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Astros Still Searching For A Spark

Houston Astros Alex Bregman

The 2023 MLB season has been a slow start for the Houston Astros. After 19 games, the defending World Series Champs started with a 9-10 record.

Fast-forward to 31 games, and the Astros have barely made it more .500 with a 16-15 record. They are 3rd in the AL West behind the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.

Offensive Woes

Starting the season 16-15 doesn’t necessarily mean the team has to press the panic button. However, their offensive numbers have been underwhelming. As a team Houston ranks 20th or lower in the league in batting AVG (.240), strikeouts (250), on base percentage (.313), RISP (.240), and OPS (.680).

Players who have clearly underperformed consists of fan favorite Alex Bregman, who’s batting .212 so far this season, and newly acquired slugger Jose Abreu.

Abreu’s batting .236 and has yet to hit a home run this season. Worse yet, it’s been 88 games since he’s scorched a baseball that’s left the yard. His slugging at .264 isn’t going to cut it when he has runners in scoring position at the cleanup spot.

At 36 years old in his tenth season, Abreu’s current performance is marked by the lowest exit velocity (86.9) and hard-hit percentage (35.7%) of his career. Notably, his hard-hit percentage has dropped by 13.1 percentage points from his lifetime average of 48.8%.

Although Bregman still has his elite plate discipline (21 walks over 17 K’s) and gets on base per his usual numbers (.336 OBP), his balls in play have been more outs. Bregman has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .214, a sharp decline from the previous season (.260).

Still An Elite Pitching Staff

On the pitching side of things, it’s been the saving grace for the team. With Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier as their 1-2 punch, Houston is 2nd in the league in team ERA (3.20), fourth in strikeouts (298), and top five in WHIP (1.19). They’ve also given the 2nd least amount of earned runs with 99, which is behind the Tampa Bay Rays, who’ve been running away with the best record in the Majors (26-6).

The problem with their lack of winning games is their run support. Framber is sporting a 2.60 ERA but has a 2-5 record with only a 3.29 run support.

Even though they’ve gone through a tough start to the season, Houston hasn’t been known to impress anyone in April. Over the past couple seasons, they’ve had records barely hover over .500 (11-10, 14-12, in April 2022 and 2021, respectively), and that was with most of their lineup healthy.

This time, they’ve been hovering over .500 without the usual contributions from veteran All-Stars Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Lance McCullers Jr., and outfielder Chas McCormick, who have been dealing with injuries.

Injury Updates

Brantley’s been doing well offensively on his rehab stints at the AAA affiliate Sugar Land Space Cowboys. He is set to make his season debut in the following week. Altuve has finally started baseball activities and could return playing as soon as next month. For the case on McCullers, it’s difficult to say, given his long history of injuries for nearly his entire career. It’s always a gamble to bet on his ability to stay healthy on the mound. Along with Valdez and Javier, he is an integral part to the rotation and is absolutely dominant when healthy.

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Amidst Houston’s slow start and early season injuries to the team, There are some bright spots. During their rise over .500, they won 3 straight series. This included taking 2 out of 3 against both powerhouse teams in the Toronto Blue Jays and the Rays, as well as an improbable three-game sweep against the Altanta Braves, a team that has had their number since the 2021 World Series.

However, this bright spot followed with another setback. Going back home to Minute Maid, Houston went 2-4, losing both series’ against the San Francisco Giants and their past World Series opponent in the Philadelphia Phillies.

What’s even more troubling is that during this homestand, both three and four starters’ Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia went down with injuries to their pitching arm, taking a trip to the 15-day IL.

Astros contributor Michael Schwab mentioned that Manager Dusty Baker attributes the early season injuries of Urquidy, Garcia, and Altuve, in part, to the World Baseball Classic, as it took place just a month before the season began.


Pitching Help From The Farm

It’s never a good sign to lose your back end of the rotation. Long reliever Brandon Bielak has been called up to lighten the load, but will that suffice? Pitching prospects in Forrest Whitley and JP France could be likely suitors to replace the injured pitching staff. Whitley, a top first round prospect way back in 2016, has yet to make the leap to the MLB level. The reasons behind this include underwhelming performances in the minor leagues, a 50-game suspension, and multiple injury stints, including the ill-fated Tommy John surgery in 2021. He is currently in AAA but it’s up in the air if he will match the potential Houston saw when drafting the San Antonio prospect seven years ago.

On the other hand, France, a 14th rounder in 2018, has climbed steadily in the minors over the last five years. This season in AAA, France has started strong, going 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 5 games while supplying a 1.03 WHIP in 19.6 innings. In fact, just today, Astros reporter Mark Berman announced that France will be promoted to the big leagues for his rookie debut.

Unlikely Contributors

With the recent injury blows to the roster, there’s been solid contributions from unlikely players in the lineup. Utility man Mauricio Dubón has flourished as the starting 2B in replace of Altuve. Dubón is having the best start of his career this season, batting .303 with a .325 OBP in 109 at-bats. While he isn’t known for his power and slugging, his capability of being a table setter for the sluggers in the lineup is impeccable.

The main reason why he is getting on base more is his bat to ball placement. Most of his hits are line drives to the opposite field. Dubón’s Opposite Field Percentage this year has climbed to 25.5%, a sharp increase from 14.7% a season ago. Also, his opposite field percentage is seven points higher than his pull percentage.

Hunter Brown has made quite the impression as the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Occasionally called Justin Verlander-lite, the 24-year old has a 3-1 record with a 2.60 ERA. His fastball between 94-98 MPH is heat and his power slider (90-94 MPH) completely catches hitters off guard. If Brown can keep up with this performance, he might make a case for the 2023 MLB Rookie of the Year.

Finally, Houston native and rookie Corey Julks has significantly contributed to the Astros’ sluggish offense. With a .284 batting average, two home runs, and nine RBIs in 81 at-bats, Julks has been an invaluable asset to the team. His hard hit percentage at 40% is not something to overlook. However, it remains uncertain whether he will maintain his position in the major leagues once Altuve and Brantley return from the injured list.

Better Than Expected

If you told me Houston is 16-15 in 31 games without the help of impactful players, I’d say they’re still in good shape to make another playoff run. Once the majority of the players return, expect the bats to wake up and start winning games consistently.



Jeremy Gretzer is a contributor at BackSportsPage. For more on Jeremy, follow his Twitter page @Jr_Gretzer

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