the Astros are a bit one dimensional.  Houston’s outfield is a pleasure to watch both offensively and defensively.  New acquisition Carlos Gomez is a premier hitter and fielder in center field, George Springer offers a bit of everything in right, and Colby Rasmus and Jake Marisnick are an effective left field platoon.  Catcher Jason Castro is a bit underwhelming at the plate, but is a wizard behind the plate with some occasional pop.  The bench is also well-defined in Houston.  Preston Tucker is a fine backup outfielder, Marwin Gonzalez can play anywhere, and Hank Conger is a good hitting backup catcher.  Houston is one of baseball’s highest run-scoring teams, but lacks some on-base flair in the middle.  Their power is real though, making Houston a very scary opponent.

Verdict: A-

Pitching:

Houston’s pitching was their bugaboo earlier on in the year, but has improved immensely as the season has progressed.  The rotation is stacked from top to bottom.  Cy Young candidate and All-Star Game starter Dallas Keuchel is one imposing southpaw for opposing hitters to deal with.  Keuchel is 13-5 with a 2.35 ERA, almost a strikeout an inning, an absurd 0.99 WHIP, and a tiny .207 BAA.  Keuchel’s story from rags to riches mirrors that of Cleveland righty Cory Kluber; he rode his success to last year’s Cy Young.  His partner in crime is sophomore righty Collin McHugh.  McHugh is also 13-5, but has allowed over a hit per inning and struggles a bit with the home run ball.  Despite these subpar rate stats, he is 8 games over .500, so something must be going right for him.  Lefty Scott Kazmir was a shrewd deadline acquisition, as was the robbery of high-potential righty Mike Fiers from Milwaukee.  Veteran innings-eater Scott Feldman has experience as a starter and reliever, making him valuable for the postseason.  Rookie Lance McCullers Jr. was having a fantastic rookie year before having a nightmare start versus Texas temporarily boot him out of the rotation.  McCullers will be back though, and his future is great.  The bullpen is short on big names, but high on efficiency.  Luke Gregerson is a shutdown closer (0.99 WHIP, 22 for 23 in save opportunities), sidewinding Pat Neshek has been an All-Star setup man, and Will Harris has come out of nowhere to post a 1.30 ERA and .155 BAA as A.J. Hinch’s go-to fireman.  The bridge in Houston is surprisingly solid as well.  Lefty Tony Sipp is no LOOGY and has an excellent 39-8 K/BB rate.  Chad Qualls is a decent middle man, and Josh Fields is a weapon that can be used at any time.  In fact, 6 of the 12 pitchers on Houston’s roster have a WHIP below 1.00, a truly dominant number.  Houston has been able to get contributions from youngsters and veterans alike, and will ride this success to a likely playoff berth, their first since 2005, when they lost the World Series to the Chicago White Sox.

Verdict: A-

Conclusion:

Houston is the real deal this year.  They may not be able to beat the Royals or Yankees in a playoff series, but could take 7 games to dispatch.  Houston may be too inexperienced yet, but their time is just beginning.  Houston could win a championship within the next 3 years quite easily with this core.  Astros fans may have to settle for a playoff appearance alone this year, but they will gladly take that after the last 10 years of losing.  Houston’s window is just opening, and we are all witnesses.

Verdict: A-

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