HOUSTON -- After a 6-1 start in which they were crushing the baseball and averaging 7.3 runs per game, the Astros have fallen on hard times. The season is still extremely young and there will be ups and downs, but Houston played about as well as it could in the first week of the season and has played as poorly as it could play the second week.
The Astros have lost five games in a row, getting swept by A.J. Hinch’s Detroit Tigers at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday, to fall to 6-6 heading into Friday’s series opener in Seattle. The good news for the Astros is they're 5-1 on the road this season, so maybe a change of scenery will get them back on track.
Here are three takeaways from the first 12 games of the season:
1. Starting pitchers must work deeper into games
This isn’t any sort of revelation. If you follow the team, you know its starters have thrown at least six innings only three times in 12 games, and two of those have been by Zack Greinke, who has the only two quality starts by an Astros pitcher this year.
As a result, Astros starters have pitched only 57 of the 107 innings amassed by the staff through 12 games. Only one starter -- José Urquidy -- has topped 100 pitches thrown in a game. Urquidy threw 101 pitches in 4 1/3 innings April 4 against the A’s. Lance McCullers Jr., hasn’t gotten past the fifth inning in three starts, and Jake Odorizzi lasted only 3 1/3 innings in his first start Tuesday.
Losing left-hander Framber Valdez to a fractured finger at the start of camp -- the Astros signed Odorizzi a week later -- was a major blow to the rotation, especially during a season in which pitching depth was going to be tested. Valdez led the Majors in innings pitched last year, including the playoffs, and was expected to throw 200-plus quality innings. Then a COVID-19 quarantine episode in spring camp shut down several pitchers for more than a week, including Cristian Javier.
Javier needed 88 pitches to get through five innings in his second start April 8 and was sent to the alternate training site to get stretched out while the Astros went with a four-man rotation. Houston catcher Jason Castro said the Astros need to be more aggressive in the strike zone to pitch deeper. If not, it’s going to be a long summer.
2. Where’s the hitting?
The Astros appeared to put last year’s offensive woes behind them when they roared out to a 6-1 start, scoring 51 runs (7.3 per game) and bashing a club-record 15 home runs in that span. Houston’s plus-31 run differential was by far the tops in baseball.
So what happened? The Astros are slashing .237/.303/.361 in the last five games with only four homers. They’re 6-for-43 (.143) with runners in scoring position in that span, leaving the bases loaded to end Wednesday’s 6-4 loss to the Tigers. After hot starts, Yordan Alvarez (3-for-16), Alex Bregman (2-for-17) and Carlos Correa (3-for-16) have cooled off, and Myles Straw (.524 OPS) and Kyle Tucker (.751 OPS) have struggled overall.
Making matters worse is they put Alvarez, Bregman, Jose Altuve, Martín Maldonado and Robel García on the injured list Wednesday for health and safety reasons. It’s unclear when they’ll back, but the Astros don’t have strong enough bench depth to have so many regulars miss extended time and not feel the impact. The biggest positive has been Yuli Gurriel, who ranks near the top in on-base percentage (.547) and looks like he found the fountain of youth.
3. Bullpen already tested
The Astros’ biggest offseason addition was veteran reliever Pedro Báez, who has yet to pitch in a game and doesn’t appear to be close to doing so. He came down with COVID-19 in Spring Training and was placed on the injured list earlier this week with what the club says is right shoulder soreness. They’re also without Andre Scrubb (right shoulder) and Enoli Paredes (right side soreness), not to mention Josh James and Austin Pruitt had significant offseason surgeries and are on the 60-day IL.
Combined with the fact that the starters aren’t working deep, the bullpen is being pushed hard early. Strong long relief work by Luis Garcia and Brandon Bielak has helped, but Joe Smith (13.50 ERA), Brooks Raley (9.00 ERA) and Blake Taylor (5.79 ERA) haven’t pitched well in a short sample. Ryne Stanek (1.29 ERA) and Ryan Pressly (no runs in five innings) have been great.
The bullpen should benefit from getting Báez, Paredes and Scrubb back, though there are no timelines at this point. The Astros may have to reach deep into the Minor Leagues to find some fresh arms while they wait for the relief corps to get healthy.