THE PALLILOG

Here are the key factors that have fueled Astros hot start to season

Astros Jose Altuve
The Astros are crushing the baseball. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.
Here's what MLB should do to give fanless Astros games more juice

Quite the rollicking beginning to the Astros season. You can't bury a team by mid-April but you can push it into a very deep hole. The Astros are 6-1 while the defending American League West champion Oakland A's are 1-7. The Astros have dominated Oakland in all five early season meetings by a cumulative score of 41-11. Two more Astro wins over the A's Friday and Saturday won't exactly make it "magic number" countdown time, but the A's chances of defending their division crown would probably tumble to somewhere about five percent.

It's a tiny sample size but still "wow!" inducing if you're an Astros fan, the batting average numbers for the top six in the batting order: Altuve .310, Brantley .538, Bregman .360, Alvarez .333, Correa .321, Gurriel .346. Kyle Tucker is batting just .207 but leads the team with nine runs batted in.

In contrast the A's Thursday starting lineup guys' averages at night's end: .233, .190, .163, .148, .167, .000, .200, .071, .077. I mean, they need improvement to upgrade to pathetic. The .071 belongs to Elvis Andrus. He'll do a bit better than .071 but Elvis's talent left the building years ago. He was absolutely horrible the last three seasons with the Texas Rangers. The A's traded for him to be their everyday shortstop.

The still very very early returns mark the Angels as the Astros' foremost division challenge this year. Mike Trout is off to an awesome start even by best player of his generation standards. The Angels are 5-2 despite Rice-ex and 2019 World Series pest Anthony Rendon's sluggish start. Pitcher/outfielder, designated hitter Shohei Ohtani is their biggest question mark and upside variable. The Halos still don't have the look of a division winning level pitching staff, but if in the hunt they would probably be aggressive in pursuing any high-end starter available on the trade market.

No Springer Dingers

It's been an inauspicious start to George Springer's career as a Toronto Blue Jay. In fact thus far it's a non-start. Late in spring training Springer suffered an oblique injury that sidelined him the first week of the regular season, then the day before he was to be activated he strained a quadriceps muscle working out and will miss another week. This is not to suggest the six year 150 million dollar contract will be a disaster for the Jays, but six years 150 mil for a 31-year-old outfielder with an injury history is high risk. This is the fourth leg muscle stint on the injured (formerly disabled) list in Springer's career. Only once has Springer played more than 140 games in a season. The Astros were aware of these things when opting to not bid competitively to retain Springer, despite all he meant to and had done for the franchise.

Here's hoping Springer is fully healthy to receive a standing ovation four weeks from now when the Jays visit Minute Maid Park. This Monday, one would expect a very positive though not Springer-level enthusiastic fan reaction when Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is introduced.

Rockets rebuild

Just in case you happen to not be paying close attention to the Rockets these days, they enter the weekend three games worse in record than Orlando. The Rockets' 14-37 record is second worst in the NBA, a game and a half worse than Detroit, the Magic's record is fourth worst. The Rockets must finish with one of the three worst records in the NBA to maximize their chance at 52.1 percent of keeping their lottery pick by having it fall in the top four picks. The Rockets are highly likely to lose Friday night in Los Angeles at the Clippers, and then play Saturday night at Golden State. The Magic has home games this weekend vs. the Pacers and Bucks. Big one looms a week from Sunday when the Rockets play at the Magic!

NFL Draft

If a draft happens and no one cares does a draft happen? Inside three weeks to the NFL Draft there is basically zero anticipation for it in Houston. The Texans holding no picks in the first two rounds and the ongoing sordid Deshaun Watson saga has just ruined any zest for anything Texans.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Fired ESPN NBA analyst Paul Pierce broke no laws with his idiotic Instagramming. But he is married with kids ages 13, 10, 8. Come on.

2. Sic 'Em! In clobbering UH then taking down unbeaten Gonzaga to win the National Championship Baylor became just the second team this millennium to win both its Final Four games by at least 15 points. Villanova did it three years ago.

3. Best of the unavoidable NCAA Tournament commercials: Bronze-Brie Larson for some car or SUV Silver-Reggie Miller giving Kenny Smith the choke sign hamburger joint spot Gold-Magic Johnson bank commercial with Jim Nantz "goodbye friends" line.

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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