added 4/26/2012 by Bob Hulsey
An off-day is always a good time to recalibrate and take stock of how well the Astros are playing, particularly when mixed with the excitement of the NFL draft. While the Texans are on the clock the next few days, it's also a reminder that the Astros will have the first overall pick in about six weeks when MLB's summer draft takes place.
The first overall pick in the NFL draft is a guy from Stanford University and many experts predict that the Astros will also take a Stanford guy when it is their turn in June. That guy would be righthanded pitcher Mark Appel, a 6-5 Houston native who is a junior.
While Stanford guys are expected to be pretty smart, I understand Luhnow and Siggy are scouting the teams at MIT and Harvard for a guy majoring in Applied Statistical Jet Propulsion Dynamics and minoring in law to be their first choice. Somehow, I don't think this regime will have the same regard for "dumb hick" pitchers from Mississippi and Virginia the way Gerry Hunsicker did, even if they can throw in the high 90s.
But that will all play itself out when summer arrives. For now, the Astros can't stop bunching their runs. They occasionally win a game 11-4 or 12-0 and come up just shy the rest of the time. In the cutesy "Pythagorean" method of predicting a team's won-loss record based on runs scored versus runs allowed, the Astros should be 10-9 through Wednesday. In reality, they're 7-12 and have only the hapless Cubs separating them from the division basement.
Houston is third in the National League in runs scored, second in hits, first in walks, first in on base percentage, second in team batting average and fourth in stolen bases. They're averaging 4.68 runs per game which ought to be enough to win most of them despite the poor numbers with runners in scoring position.
The Astros are getting runners on base and this, in the long run, is a positive sign - particularly when so many of the players have limited big league experience.
Jose Altuve continues to exceed all expectations. He just capped off the first four-hit day of his career in Milwaukee on Wednesday to carry a .377 batting average (third in the NL among qualifiers), a .429 on base percentage, a .979 OPS to lead the team and, as surprising as anything, seven walks into Cincinnati.
It's not surprising that pitchers are having trouble throwing strikes to the tiny second sacker but that the Venezuelan has learned in such a short time to take pitches and work the count to his advantage. In three times as many at bats with Houston last year, Altuve walked just five times. Patience is a virtue for Jose.
J.D. Martinez has also been strong out of the gate, batting .313 with a .432 on base percentage and a .940 OPS. He leads the team in homers (3) and RBIs (18). Both players could be fixtures in Houston for a long time.
So, what's the problem then? On offense, the five hole has been the black hole which has a lot to do with the number of killed rallies. The spot in the lineup after Carlos Lee has batted just .184 to date with a .608 OPS, 19 strikeouts and only seven RBIs.
Largely that has been Brian Bogusevic but Chris Johnson and Jed Lowrie have failed to do any better there when given the chance. Only Travis Buck (2-for-7) has been somewhat immune from the jinx in limited time.
By contrast, the ninth spot in the lineup, largely pitchers and pinch-hitters, is batting .227 with nine RBIs and a .600 OPS. Brad Mills' next assignment is to fix the hole at five.
I wouldn't look to the catchers though. They've been in the seventh spot of the lineup and have been as bad as the five hitters. The seventh spot is batting .197 with six RBIs and a .555 OPS. Jason Castro has been barely adequate there (.250 but no power) and I would suggest he get more starts but perhaps get moved down to eighth in the order.
The first four spots in the lineup seem to be doing their job of getting on base and moving around but the holes at five, seven and nine are what is keeping most little rallies from turning into big rallies.
The pitchers started out well but have backslid a bit (a visit to Milwaukee can do that). The team ERA is an adequate 3.96 and they are 10th in runs allowed per game (4.26). Much of that falls to the starting rotation where only Wandy Rodriguez (1.42) has an ERA lower than the team mark. That's misleading since Wandy has allowed eight runs but only four were earned.
Other than the two lefty specialists, the bullpen has been snazzy. The relievers have a combined 3.16 ERA and an opposing batting average of .248 and an opposing OPS of .699. That's not too shabby.
Of special note is the use of Rule V pick Rhiner Cruz, who didn't have a great spring but has only been scored upon in just one of his seven appearances. He is carrying a 2.08 ERA and has a 2:1 K/BB ratio. We need to start calling him "Rhino" before Milo Hamilton tries to adopt him as "Rhiney".
None of the starters has done so poorly as to lose their jobs just yet but the hot start of some of the arms at AAA Oklahoma City has to make them nervous. Dallas Keuchel, Paul Clemens and Henry Sosa all have ERAs under 2.00 while Jordan Lyles is 4-0. In this season of "nothing to lose", they will all likely get their chance in Houston sometime this season.
The starting pitching might be a team strength by the time the Big Appel arrives in town. That is, if the rocket scientists don't find somebody they like better.