A.J. Hoffman: Astros pitching so far has been off the charts

Justin Verlander is off to a great start, but he has been the third-best Astros starter. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Well, it is starting to look like maybe the Astros won’t go 150-12 this season. 

Most of the (relative) early season struggles have been from the lineup. So of course, fans seem to be focusing on the negatives. George Springer, Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez and Evan Gattis have all started off the season in a disappointing fashion. The team is hitting .239 through 20 games. Last year they led the league with a .282 average, 9 points higher than the second best hitting team. So, yes, the poor start is noteworthy. 

It is drawing attention away from the real story of the early season Astros. Pitching. The Astros pitching, hasn’t been good. It has been phenomenal. Particularly the starting pitching. 

I am normally a “wait and see” guy when it comes to early season stats. Usually I prefer to wait until the 1/4 season mark before I make any big judgements on what a team is. This pitching staff looks pretty special, though. 

How special? Here is a list of the top ERAs in the American League as of today. 

  1. Charlie Morton - HOU - 0.72

  2. Gerrit Cole - HOU - 0.96

  3. Chris Sale - BOS - 1.23

  4. Justin Verlander - HOU - 1.35

That isn’t a misprint. Three of the top four ERAs in the American League belong to Astros starters. Last year’s team was not a bad pitching team, but this year’s rotation should be markedly better. Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers haven’t been brilliant through four starts, but they haven’t been awful, and both have shown signs of breaking through. 

The Astros have struck out 213 batters in 170.2 innings pitched, good for the league lead. They are second in baseball with a .211 BAA.

The 2017 Astros got 66 combined starts from Collin McHugh, Joe Musgrove, Mike Fiers, Francis Martes, David Paulino and Dayan Diaz. Of that group, only McHugh is currently in Houston, and he has pitched well out of the bullpen to this point. Ideally, most of those 66 starts this year will be eaten up by Verlander and Cole, both of whom are worlds better than any of the aforementioned pitchers. 

Of course, all five of their starters won’t pitch 30 games this season. Keuchel missed nearly two months last season with a pinched nerve in his neck. McCullers has missed massive chunks of the last two seasons with various arm and back issues. Cole missed a large chunk of 2016 with elbow and tricep problems. Morton has been on the DL numerous times in his career, including multiple hip surgeries and a Tommy John procedure. He is also 34 years old. Verlander is 35. 

However, they have all looked good so far, and between McHugh and Peacock they feel like they have adequate fill-ins should one or more of them go down at some point this season. 

So, perhaps Astros fans are looking at the season all wrong. The Astros aren’t off to a “slow start” and they aren’t “underachieving.” They are just finding different ways to win. The lineup is good. They will hit at some point. Until they do though, rest easy in knowing that the Astros may have the best pitching in baseball backing them up. 

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The Houston Astros managed to win the AL West once again, and while things got a little nerve wracking toward the end of the season, when it mattered most, the 'Stros took care of business.

It certainly didn't hurt to get a little help from the Mariners, beating the Rangers 1-0 on Sunday, paving the way for the Astros to secure the division. Rangers fans and members of their broadcast team were none too pleased with the Diamondbacks resting some of their starters on Sunday.

But let's be real, with the division on the line, the Rangers couldn't even manage to score a single run on Sunday against Seattle. That's why they're playing in the Wild Card series, not because of how Arizona approached Sunday's game.

So what did we learn during these must-win games over the last week? A lot was made of GM Dana Brown's comments on the team's flagship station. Brown was hoping manager Dusty Baker would put the best offensive lineup on the field. Yainer Diaz did not start a single game of the Diamondbacks series. But Chas McCormick played every game of the Mariners and Diamondbacks series, except for the finale against Seattle, after being hit in the back with a fastball the night before.

Michael Brantley played in two of three against Arizona, so he appears to be an option Dusty will turn to moving forward. And with the Astros only scoring 1 and 2 runs in two of the three wins against the D-Backs, the Astros need every bit of offense they can get.

Plus, we discuss how getting extra rest for Michael Brantley, Jose Abreu, and the bullpen could pay huge dividends for the club. And don't look now, but Jose Abreu is getting hot at just the right time!

Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion.

And be sure to watch Stone Cold 'Stros (an Astros podcast) every Monday on SportMapHouston's YouTube channel.

Listen to ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 FM for Houston's best sports talk.

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