The Houston Astros have not played like the team ranked No. 5 in ESPN.com’s preseason power rankings.
They’re now 7-17 with nine losses in their past 11 games after a 2-0 defeat against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday afternoon. On a day when their pitching finally looked good, their offense could not produce.
What has gone wrong
It is the pitching that has been the Astros biggest bugaboo, both in the starting rotation (5.10 ERA, which ranks 27th in the majors) and the bullpen (4.75 ERA, which ranks 25th).
Dallas Keuchel's fastball velocity, which typically gets into the low 90s, has averaged 88 mph his season. His location with it is also off. His fastball strike rate is down four percentage points from last season (63 percent to 59 percent) and opponents are hitting .356 against the pitch.
Collin McHugh won his most recent start, but has been inconsistent, with a 6.65 ERA through five starts and 36 hits allowed in 21⅔ innings. The one encouraging thing is that McHugh has limited his home runs allowed (2) and managed a strikeout-to-walk rate (17-to-5) consistent with his past performance. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 3.40, so there is hope that he could improve.
The Astros miss Lance McCullers, who would have been their No. 3 starter but started the season on the disabled list due to a shoulder injury. The other three starters who make up the back of the Astros' rotation -- Mike Fiers, Doug Fister and Scott Feldman -- have combined for a 5.30 ERA in 13 starts. (Feldman did pitch three scoreless innings in relief in Saturday’s loss.)
The issue in the bullpen is that Ken Giles has not delivered on the expectations the team had for him when he was obtained in a winter trade with the Philadephia Phillies. Giles has allowed 10 runs, including four home runs in 10 innings pitched this season. Though Giles’ fastball velocity does not appear to have dropped significantly, opponents are 11-for-22 with three homers against what has previously been a devastating pitch for him.
Looking for something from a couple hitters
That’s not to say that the offense is issue-free. The Astros are trying to survive with a lineup that includes two sub-.200 hitters, Luis Valbuena and Jason Castro. Valbuena hit 25 home runs last season, but has none in 20 games in 2016, and sports a .183 batting average.
The positive that Castro brings is that he rates as the game’s top pitch-framer (meaning he’s getting more called strikes than the average catcher would get on the same set of pitches), but he carries a .140 batting average into Sunday.
The biggest disappointment has been Carlos Gomez, who is dealing with rib soreness. Since being obtained last season, Gomez is hitting .231 with four home runs in 246 at-bats.
Gomez has excelled in the past against inside pitches, but has done little with them since coming to Houston. He’s 12-for-56 against them (.214 batting average) with five hard-hit balls on the 221 pitches he seen since joining the Astros. He hit .289 and had 15 hard-hit balls on 313 such pitches he saw with the Brewers in 2015. Worth noting: Gomez was hit in the head by a Noah Syndergaard fastball last May.
This is the fifth time that the Astros have lost at least 17 of their first 24 games. Only one of the previous four teams finished .500 (1969, 81-81). The other three went 66-96 in 1963, 51-111 in 2013 and 70-92 in 2014.
From 2011 to 2015, seven teams started a season 7-17 or worse. Only one of them finished with more than 70 wins, the 2012 Padres (76-86).
Elias Sports Bureau research confirmed a note shared on Twitter earlier in the day -- that only one team has made the postseason after a 7-17 (or worse) start. The 1914 "Miracle" Braves started 6-18 and won the World Series.