SWINGS AND MISSES

John Granato: Analyzing the Astros positives and negatives after the first 10 games

A.J. Hinch and the Astros are off to an 8-2 start. Jason Behnken / Getty Images

An NFL season is 16 games. An MLB season is 162. So basically ten baseball games equals one football game. I know you can’t possibly discern anything in just 10 baseball games. If you try, baseball guy will tell you “Relax. It’s a long season.” Ok baseball guy. We’re not judging. We’re making observations.

We do know the Astros were 8-2 which translates to a football win in week one. But even in one football game there are positives and negatives, same as in a 10-game span in baseball.

The positives: starting pitching. It’s lived up to the preseason billing. Most experts think this is the best rotation in baseball. They’re right. Verlander, Cole and Morton have been other worldly. Keuchel and McCullers not as good but good enough. (Don’t count the Keuchel and McCullers starts in Minnesota. They were awful but we’ll focus on those later.) As much as we want it to be, the bullpen really hasn’t been a problem. I think we’re all still shell shocked from the postseason and looking for any chink in the armor. It’ll be fine. Giles? That’s another story we’ll get to in a bit.

Offensively, Altuve and Correa picked up right where they left off last year. Reddick started slow then exploded. Max Stassi’s been a pleasant surprise. McCann has been good too.

Otherwise the offense has been mediocre to bad. We’re spoiled after watching the best lineup in baseball last year. We know what they can do and they’re not doing it. It’s early. Relax. There are some trends to watch here though.

Let’s start with the strikeouts. I thought the boom or bust days were behind us. No team struck out more than the Astros in ‘15 and ‘16 combined. Last year no one struck out less. That alone may have been the biggest factor in their offensive success. They were making contact and it paid off in run production.

It’s not like the Astros are bottom feeders this season. They’re middle of the pack offensively. Thanks to Texas and Baltimore they put some runs up but they made Padre pitching look like the ‘71 Orioles. (They were good. Look it up).

Through 10 games the Astros averaged about three more strikeouts per game this year. Doesn’t sound like a big deal but over the course of 162 games they would go from fewest strikeouts to the most. That’s not good. Over the course of a season that means fewer runs. Period.

While strikeouts are up, on base, slugging and hence OPS are down. The team still walks plenty, which helps the on-base percentage, but slugging is way off. Not only are they missing more, when they are hitting they are not hitting it as crisply. OPS is off 100 points from last year’s pace.

The oddity to these stats is that while they struck out less in the first ten games last year, they also scored fewer runs. They struck out 25 fewer times but scored 9 fewer runs. They also only won only 6 of their first 10 while they won 8 of their first 10 this year.

While the pitching has been so much better, it makes sense that they’ve won more this year because they’re scoring more. But I know it’s not just me. They don’t look the same. AJ Hinch addressed the strikeouts with the media this week in Minnesota. Geoff Blum and Todd Kalas talked about it on the broadcast as well. This strikeout thing is not a figment of our imagination.

One of the great things about last year’s team was that they didn’t show any aversion to pressure or at least they didn’t appear to. This year’s team seems to be pressing. During Tuesday’s game in Minnesota the broadcast team put up a graphic of where the guys were swinging and missing on strike three. There were a bunch that were out of the strike zone. That means that they’re either pressing too much or they have lost their plate discipline or both.

There is very little to complain about with the pitchers. They also led the league in strikeouts in the first 10 games but that’s a good thing not a bad thing. Dallas Keuchel and the back end of the bullpen are concerns but nothing this team can’t overcome.

Keuchel is interesting because he’s in a contract year. One of the big topics this offseason was what they’d do with him; sign him or let him walk. This is not hindsight and overreaction from watching his first two starts because I’ve said it multiple times on the show: They traded for Gerrit Cole to replace Keuchel in the rotation. He is more their kind of guy: big arm, can blow people away, can spin it, too, which translates into a lot of swings and misses, which is something they covet. Keuchel is going to want top-end money but is he a top-end starter? He certainly has been but we haven’t seen that guy in a while.

