Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Houston Astros: The Definition of Mediocre

With a move to the AL West looming nobody expects much from the Houston Astros this season. While the ‘Stros are doing better than a handful of teams at the moment, they’re likely to be re-tooling to the best of their abilities between now and the beginning of next season’s spring training. The Astros don’t necessarily have the strongest rotation to prepare them for the small stadiums and big bats in the AL West and it isn’t looking to be winning any awards for them this season either. So far they’ve used 7 starters over the first ¼ of the season and things haven’t been declared “stable” yet there either.

Aneury Rodriguez put together one solid start in early May and was promptly demoted. I can’t say I totally understand the call to have Rodriguez start one game and immediately return to AAA, but one good start after having a generally ineffective year in 2011 isn’t exactly what you base your rotation decisions on. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him with the big club for some portion of the year in a long relief and spot starting role, maybe even earning a start here and there to take advantage of some opponents relative unfamiliarity with him.

Kyle Weiland’s shoulder infection had him sent to the DL and has caused some havoc with the starting rotation for the ‘Stros. To be totally fair, Weiland had managed 3 starts, and his last start of the 3 was the only one that would qualify as a QS. Despite that somewhat promising 3rd start, Weiland had given up 5 home runs by that point as well his 3.6 walks per 9 and 1.755 WHIP are not pretty stats to have on the back of your baseball card. Weiland might be able to win back his spot around the All-Star break but he will be a non-factor for the Astros for a while longer.

Jordan Lyles has for the most part taken over the spot that Weiland vacated due to injury. He has so far managed two quality starts before the wheels fell off for him against the Rangers. To be fair, if there’s a team in either league right now that’s going to make a good pitcher look awful, it’s Texas. Over 3 starts Lyles has given up 7 walks and has managed 15 strikeouts. He has also given up 4 homers, which could pose a problem for the 21 year old pitcher. Lyles is getting ground balls roughly 50% of the time, which should help him, though he’s also giving up line drives 22% of the time. This is all information that should be taken with a very large grain of salt, this is based on 3 starts. Lyles needs to maintain the groundball/flyball split and find a way to fool hitters better. It appears that he’s got reasonable control of his pitches but he’s nibbling on corners too much and when he ends up behind in counts, the ball will get hit hard, these are major league hitters, when you leave one over the middle of the plate, it should end up somewhere in the seats. To think Lyles is done dealing with his growing pains would be foolish, He’s likely to have some more good games, and when he sees tougher offenses he’s liable to look a lot more green than he might against a bottom 5 offense.

J.A. Happ had a very rough season in 2011 and is looking to bounce back from the worst year of his professional career . For better or worse Houston allowed Happ to struggle at the big league level all of last season and he has so far been a reliable 6 inning starter so far. He has, on 3 occasions given up 4+ runs, on all of those occasions, he has gone 5 innings. Happ is sort of splitting time between effective, and frustrating for the ‘Stros. So far his walk rate (3.6 per 9)  is down from his career (4.0 per 9) but that’s not so much an accomplishment as it is something that had to happen if he planned on ever being effective again. his strikeout rate is up as well, having already struck out 42 batters in 45 & ⅓ innings. Happ is sort of a head scratcher here though, while he’s getting more ground balls than ever before, and only giving up line drives on 15% of balls in play, He’s actually allowing hits at roughly the same rate as last year. There’s a very real chance that Happ’s luck will turn around there if he can keep up the low line drive rate and keeping the ball on the ground doesn’t always result in less hits, but it certainly staves off the long ball pretty well. I don’t think Happ has much chance of being nearly as bad as last year, but he likely won’t be putting up numbers reminiscent of ‘09 but he can put up a year at or better than league average and start re-establishing his value.

Bud Norris looks to have grown a little bit from last season, with his walk rate dropping a bit so far for the 2nd time, and his strikeout rate better than last season, it’s no real surprise that he’s looking effective so far. Norris has gone 57 & ⅓ innings so far over 9 starts and has struck out 58 batters, which isn’t much of a surprise, he seems to have a penchant for striking guys out, and the way he appears to be growing as a pitcher that could be a huge key to his success. Perhaps one of the best things that can be said for Norris right now is that all of the changes in his stats are sustainable. He’s not suddenly netting 75% ground balls after spending the first few years of his career as a flyball pitcher. He’s getting more ground balls than last year, but not by a lot, and he’s managed to keep batters from making solid contact only marginally better than last year as well. It’s the coalescence of these little changes that make all the difference. He’s getting more ground balls, allowing fewer line drives, allowing fewer home runs, striking out more batters, walking fewer, and averaging over 6 innings per game. Even if he regresses to roughly what he did last year, Norris could be looked at as a real asset for this Houston club going forward as he’ only arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Lucas Harrell isn’t exactly the most valuable pitcher that Houston has, but he was a something for nothing acquisition and has been passable even if he’s averaging under 6 innings per start. He is doing a good job of allowing fewer walks so far, though he’s still walking nearly as many as he strikes out so far this season. Baby steps though I’d rather see him pitching effectively to contact than racking up 12 strikeouts and 10 walks per game. Harrell is effectively getting ground balls, well over 50% of the time, he is still seeing 20% of balls in play go for line drives, but that’s not far off from league average. The biggest concern I’d have with Harrell is that he is routinely walking 3 batters in 5 and ⅔ innings. He’s really hurting himself with those walks and getting his pitch count up quickly. So while he’s only given up 3 homers, he’s just not quite able to get deep into a game. Harrell could be a serviceable 4th or 5th starter, overall he’s able to provide league average numbers, but with a rotation that is so full of uncertain production he could really stand out by getting a bit deeper in games.

Wandy Rodriguez is the only immediately recognized name in this rotation for those who don’t follow the ‘Stros. he’s also probably their biggest trade chip at the moment. Wandy has been pretty good over the past 4 seasons, and is so far looking to increase his trade value with a year left on his contract. He’s striking out fewer batters than he has in the past, which might be a point of concern, but he’s also walking 1 fewer batters per 9 than he has over his career and just isn’t really giving up hits at the moment. His 1.094 WHIP is the best he’s ever seen and can be attributed to his increased focus on getting batters to swing on top of pitches. He’s getting ground balls just over 50% of the time when the ball is put in play and has managed to limit line drives as well to 16% of balls in play. Accordingly, his BABIP is much lower than his career numbers, and at .261 is 32 points below last year’s mark. Rodriguez has been effective so far and the most important part of that is probably that he’s been consistent. He’s only gone less than 6 innings once this season (his 2nd start) and outside of one hiccup where he gave up 3 home runs he’s kept the ball in the park in all of his 8 other starts so far. Rodriguez has made a lot of adjustments to his pitching style it seems, but they all seem to be working so far. I’d be totally unsurprised if he has to adjust some more as the league catches up to what he’s changed but Wandy’s put together 4 consecutive good years, and while he might be looking to really eat innings this year, I see no reason for him to be anything less than the ace of this staff for as long as Houston decides to keep him around.

Overall the Astros are perhaps the most legitimately middle of the road team in the league. They are 10th in OBP, 7th in runs scored 8th in team ERA, 8th in hits allowed, 6th in walks allowed, and 12th in total strikeouts. It doesn’t get a whole lot more average than that and they more or less look it. While they have a 19-23 record, 8 losses and 7 wins have come by a single run, that’s a lot of baseball that could have gone one way or the other. I’d like to think that the ‘Stros are more or less a .500 team. I’d expect a lot more of what we’re seeing now unless they go into a real fire sale and decide to enter the AL West with a whimper next season.

No comments:

Post a Comment