added 11/05/2016 by Greg Thurston
Now that the World Series is over and baseball has crowned a new champion, it's time to look back on the Astros' 2016 season -- and to dream about what the future holds. Although the season has to be characterized as a disappointment, there were also a number of pleasant surprises. The positive, the negative, and the unbearable... they're all included in my look back at the season that was.
In homage to Alan Ashby, recently excused from his duties as an announcer on the Astros television broadcasts, I give you the 14 most intriguing developments of the 2016 season.
Because our favorite #AfterDark commentator wore number 14 throughout his 11-year stint as a player for the Astros. Ashby also had two stints in the announce booth in Houston, covering the Astros for a total of 12 seasons.
So, without further ado, I give you the fourteen most intriguing developments of the Astros 2016 season.
14. Colby Rasmus gets paid, starts out hot, then disappears
My first offering starts with an intriguing offer. After Colby Rasmus ascended to Rock Star status in his first season in Houston, the Astros dangled a $15.8 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season – and the outfielder snatched it up like a lazy fly ball headed right to him.
The Astros took a calculated risk. If Rasmus had declined the offer, the team would have been awarded an extra draft pick before the second round of that summer's draft. But Rasmus was happy to sign on the dotted line (and effectively double his salary) to spend another year in a town he had grown quite fond of.
The gamble looked like it was paying off as Rasmus got out to a quick start. Colby jacked seven home runs in 54 at-bats in the first 19 games of the year, winning A.L. Player of the Week honors in the third week of the season. But the hot streak ended abruptly. Rasmus didn't homer again until game number 41. By that time his OPS had dropped from a ridiculous 1.147 to a pedestrian .773. It took another 25 games for Rasmus to get back in the HR column. A lingering ear infection slowed him for most of the second half and a mystery ailment kept him out of action for the final two weeks of the year. When it was all over, Rasmus ended the season as one of the least productive offensive players in the league (.641 OPS). Rasmus was, however, named as a finalist for the Gold Glove Award in recognition of his outstanding defense. Intriguing.
13. Meltdown against Angels... At Home... In September!
In an up-and-down season in which few things were certain, the Astros ability to beat the Anaheim Angels seemed to be exactly that. That is... until the evening of September 22nd.
That night, the Astros entered a 4-game home series against the Angels at a season-high ten games over the .500 mark and one game out of a playoff spot. The Astros owned an 11-1 record against the Halos during the season, including 11 straight wins over the “of Anaheims”. But the offense didn't show up for the series opener and the streak came to an abrupt end in shutout fashion.
Game 2 of the series seemed to be going along smoothly as the Astros took a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning. The Angels put a run on the board against Luke Gregerson to make it 6-4 but surely Ken Giles would be able to protect the lead in the ninth.
No. Not even close.
Giles was only able to record one out in the inning while giving up a total of six runs on three hits and three walks in what turned into a 10-6 loss. A similar bullpen meltdown occurred the following evening as Astros relievers coughed up nine runs over the final two innings to lose 10-4. The Astros salvaged the final game of the series, but the damage had already been done. They now found themselves three games out of the final playoff spot and had fallen behind both Detroit and Seattle. What had looked like a golden opportunity had turned into a nightmare.
12. The Luck of the Rangers
Just as the Astros seemed to own the Angels for most of the year, the Rangers had Houston's number in 2016. The Astros lost each of their first eight games against Arlington, with five of those contests being of the 1-run variety.
Call it luck. Call it domination. Call it whatever you want. After it was all said and done, the Astros managed only four wins in 19 games against the in-state rivals and the Rangers had captured a second straight A.L. West crown.
11. Evan Gattis returns to catcher position... and he's good!
When the Astros acquired Evan Gattis from the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2015 season it was made clear that the former catcher would not see any action behind the plate as an Astro. Gattis led the club in home runs and RBIs in his first season in Houston while serving as the primary designated hitter and getting an occasional start in leftfield.
Offseason hernia surgery cost Gattis the first two weeks of the regular season and the big man struggled at the plate upon returning to his familiar role as DH. Slashing only .203/.257/.313 with one home run in his first 20 games, the decision was made to send Gattis down to AA Corpus Christi where he would reacquaint himself with “the tools of ignorance”.
