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.
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Corbin Carroll just got a little more dangerous. Same for Bobby Witt Jr., Elly De La Cruz and the rest of baseball's fastest players.
Major League Baseball wants umpires to crack down on obstruction, and the commissioner's office outlined plans during a call with managers this week. MLB staff also will meet managers in person during spring training to go over enforcement.
The increased emphasis is only on the bases and not at home plate. The focus is on infielders who drop a knee or leg down in front of a bag while receiving a throw, acting as a deterrence for aggressive baserunning and creating an increased risk of injuries.
“I think with everything, they’re trying to make the game a little safer to avoid some unnecessary injuries," Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said Friday at the team's facility in Florida. “The intentions are always good. It comes down to how it affects the players and the games. I’m sure there will be plays where one team doesn’t like it or one team does.”
With more position players arriving at spring training every day, the topic likely will come up more and more as teams ramp up for the season.
“We'll touch on that. We'll show them some video of what’s good and what’s not,” Texas Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “You know, it’s going to be a little adjustment.”
Making obstruction a point of emphasis fits in with an ongoing effort by MLB to create more action. Obstruction calls are not reviewable, which could lead to some disgruntled players and managers as enforcement is stepped up, but it also means it won't create long replay deliberations.
A package of rule changes last season — including pitch clocks, bigger bases and limits on defensive shifts and pickoff attempts — had a dramatic effect. There were 3,503 stolen bases in the regular season, up from 2,486 in 2022 and the most since 1987.
MLB changed a different baserunning rule this offseason, widening the runner’s lane approaching first base to include a portion of fair territory. MLB also shortened the pitch clock with runners on base by two seconds to 18 and further reducing mound visits in an effort to speed games.
“Last year, you know, a lot of our preparation was around like, especially just the unknown of the clock and making sure like we’re really buttoned up on that," New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "These guys are so used to it in so many ways that sometimes I even forget.”
Increased enforcement could lead to more action on the basepaths. But a significant element of MLB's motivation is injury prevention.
Top players have hurt hands or wrists on headfirst slides into bases blocked by a fielder. White Sox slugger Luis Robert Jr. sprained his left wrist when he slid into Jonathan Schoop's lower left leg on a steal attempt during an August 2022 game against Detroit.
“It’s been happening for a while. It’s been getting out of control," Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “I know some of the players complained about it the last two years.”
While acknowledging his reputation as a significant offender, Phillies second baseman Bryson Stott didn't sound too worried about his play.
“We like to fight for outs at second base,” he said. "It’s never on purpose, blocking the base. For me, or someone covering second to the shortstop side, it’s a natural move for your knee to go down to reach the ball. It’s never intentional. I guess we’ll figure out how to maneuver around that.”