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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Houston's losing streak extended to five games

With key Astros missing, Detroit completes the series sweep

An overall bad day for the Astros on Wednesday. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the Astros received a big blow to their chances in the series finale against Detroit and potentially longer. Five players: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Martin Maldonado, and Robel Garcia would all be moved to the IL due to health and safety protocols, leaving them scrambling to get a whole team together for the game against the Tigers.

The Astros would not be able to overcome both the loss of players and the onslaught of another strong start by Detroit in Wednesday's game which put them too far out front for Houston to come back from to avoid a series sweep.

Final Score: Tigers 6, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 6-6, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Michael Fulmer (1-0)

Losing Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (1-1)

Tigers knock out another starter early

Detroit continued their success of making Houston's starter work hard in early innings, getting after Lance McCullers Jr., and giving him an early exit. After a lengthy fist, they broke through in the second getting two hits, a walk, a hit batter, and an RBI groundout to put up three runs on 34 pitches.

He would have a quicker 1-2-3 third, but after giving up a single, a walk, and hitting another batter to load the bases and reach 87 pitches, he would be removed in favor of Joe Smith. Smith would allow all three of the inherited runners to score, adding those runs to McCullers Jr.'s final line: 3.2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 87 P.

Astros try to claw back into it

After Smith would go on to load the bases again in the inning, still with two outs, Houston made another pitching change to bring in Brandon Bielak to get the third out and stop the bleeding at 6-0. The Astros would get on the board in the fifth, getting a runner on base to set up a two-run homer by Jason Castro to cut the lead to 6-2.

Bielak remained in the game to try and eat up as many innings as possible. While he continued to hold the Tigers to their six runs through the six innings, the Astros clawed back into the game. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put their first two batters on base with a walk and single before an RBI-single by Yuli Gurriel to make it 6-3. They would threaten for more but be held there for the time being.

Astros can't cash in, Tigers complete sweep

Ryne Stanek was Houston's next reliever in the top of the seventh, getting a 1-2-3 frame to keep it a three-run game, as did Brooks Raley in the eighth. In the home part of the inning, the Astros put their first two runners on base on an error and a walk, then loaded them with a one-out single by Carlos Correa. They'd waste their chance to make something happen, though, with an inning-ending double-play.

Ryan Pressly, who had no save opportunities in recent games, entered to get some work in the top of the ninth. He worked around a leadoff double for a scoreless inning, sending the 6-3 game to the bottom of the ninth. The Astros had yet another chance to make something happen, loading the bases with no outs to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. After two outs, Yuli Gurriel would bring one run in with a walk, but that's as close as they'd come, extending their losing streak to five games and getting swept by the Tigers.

Up Next: Houston will get a much-needed day off tomorrow to try and leave this poor homestand behind them. They'll pick things up in Seattle on Friday, with first pitch of the opener of three games at 9:10 PM Central. The expected pitching matchup is Jose Urquidy (0-1, 5.23 ERA) for the Astros and Yusei Kikuchi (0-0, 3.75 ERA) for the Mariners.

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