The experiment turned out to be a success as Gattis returned to the majors, launched a home run in his first game back, and continued to provide his usual power bat along with solid defense behind the plate. Gattis hammered 19 of his team-high 32 homers in 55 games at the catcher position, further solidifying his role with the team for the upcoming season.
10. Jose Altuve's Power Surge
Everyone knows Jose Altuve is a great hitter – but who knew he was a power hitter? On the way to winning his second batting title in three seasons, the Astros second-baseman blasted a career-high 24 home runs. Averaging slightly over seven home runs per year in his first five seasons, Altuve showed he's more than just a singles hitter. Houston's little-big-man added 42 doubles and finished 12th in the A.L. in slugging with a .531 mark.
9. Midseason Signing of Cuban Free Agent Yuliesky Gurriel
The Astros made headlines in July when they signed 32-year old Cuban defector Yulieski Gurriel to a 5-year, $47.5 million dollar contract. The Astros outbid the rest of the teams in the league to secure the services of the veteran infielder whose impressive tools were almost certain to translate to the big leagues.
Having been out of the game for several months since defecting from his homeland, Gurriel worked his way back into baseball shape in the minors before making his Astros debut in late August. Gurriel adapted quickly, posting a .907 OPS in his first eighteen games before the league caught up with him and his numbers tailed off. “Yuli” finished with a .262/.292/.385 slash line in 36 games and should be able to improve upon those numbers in 2017.
8. Luhnow Stands Pat at Trade Deadline
As the August 1st trade deadline approached the Astros were battling to get into the wildcard race. Adding one or two impact players at the deadline appeared to be the best way to get over the hump. But the deadline passed and the Astros did nothing. Jeff Luhnow was unable to swing a deal without depleting the farm system and a tired Astros pitching staff fizzled down the stretch.
7. Carlos Freakin' Gomez
One reason Luhnow may have been gun-shy at the trade deadline is the curious case of Carlos Gomez. The Astros had acquired the toolsy outfielder a year ago in what looked like a deal that would improve the team for the remainder of 2015 as well as the 2016 season (and beyond, if you consider the draft pick that would have followed after Gomez left via free agency).
Looking lost in the batter's box (and occasionally in the field, as well) Gomez never lived up to his potential. After posting a paltry .594 OPS and striking out over 30 percent of the time, Gomez was released in August. Of course, GoGo signed with the Rangers and rediscovered his stroke, posting a .905 OPS in 33 games with Arlington down the stretch.
6. Dallas Keuchel's Drop-off
After a storybook season in 2015 that included a Cy Young Award and a 15-0 mark at home, much was expected from Dallas Keuchel in 2016. After a nearly perfect performance in Spring Training, the Astros ace got off to a slow start in the regular season and the magic of the beard seemed to have faded away. Keuchel would show flashes of 2015, tossing a gem every now and then, but the consistency was no longer there. Shoulder trouble caught up with the lefty in August and ended his season a month early with a 9-12 record and a 4.55 ERA in 168 innings.
5. The Black Hole at 1B
When the Astros arrived in Kissimmee in February, Jon Singleton was the heir apparent to the first-base job. But Singleton had a bad Spring and was clearly outplayed by both Tyler White and A.J. Reed. Singleton was left off the Opening Day roster and White made the most of the opportunity. In his first six games as a big-leaguer the 25-year old White garnered A.L. Player of the Week honors with an out-of-this-world .556/.591/1.167 slash line, three homers and nine RBIs.
Unfortunately, White came back to earth. Serious struggles ensued and Tyler found himself in AAA by mid-June. But Singleton wasn't brought up to replace him. Marwin Gonzalez kept the spot warm until A.J. Reed was called up a couple of weeks later.
Reed never got on track and the Astros failed to get any kind of offensive production from the first-base position for the remainder of the year. Singleton spent the entire season in Fresno and didn't even get a call-up in September, bringing us to question whether or not he is still a part of the Astros' future plans. White returned later in the season and was a contributor down the stretch but Gonzalez was the most consistent performer at a position that still poses a big question mark for next year.
4. Strange Season for Ken Giles
When the Astros traded away former #1 overall draft pick Mark Appel along with two big-league pitchers and a pair of prospects to acquire hard-throwing reliever Ken Giles it was obvious that he was viewed as the missing ingredient to take the Astros to the next level.
