added 6/26/2013 by Bob Hulsey
During the drought of the first six weeks, I could not help but wonder what Tony DeFrancesco might have done with the Astros? Remember Tony D? He was the interim manager after Brad Mills was let go. He posted a 16-25 record (.390) but finished the season with a 15-15 kick after he became comfortable in the manager's chair.
In my opinion, that was the upper level of that roster's capability - not really any better, at best, than a .500 club. DeFrancesco was assigned back to AAA Oklahoma City where some might say he has a better team than the one currently in Houston.
After some early failures of new additions like Rick Ankiel and Philip Humber were purged, the Astros who have been 19-19 since May 15th coming into Wednesday's game against St. Louis, a look at the present roster shows a lot of similarities to the one that closed 2012.
The pitching rotation is 4/5ths of what it was at the end of last season - Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Jordan Lyles and Dallas Keuchel. Newcomer Erik Bedard was part of the problem in April but has become part of solution by June.
The inner circle of the diamond looks pretty similar - Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan behind the dish, Jose Altuve at second, Marwin Gonzalez until recently at short and Matt Dominguez at third. Only the revolving door at first base has changed and now Brett Wallace is back for another look.
The outfield has seen more changes but J.D. Martinez, Brandon Barnes and Jason Maxwell were here last year. Of course, there was no need for a DH last season.
If anything has changed, it's the bullpen. Jose Veras has been shaky but has found his form during the winning spurt. Hector Ambriz and Wesley Wright were here last year but the infusion of Travis Blackley, Paul Clemens and Jose Cisnero has boosted fortunes in the pen.
So what we are seeing now is largely what we saw at the end of 2012 except Castro and Dominguez have grown into their roles, Lyles seems to have finally realized what many believed of him and the new faces have been as much call-ups from the farm as it has been any help from trades or free agency.
Veras, Bedard, Carlos Pena and Chris Carter have been the only major players who were not with the organization last year. That's the sort of change you expect from a winning club, not one scraping the bottom of the standings.
Pena and Carter have been big weapons in the lineup who are providing power but also a lot of strikeouts. They have been part of a lineup that has often been woeful even in victory. Even with a fast start, the Astros rank near the bottom in batting average (.240), OBA (.297) and OPS (.684). These numbers are with the pitchers having to hit in only three series thus far.
Likewise, the hot pitching that has carried the club during their recent success only took their overall season numbers from incompetent to just awful. They are still at the AL bottom in almost every metric including ERA (4.76), hits (770), runs (405) and WHIP (1.501) but you should have seen how bad they looked a month ago. They are 14th in the 15-team AL in home runs allowed (99) and strikeouts achieved (521) and 13th in walks allowed (268).
So what has really been the difference between the largely unwatchable Astros of the first six weeks and the competitive Astros of the past five weeks?
Improved starting pitching has to be the biggest ingredient which has led to a return to normalcy. Credit must be given to pitching coach Doug Brocail, especially for the leap forward by Lyles since returning from Oklahoma City and the turnaround of Bedard. The nurturing of some of the young pitchers making their debuts should also be to his credit.
But the biggest difference between last year's team and this year's is manager Bo Porter. It would have been very easy to give up in the early going when it seemed the Astros couldn't play any worse. What words of encouragement can you pass along when a club seems to be going from excruciating to nauseating? Somehow the rookie manager held it together and gradually got results.
Bad teams often break down as players watch an error explode into a bad inning or a baserunning mistake destroys a scoring opportunity. Finger-pointing and back-benching are common. A manager has to hold the players together and keep them focused, which was evident during Porter's episode with Harrell about defensive positioning. A good manager is firm but fair.
Porter certainly knew this year would be no rose garden but if he can push this club above the .400 mark by the end of the season, that would be quite a starting point for his managerial career. Like General Manager Jeff Luhnow, there's no track record to know if Porter is capable of taking teams from bad to good, much less good to great, so it is too early to know if either is the final answer to the Astros' baseball woes but the recent surge with a roster not markedly better than the one Brad Mills was fired from last August is a hopeful moment that Porter could be a keeper.
Many a big league manager began with a terrible ballclub. The good ones keep tweaking to make their teams better as the season progresses. Luhnow will keep funneling players as the years continue and it is hoped that a championship formula will eventually be produced from it. As the Angels are demonstrating, that's much harder to produce on the field than it looks on paper.
Whether Porter will still be around when there is champagne to be tasted is anyone's guess but he has shown remarkable mettle in leading the Astros back from the dead. The next two years will certainly still have many down moments but it is a credit to Porter and the decision makers that brought him here that he has weathered his first crisis so well.