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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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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