Giles had an impressive track record, albeit in only 113 appearances, that screamed “shut-down closer”. In two seasons with the Phillies, the right-hander fanned 11.7 batters per nine innings with a WHIP in the 1.0 neighborhood. Giles also had experience as a closer, saving 15 games in 2015. Ken's 100 m.p.h. fastball combined with a nasty slider made him difficult to square up. Giles had only allowed three home runs in his big league career upon his arrival in H-town.
Meanwhile, Luke Gregerson makes it known that he believes the closer's role is his to lose. Gregerson successfully talks his way into keeping the closer's role and Giles opens the season as the set-up man. In the season opener Giles enters the game in the eighth inning with a 3-run lead and promptly surrenders a home run to the first batter he faces. Giles completes the inning with no further damage and Gregerson locks down the save in the ninth.
Two days later, Giles makes his second appearance of the season and gives up a go-ahead homer in the seventh. By his fourth appearance Giles has already equalled his career total for home runs allowed and something is obviously amiss.
Giles eventually regains his mojo to the tune of 15 consecutive scoreless appearances from late June to early August and is rewarded by being officially named the team's closer. Ken reels off nine straight saves before finally blowing a lead to the Rangers on September 13. After three more successful save conversions, Giles would get his final blown save of the season in the ill-fated 6-run meltdown against the Angels.
Adding injury to insult, Giles was struck on his pitching hand by a line drive during batting practice the following day. The injury was so severe that Giles was unable to leave the field without the aid of a motorized cart. It looked like his season had come to an excruciating end, but Giles bounced back quickly, notching two more saves to finish things out with a positive. Although, the roller coaster ride that was Ken Giles' season certainly wasn't what the Astros had envisioned.
3. Terrible Play in April Leads to 7-17 Start
An outstanding Spring seemed to add reassurance that 2015 was no fluke and the Astros began the season with high expectations. But sloppy play and mental errors plagued the Astros for the first few weeks and the club plummeted in the standings.
Bad base-running, fielding errors, and poor pitching were a constant as the Astros dropped 17 of 24 games in April. In 14.8% of the season's schedule the Astros committed 20.8% of their errors and 20.5% of their caught stealings. The pitching staff posted an April ERA of 4.97, which was a full run higher than their ERA over the next five months.
It was as if the players took the field expecting to win instead of playing to win.
2. The Emergence of Chris Devenski
One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2016 season was the performance turned in by 25-year old rookie pitcher Chris Devenski. The former 25th round draft pick acquired from the White Sox in 2012 made the club out of Spring Training and assumed the role of mop-up reliever.
Devenski allowed only one run in his first 13-2/3 innings as a big-leaguer and was given a shot in the starting rotation. After four less-than-stellar starts, Chris was moved back to the bullpen where he thrived for the rest of the year.
Devenski finished the season with a 0.91 WHIP in 108-1/3 innings, striking out 104 batters and compiling a team best 2.8 bWAR. "Devo" also led the staff in ERA (2.16), FIP (2.34), and ERA+ (184) and was voted the Astros Pitcher of the Year and Rookie of the Year by the Houston Chapter of the BBWAA. Devenski figures to play a key role for the Astros in 2017, perhaps bridging the gap between starter and closer in an Andrew Miller-like fashion.
1. Alex Bregman's Turnaround
The second player selected in the 2015 draft, Alex Bregman feasted on minor league pitching at every level and was called up to the majors in late July. But the transition to the big leagues proved difficult for the former LSU standout. Bregman managed only one hit in his first 34 at-bats and it began to look as though he may have been promoted prematurely.
But the numbers didn't tell the complete story. Bregman was making some hard contact and loud outs along the way, so A.J. Hinch stuck with him as the everyday third-baseman and number two hitter in the lineup. Hinch's patience would pay off as Bregman made a drastic turnaround. Alex became one of the team's most productive hitters, clubbing 24 extra-base hits, including eight home runs, and driving in 32 runs over his next 39 games before suffering a hamstring injury.
Bregman would return from the injury ahead of schedule, finishing with an outstanding .311/.364/.569 slash line over his final 167 at-bats. Even with the horrendous start, Bregman slashed .264/.313/.478 for the season and posted an impressive 115 OPS+ as a 22-year old rookie. Bregman's fantastic turnaround is a testament to his character and I can't wait to see what he does in 2017.