Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images
Despite a tough 3-3 week where they dropped three of four in Minnesota against a tough Twins team, the huge display of power in Mexico over the weekend put things back in perspective; the Astros can beat anyone, anywhere. With the second full month of baseball underway, I took some time to break down what has been going right for the Astros so far in 2019:
Catching fire at the plate
Granted, the Astros just scored 24 runs over a two-game span against the Angels in Monterrey, but nonetheless, it's a sign that this potent offense is shaking off the early-season dust and finding their swing. If we would have been told going into the 2019 season that Jose Altuve would be hovering around a .250 average after 34 games, most of us probably would have considered that a symptom of the team at large struggling on offense. Instead, we've seen quite the contrary with other key players at the top of the lineup stepping up in big ways.
One of those key players is Michael Brantley. He has been nothing short of fantastic in an Astros uniform and currently leads the team in batting average at .336, which as of this writing was seventh-best in the majors. Pair that with his team second-best 24 RBIs and Houston's new cleanup hitter has fit in perfectly. Speaking of RBIs, the owner of first place on the team is George Springer, whose 27 RBIs and 10 home runs so far this year has him tied for eighth in the league in both categories.
Something that would pair well with these two guys getting hits is someone that can reliably get on base. Enter Alex Bregman. His .400 on-base percentage leads the team and is good for ninth-best in the American League. Much of that has to do with his patience at the plate which has led to 22 walks in 2019, tied for ninth-most in the league.
While the before-mentioned players come up with a lot of big hits, another noticeable part of this lineup that has had a surprisingly good start to the year is Josh Reddick. Reddick is not far behind Brantley in batting average, sitting at .330, and not far behind Bregman in on-base percentage, sitting at .380. After having his struggles at the plate last season he has had a hot start to 2019.
Throw all those bats in the mix with a rising Altuve and Carlos Correa, and it's no surprise that Houston's order has worked their way to the top of the league's leaderboard in team average at a combined .271, third-best in on-base percentage at .344, and third-lowest in strikeout percentage at 19.5%.
Don't forget the guys on the mound
Although the offense may generate most of the highlights on any given night, the pitching staff for Houston deserves a lot of credit for where this team is now and can go the rest of the year.
It starts with ace Justin Verlander, who I won't break down in great detail here since I did just that last week, but for argument's sake let me just highlight that he's 5-1 with a 0.87 WHIP (third-best in the league), 60 strikeouts (third-best in the league), and .176 average against (fourth-best in the league). His biggest fault so far has been giving up too many home runs.
Behind him, you've got the league-leader in strikeouts, Gerrit Cole, who currently sits at 65 and is a start behind most of the leaders since he'll pitch tonight for his eighth game of the year. He's had a big bomb to his numbers after that horrible start against the Rangers earlier this year, but his numbers are still great and have him near the top of the charts.
While the 3-4-5 guys of Collin McHugh, Wade Miley, and Brad Peacock may not be as high on the leaderboards or putting up the kind of numbers that Charlie Morton did for the Astros, they have done their job on the whole of keeping Houston ahead or close enough for the bats to get them back in it.
Behind these starters is an excellent bullpen. The two relievers leading the way and having the most impact are Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna. Pressly passed Astros-great Roy Oswalt on Sunday by recording his 33rd-straight scoreless inning, giving him a new franchise record. While the streak is historic in and of itself, it's the result of inning after inning of Pressly being in command and imposing his will against batters. He's just another great addition the Astros have made in recent years that compliment the rest of the team, making him one of the best eighth-inning setup guys in the league.
Osuna, Houston's closer they acquired in 2018, has been phenomenal with his new team since joining after his suspension ended last year. While his signing and the situation surrounding it is still rightly debated when you look purely at his work on the mound it has been electric. He has not blown a save since joining Houston, and in 2019 he's allowed just one unimportant run in his 14.1 innings of relief to go along with just three hits and zero walks and eleven strikeouts.
Again, when you put all these pieces together, you get a team ERA of 3.57 (fifth-best in the league), 9.44 strikeouts per 9 innings (eighth-best in the league), and 2.57 walks per 9 innings (best in the league) which if you want to summarize by WAR (wins above replacement), comes out to a 4.7, fifth-best in the league.
Looking ahead: is there even a ceiling?
While their play so far may not have them as the undisputed best team in baseball, all indications are there that they are without question in the conversation, and could easily win a series against any team. It will be interesting to look back at some of these points at both the half-way point of the year when many of these guys are likely named to the All-Star team, then again at the end of the season when they put all their effort into the playoff push and beyond.
With this Astros roster, the only ceiling we may be discussing in October could be Minute Maid Park's, and where to hang another World Series banner.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.