added 5/24/2012 by Bob Hulsey
If someone had told you when the season began that the Astros would be just two games under .500 heading into Memorial Day weekend, you'd be expecting a punchline to follow. The 56-win Astros of last year are on pace for 74 wins in 2012 heading into their weekend series with the Dodgers.
That's amazing when you consider that they've lost Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Clint Barmes and Mark Melancon from last year while acquiring only Jed Lowrie, Jordan Schafer, Lucas Harrell and Travis Buck as key contributors to the parent club. If anyone had offered you that deal straight up, you'd turn them down flat, wouldn't you?
The truth is that the Astros are getting much better performances out of several key players from last season and the infusion of youth has produced better than many (including myself) expected.
A closer look at the stats show that it is the infielders who are carrying the offense. While Schafer and J.D. Martinez have had hot and cold spells, the infield of Carlos Lee, Jose Altuve, Lowrie and Chris Johnson have done the heavy lifting at the plate.
Lee (.306 batting average, .799 OPS, 121 OPS+), Altuve (.309, .819, 126), Lowrie (.279, .835, 130) and Johnson (.288, .757, 108) have the four highest batting averages, the four highest slugging percentages and the four highest OPS figures on the roster. The lowest home run total of the four (Altuve with three) is as high as any player at any non-infield position. Even backup Matt Downs, largely an infielder, has three.
After a hot start, Schafer (.248, .658, 83) has cooled off and his strikeout rate (46 in 159 plate appearances) is alarming. He provides great defense in center field and great hustle on the basepaths but he's fanning like Rob Deer (that's an AL reference - might as well get used to them). Brad Mills batted Schafer eighth against a lefthander recently and we might be seeing more of this in the future.
Martinez was hot in April (.282, .859) and downright antarctic (.167, .456) in May but he looked like his stroke might have returned in the Chicago series. He wasn't an extreme streak hitter in the minors so it is hoped his slump was just an adjustment phase and he'll be more consistently good over time.
Brian Bogusevic (.211, .600, 68) is just barely holding onto his job with Buck (.232, .627, 74) and Justin Maxwell (.211, .643, 78) sparring for playing time. Unfortunately, Buck has been as terrible as a starter (.161, .426) as he's been fantastic off the bench (.538, 1.495). Fernando Martinez (eight homers in AAA) must be chomping at the bit for a call-up.
Houston shouldn't look to their catchers for much offensive help either. Jason Castro (.220, .623, 73) and Chris Snyder (.177, .578, 60) are doing a better job behind the dish than they are standing beside it.
The pitching has been markedly better in May (.239 batting average against, .681 OPS against) than it was in April (.260, .745) and the bullpen has truly found a groove. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ are all doing far better than last season while Harrell has held his own in the rotation.
Lately, Norris has been gangbuster. He is 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in his last five starts. Houston has won eight of the nine starts he has made this season. If he keeps this up, he may be in for a sizable raise in the off-season when he is eligible for arbitration.
The fifth spot in the rotation has yet to contribute a win although Jordan Lyles and Aneury Rodriguez have both pitched well enough to win when given the chance. I'm not sure if yanking them back and forth between Houston and Oklahoma City is helping their confidence. It seems as if the Astros are just skipping the fifth spot whenever possible.
While the starting pitching has been sharp, the bullpen pitching is getting downright scary. The crew has a 2.88 ERA as a group with a .238 batting average against and a .658 OPS against. There are three relievers with ERAs under two (Brett Myers - 1.69, Wilton Lopez - 1.75, Brandon Lyon - 1.65) and two more with ERAs under three (Wesley Wright - 2.19, Rhiner Cruz - 2.57).
Myers has converted 92% of his save opportunities and is making himself awfully appealing to other teams that have either lost their closer (Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson) or their bullpen has been ineffective (Phillies, Red Sox).
Perhaps the 2011 Astros were a case of a team where everyone just sucked (except Pence and Bourn) all at the same time and that they really weren't as bad as they seemed as a group. There are a lot of bounce-back seasons afloat thus far while Altuve, Martinez and Castro are simply growing into being solid big leaguers.
After a hot start, the offense overall has been regressing and it is the great pitching that has allowed them to win so many games in May. The starters have to be encouraged by the bullpen after watching so many of their best efforts last year get blown away by bad relief. Doug Brocail (who still, in my mind, is just the interim pitching coach) must get credit for the way he's made almost every pitcher better this season than they were last season.
Winning is the cure for a lot of ails. While last year's team seemed to expect to lose, this year's group has stayed in the game all season long and there are more fingers on your hands than the games this year when the Astros had no chance to win.
The home/road splits are quite extreme right now. Houston has just five road wins so far. The trip to Los Angeles and Denver will be a good test both for the hitters (L.A.) and the pitchers (Colorado).
As a fan for most of the club's 51-year National League history, it is terrific to see that they won't be bowing out of the league as the pathetic bottom-feeders most of us expected to see this year. All you have to do is look across the dugout at the Cubs to see the difference in attitude.
Can they maintain the pace they are on? Probably not, especially if the Astros trade Lee, Rodriguez and Myers as they've hoped. But the start implies they won't lose over 100 games like last year and they might not even lose 90 if a few key players can keep it up and a few of the kids blossom.
Given what we had to look forward to in March, I'll take it. I think most Astros fans do too even if they aren't registering their appreciation at the box office quite yet.