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.











 

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Houston now trails in the fall classic

Astros fall in World Series Game 1 as Braves come out swinging

Framber Valdez had a forgettable start in World Series Game 1 as the Braves tagged him with five runs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a dominant end to win the ALCS and American League pennant, the Houston Astros welcomed in the National League champion Atlanta Braves for World Series Game 1 at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. With Houston favored to win not just this game but the entire series, the Braves shook up those expectations by finding early success at the plate to build a lead they would hold to take a 1-0 series lead.

Final Score: Braves 6, Astros 2

World Series (Best of Seven): Atlanta leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: A.J. Minter

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez

Valdez unable to replicate ALCS Game 5 success as Braves mount early lead

For the optimist, not having home-field advantage in an MLB postseason series affords you a benefit: you can score first and take captive momentum first in the series. The Braves did that against Framber Valdez, as Jorge Soler became the first player in league history to hit a homer in the first plate appearance of a World Series, putting Atlanta out to an immediate 1-0 lead. They would get another in the first frame, getting a one-out infield single by Ozzie Albies, who would steal second to get in position for an RBI double by Austin Riley.

Houston had the chance to respond in their first inning against former teammate Charlie Morton, getting a single and two walks to load the bases with no outs. They'd strand all three runners, though, as Morton made it through unscathed but having used 26 pitches. Atlanta kept putting stress on Valdez, extending their lead to three runs with back-to-back singles to start the second before later getting an RBI groundout.

Valdez gave up two more in the top of the third, once again allowing a leadoff single, this one setting up a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 Braves lead and forcing Houston's starter out of the game early. Yimi Garcia entered and was able to retire the three batters he faced to end the frame.

Braves lose Morton to injury as both bullpens begin long night

After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to keep the Astros off the board, Morton followed it up with a 1-2-3 second. He started the bottom of the third by retiring his fifth batter in a row, getting a strikeout of Jose Altuve. He would immediately call trainers to get him out of the game, though, as he would later be diagnosed with a fractured fibula, presumably from a ball that ricocheted off his leg in the prior inning, ending his season in a disappointing turn of events for the Braves.

That set up a long night for both bullpens, and next up for Houston was Jake Odorizzi. He started with a scoreless fourth, working around a two-out error to keep it a five-run game. The Astros began a rally in the bottom of the fourth, getting runners on the corners with one out on a Kyle Tucker double and Yuli Gurriel single. Chas McCormick brought in the first run of the board for Houston, but that's all they would get as Atlanta's lead remained four runs.

Astros drop Game 1

Odorizzi kept going on the mound, tossing a 1-2-3 fifth, then getting one out before a one-out single in the top of the sixth would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Phil Maton, who finished the inning. Maton returned in the top of the seventh, getting a strikeout before a double and a walk would result in the call to bring in Ryne Stanek.

A double play against his first batter allowed Stanek to finish the seventh, and then he returned in the eighth. He faced three batters that frame, getting one out before a walk and a single would put runners on the corners as Houston moved on to Brooks Raley. A sac fly by Freddie Freeman off of Raley made it a five-run lead again, but a leadoff triple by Yordan Alvarez in the bottom of the inning would set up Carlos Correa for an RBI, a groundout to make it 6-2.

Atlanta's bullpen continued to do well, though, limiting the damage to that one run in the eighth, then returning to hold on to the four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves the upset win to start the series. The loss extends their home losing streak in the World Series to five games (having lost all four at home in the 2019 World Series against the Nationals) and puts them down 0-1 and in need of a win in Game 2 to try and reset the series into a best-of-five.

Up Next: World Series Game 2 will be another 7:09 PM Central scheduled start time on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park. The expected pitching matchup is Max Fried, who is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three postseason starts, for the Braves, and Jose Urquidy, who went just 1.2 innings while allowing six runs (five earned) in his start in the ALCS.

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