The Astros At 50

added 5/26/2011 by Patrick Hajovsky

This is the 50th season of the Houston Colt .45’s/Astros franchise. They appear to be waiting to celebrate this milestone next year, if only to get under Speedy's skin again following his loud complaints about last year being the 46th (not 45th) year of the Astros. But, whatever the case, it being 50 years, I think it's fitting now to look at the state of the 2011 Astros following their 50th game.

The franchise currently stands at 19-31 on the season, coming off two straight series wins for the first time this year. That streak, however, came on the heels of a season-worst five-game losing streak. So this 11-game stretch begs the question – “is the team trending up or is this simply a nice gust of cool air in the desert of 2011?”

Any season contains ups and downs, of course, but I maintain that this team, which is on pace for the franchise's first 100-loss season, is not that far away from being decent. That's not acceptable, of course, but it's better than the dead-in-the-water many predict and still claim, and is an overall trend in the right direction for a young team. They hustle, they're exciting and most games have been enjoyable (but for the bullpen collapses). 

And that's the rub. The bullpen collapses are the main reason for the 19-31 record, as Spudder and others have pointed out on the Forum boards. Looking back over the schedule, the Astros have lost six games when leading after seven innings and two more when leading after six.  Give me all eight of those, and they're 27-23.

Of course, this game goes at least nine innings and the Astros have now won nine games (as of May 25) in their last AB, so you could argue that these two things even out. I'm not sure I'd give on the equivalency argument, but I still see the point.

It should be noted the Astros are now 10-8 in one-run games, including a 2-1 record in that stat over the now-completed Dodgers series. I know it's easy to get down, but I think everyone has said from the beginning that this team is young and will struggle. Nothing that has happened this year detracts from that statement.

A metric I've proposed often as key is the runs scored number. To revisit, as of the trading deadline last year, the Astros were on a 162-game scoring pace of 551 runs, worst since 1968. For the rest of the season, their pace increased to 690 runs. That's still too low, but a positive trend nonetheless.

Through 50 games, the team is setting a pace to score 642 runs. That is not going to get the job done, especially with a leaky bullpen, but let's dig a little deeper. The April pace, with the team sitting at 10-17, was a relatively robust 702 runs. The May pace, which included losing streaks of four and five games, is a measly 582.

There are several reasons for the drop-off. First, the league has caught up a bit to Brett Wallace. Destined by some folks at ESPN and elsewhere to be a major league flop, Wallace stormed out of the gates in April, hitting .388 with an OPS of .988. You simply cannot ask a player, let alone a 24-year-old rookie, to keep that up. And, on cue, Wallace has produced May numbers of .224 and .681. Still, if you were to have told me in the spring that Wallace would be hitting .316 with an OPS of .851 going into Memorial Day Weekend, I‘d certainly have taken it. Wallace is going to get better, not worse.

Secondly, nobody has taken up the slack for Wallace. Hunter Pence has been consistent, but if one player's production goes down, another player has to go up. Chris Johnson, one of the supposed pillars of the youth movement, has been a disappointment. While his average from April to May shows improvement (.185 in May, .262 in April), he has been whiff city in the strikeout category, and typically in a key spot in the batting order (25 K's in May, 17 in April).

Bill Hall, who was signed to, uh, provide some supposed power in the lineup, is hitting .268 in May with exactly one home run, five RBIs and an eye-popping 23 strikeouts. That complements his 29 strikeouts in April, for a blistering 162-game pace of 205. That's 55 strikeouts above his seasonal career pace.

Now, strikeouts are not exactly bad if you do the other things, like get on base. Pence has done that, but Hall? Try out an on base percentage of .287 to top off his offensive (and I mean that as an adjective, not a title) production. Ouch.

One thing is certain, without offensive production like in April, this team will not recover to approach the 81-win mark and a .500 record. I still say that with the starting pitching depth this team has, and it's evident heart (seen in hustling plays and late inning comebacks), this team is light years better than 2010, where “moribund” went to live. Progress is fun to watch, but it can be maddening at times.