One guy we don’t want to see is Ken Giles. I think that’s a near unanimous feeling among the fanbase. I’m here to tell you that Giles is not only here but will be your closer for the foreseeable future. A.J. Hinch is not like us. He has patience and he’s working this thing perfectly. In the first 10 games he used Giles in non-save situations to get his confidence up and not hurt the team. There was only one save in the first ten and that belonged to Brad Peacock and the reason he got that was because A.J. used Giles the two previous games and had that as an excuse not to bring him in in a one run game. Well played sir.

Giles is a notoriously slow starter. He will be better as the season goes along. Yes I said it. He will be better. Will he ever be an elite closer? I’m going out on a limb and saying I don’t think so. But while he never really looks good doing it he did actually save 34 games and blew only 4 last year. That’s not elite but not bad either. I will say this: he makes it exciting. Win after win after win can get boring. We need some excitement in our lives and Giles provides that.

Giles is the not only the closer we want, he’s the closer we need. And by “we” I mean the one A.J. wants and needs. If it’s too early to crush the offense it’s too early to yank Giles. It is what it is. Deal with it Houston.











 

Charlie Morton helped create a lasting memory. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

By the time this story is out it will be a fact; Charlie Morton will have signed with the Tampa Bay Rays ending his tenure as a Houston Astro.

Going into free agency this off season, it was hard not to expect changes to come, especially with so many high profile Astros up for free agency. I fully expect Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzales to be gone, but losing Good Ol Uncle Chuck was a little surprising.

All things considered, the Astros bringing back Morton seemed to make sense. Keuchel is due for a big pay day, and all signs point to that being with another team. Lance McCullers, of course, will miss the 2019 season to recover from his Tommy John procedure. With another year of Cole and Verlander, and a promotion to McHugh, it seemed like Morton would slide back into a solid rotation.

That, as we all know now, was not the case as CFM agreed to a two year, $30 million dollar contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.

……….

Maybe I'm a masochist, but I spent last night re-watching the 2017 World Series highlights, Game 7 to be specific. The Astros were in complete control, up 5-0 after the second. A platoon of McCullers, Peacock, Liriano, and Devenski got them through five. Morton entered the game in the bottom of the sixth. On his very first pitch, he gave up a base hit to Joc Pederson. He then proceeded to give up a walk to Foresythe and a single to Ethier, allowing the Dodgers to score their first run of the game, it was 5-1. After facing six batters in the sixth inning , Charlie reminded us why we added the F to his name as he retired the next nine batters in a row to win the game and the 2017 World Series.

Morton's post game interview with Buster Olney was as haunting, and prophetic, as it comes.

"All this (adversity) has made me a better person, a better ball player. I appreciate that as much as this ( winning the WS). This is the epitome of what you can do in this game. Look at us. This is crazy. To go from Fenway Park, to beat the Yankees and now the Dodgers. It's extraordinary. It hasn't sunk in but I'm so grateful for all these guys, for all the fans in Houston. I hope everybody enjoyed every second of this."

When the team who suffered through pitching ailments all of the postseason needed a stellar pitching performance the most, Morton delivered. When a city that needed something to believe in after a historical hurricane caused monumental damage, Charlie Morton did not falter. In a city where it's easier to find a reason why our teams won't succeed, Morton was not going to allow anything to take this moment away from him, away from us.

As iconic as Joe Bucks " ground ball to the right side could do it" call was, the moment in which McCann rushed a shocked Morton will live in my head forever. Finally, it was over. The Astros had their championship. Charlie Morton had his World Series win. Houston had its hero.

Growing up, my father had a plethora of stories about his favorite moments in sports. I have listened to more stories about Luis Hernandez than I care to ever have. It is funny looking back now because I will be doing the same thing to my eventual children. When it comes time for me to share why I love sports so much, it will be hard for me to not start with Charlie Morton's performance in the 2017 World Series.

Morton gave the best two years of his career to the Astros, and through that helped make this team a championship city again. He will, without a doubt go down as a hero in Houston sports. More importantly, to me at least, Morton will go down as a member of my favorite team of all time, the 2017 Astros.

Goodbye, my friend. Thanks for the memories that will last a life time.

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