Those Confounding Astros

added 5/21/2015 by Bob Hulsey

Houston sports fans, ever a skeptical crowd after having their hearts stomped on more times than they care to admit, have been slow to embrace their woebegone baseball team that has gone over a month into the season with a winning percentage well north of .600 and sporting a comfortable lead in their division, not to mention the most wins in the American League as of this writing.

Ballpark attendance is averaging a couple thousand more per game and tv ratings, with far more people able to tune the Astros in, has quadrupled, but Astro Mania has yet to take root. Fans are simply waiting for the roof to cave in. And the floor. And probably a wall or two.

Pessimists have some good cause for alarm. The batting lineup is dotted with guys not hitting their weight and, aside from Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, the starting rotation is dicey at best. How can these guys be 27-15 and leading the division?

Last season, the American League West had three teams with 87 or more wins. The Astros, at 70 wins, were a distant fourth. This year's AL West has the Astros on pace to win 104 games but the rest of the division is struggling to keep their necks above water. 29 of Houston's 42 games have been inside the division. They've also been 12-5 on the road, 9-4 of that inside their division.

So possibly the skepticism is based on who the Astros have played thus far but they don't get to write their own schedule. They play the one the Commish gives them. We'll know more after this weekend's series in Detroit has played out. Judging by the opener, the Astros had the fight to get off the deck from a 5-0 deficit and tie the Tigers but still lost in extra innings, their first overtime loss of the season.

One can look at a lineup that, after Thursday's game, had a 2-thru-8 spot with batting averages of .211, .205, .196, .161, .244, .217 and .238. Their .231 team batting average is dead last in the league. Perhaps they should ditch Orbit as their mascot and replace him with Mario Mendoza.

How the Astros make this work is that they lead the circuit in home runs (62 through Thursday). They are fifth in the league both in slugging and OPS. Similarly, they are fifth in runs per game.

Keuchel and McHugh (11-1 through Thursday) are the backbone of the rotation. If either misses an extended period of time, Houston's hopes may fall fast. The rest of the starting pitchers are 5-10. Perhaps Lance McCullers 2.0 can fill part of the gap. The bullpen has been as solid as anyone could reasonably expect and Pitching Coach Brett Strom is the invisible MVP of this club.

At this point, the Astros could go 54-66 (.450) the rest of the season and still be a .500 team. That's the minimum they are shooting for. If they play .500 ball from here out (60-60), they would finish at 87-75 and likely be on the cusp of the playoffs if not division champs.

With Jeff Luhnow and the Decision Scientists at the helm, you're never sure if you're rooting for a baseball team or a bunch of lab rats turned loose to prove another bizarre theory. Last year: Defensive shifting. This year: How to win your division while batting last in the league.

It's better to just rejoice that the games are back on tv again, the team is winning finally and, like 1979 and 1986, nobody saw this coming so quickly. Maybe there will be some moves to shore up the lineup and the rotation before July ends. Even if they hold fast with the current roster, this year's ride has been worth the price of admission.