I get the idea Houston Astros fans are feeling a little despondent over their team's start. From my Tuesday chat session:
Andrew (HOU): So, Keuchel is washed up, Correa is overhyped, Altuve is a moron on the bases, Lunhow traded half the farm system for the 2 worst players on the roster, and the Astros are already effectively eliminated on May 3. Oh well, at least we are about to get 5 months of hellish, sweltering, oppressive summer heat. I hate life.
Our friends at FiveThirtyEight.com keep track of each team's playoff odds, updated daily, and you can go back and check how each stood on a weekly basis. On Opening Day, the Astros were projected to finish 87-75, matching the Blue Jays as the best preseason cyberspace team in the American League. They weren't overwhelming favorites to reach the playoffs, but the Astros were given a 50 percent chance to make the postseason and a 36 percent chance to win the AL West.
Fast-forward to Tuesday morning and the Astros' 8-18 record and their projected record had fallen to 75-87, their playoffs odds to 14 percent and their chances of winning the division to 8 percent. It has been a disastrous start for a team looking to return to the postseason.
Now, the season isn't over, although only two teams that started 8-18 or worse reached the postseason. One of them even won the World Series, the 1914 Miracle Boston Braves. That club stood at 7-19 through 28 games (and, in fact, started 3-16). They were still under .500 as late as July 31 before going 19-6 in August and 31-8 in September and October and then sweeping the World Series.
The other club was the 2001 Oakland Athletics, who started 8-18, won 16 of their next 21, hung around .500 for a spell and then crushed to a 58-17 record in the second half to win 102 games.
Can the Astros turn things around after this slow start? The talent level that led to those preseason expectations hasn't changed, with reigning Cy Young winner in Dallas Keuchel, super sophomore Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve -- playing at a new level so far -- leading the way. Tuesday's 6-4 win and Wednesday's 16-4 blowout over the Twins is a start in the right direction. To get to 87-75, the Astros now have to play .574 ball the rest of the way -- that's a 93-win pace, which doesn't seem like such a crazy proposition.
What's intriguing about all this is that winning last year might have hurt them. Contending in 2015 -- probably a year ahead of schedule -- might have pushed a front office rooted in analytics and judicious decision-making to take some risks that haven't panned out.
1. The Carlos Gomez trade
Gomez was an All-Star with the Brewers in 2013 and 2014, one of the best all-around players in the game. But he'd spent time on the disabled list in 2015, hadn't played well and was clearly banged up. The Mets backed out of a trade after medical records were exchanged. Less than 24 hours later, the Astros acquired him. The Astros aren't a team to dismiss medical reports. They low-balled No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken in 2014 after concerns about his elbow and failed to sign him (he later required Tommy John surgery). So either they didn't see the same concerns as the Mets or they simply got sucked into their playoff race and took a chance on Gomez.
That risk has backfired. Gomez was bad down the stretch in 2015 and he has been a disaster in 2016, hitting .227 with 28 strikeouts, two walks and no home runs. He's so bad you have wonder if he's still playing through injuries or if his confidence has been destroyed. One potential lingering issue to consider was that he was hit in the head on May 17, 2015 by Noah Syndergaard. Gomez's calling card had been his ability to turn on inside pitches. But check out these numbers courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon:
From 2014 through May 17, 2015: 724 inside pitches seen, 11 HR, 20 percent swing-and-miss rate;
Since then through Tuesday: 685 inside pitches seen, 5 HR, 24 percent swing-and-miss rate.
The Astros also got Mike Fiers in the deal but gave up Domingo Santana, now starting in the outfield for the Brewers and putting up better numbers than Gomez; Brett Phillips, a center field prospect of some note playing in Double-A; pitcher Josh Hader, who is dominating Double-A with a 0.78 ERA; and Adrian Houser, another pitching prospect.
2. Doubling down on soft tossers
The Astros won 86 games last year with a staff that didn't throw very hard -- it had the lowest average fastball velocity in the majors. That seemed to prompt the trade for Ken Giles. When the Royals rallied in Game 4 of the Division Series, Houston's lack of a hard-throwing reliever was blamed (even though Houston's bullpen had been very good all season).
But the front office didn't seem worried about velocity in the rotation. They signed Doug Fister, a guy coming off an injury-plagued season, and traded away power-armed Vince Velasquez in the Giles deal. When Lance McCullers went down in spring training because of a sore shoulder (he should be back soon), the rotation was left without one starter with plus velocity. It has an average fastball velocity of 88.3 mph, lowest in the majors, with every other team above 90. In a perhaps related note, Astros starters are 29th in strikeout rate, 29th in wOBA allowed (and last in wOBA against fastballs) and 27th in ERA. They aren't striking guys out and they're getting hit hard.
3. The Giles deal
A typical sabermetric mantra is "Don't overpay for relievers." It hasn't helped that Giles is 0-2 and has given up more home runs than he did in all of 2015, and Velasquez has exploded into a potential top-of-the-rotation starter. The best thing a front office can do is to properly evaluate its own talent. The Astros don't make this deal if they thought Velasquez would develop this quickly. I think they just missed on his potential. Or maybe they tried to flip the mantra on itself and the guys crunching numbers suggested a trade for a reliever was worth it. I guess the only catch there is said reliever needs to pitch well.
These two combined for 52 home runs last year but were low-average sluggers with mediocre OBPs. If they're not hitting home runs, they're not doing much to help you win (especially in Gattis' case, since he's a DH). Both are struggling this year, with Valbuena hitting .182 without a home run and Gattis hitting .211/.270/.333. The Astros are once again last in the majors in strikeout rate. They got away with that last year because they hit 230 home runs and hit .250. They're hitting home runs again -- a pace of 214 -- but are hitting just .231. Valbuena and Gattis were the two guys the Astros should have considered upgrading. Valbuena, for starters, was a platoon guy who had a spike in his home run-to-fly ball ratio, even though he wasn't really hitting the ball any harder. Gattis' season featured 88 RBIs but that masked a .285 OBP; he was worth just 0.5 WAR. A left-handed DH would also have better balanced out the lineup.
General manager Jeff Luhnow has done a nice job turning the organization around. Only six players on the current 25-man roster were with the organization when he was hired on Dec. 8, 2011. But three of those were Keuchel, Altuve and George Springer. He did draft Correa in 2012 but they also selected Mark Appel over Kris Bryant the next season, and cut J.D. Martinez, who has developed into a star with the Tigers. Imagine this lineup with those two in it. The Gomez and Giles moves might end up backfiring in a big way and could haunt the organization for years.
That's the thing about building a winning team: it's hard. You have to be patient in a rebuilding situation. And you can't afford to make too many mistakes. The Astros have made some big ones, however, and their path to their playoffs, while far from dead, isn't as evident as it appeared a few weeks ago.