An Annual Tradition: The Astros Are Off to a Slow Start

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros have dominated the American League West in recent years, winning three straight division titles and six out of the past seven, and getting at least as far as the American League Championship in each of those years. Their quest to extend that run is off to a rocky start, however. Despite taking two out of three from the Rangers this weekend in Houston, they own the league’s second-worst record thus far at 6-11, ahead of only the White Sox (2-13).

Even with the series win over the Rangers — whom they’ve now beaten in four out of seven games while going 2-8 against their other opponents — the Astros are off to their worst start since 2016, when they went 5-12. Notably, that season was the last one in which they missed the playoffs. Their 4-11 record through Friday was their worst through 15 games since 2013, the year they lost a franchise-record 111 games. That said, this is their fifth straight season below .500 at this juncture:

Astros Slow Starts
Split Through 17 Games Rest of Season Overall
Season W L W% W L W% W L W%
2020 7 10 .412 22 21 .512 29 31 .483
2021 7 10 .412 88 57 .607 95 67 .586
2022 8 9 .471 98 47 .676 106 56 .654
2023 8 9 .471 82 63 .566 90 72 .556
2024 6 11 .353 TBD TBD TBD 6 11 .353

You don’t have to dig too deeply to notice the Astros’ biggest problem: a rotation that’s been thinned by injuries. Even with the heroics of Ronel Blanco — who threw a no-hitter against the Blue Jays in his first start on April 1 and then summoned the ghost of Johnny Vander Meer by holding the Rangers hitless for 5.2 innings on April 7 — the unit owns a 5.31 ERA, the league’s second-worst mark. Take away Blanco’s contributions, which also include Saturday’s six innings of two-run ball in a 9-2 win over the Rangers, and the unit’s performance looks that much more dire:

Astros Rotation Through 17 Games
Pitcher GS IP IP/GS HR/9 BB% K% ERA FIP WAR
Blanco 3 21 7.00 0.00 11.8% 21.1% 0.86 3.01 0.6
Others 14 62 4.43 0.58 12.3% 16.9% 6.82 4.23 0.7

Blanco has obviously outpitched his peripherals, but the 30-year-old righty’s heroics also include playing the stopper; his no-hitter halted a season-opening four-game losing streak and gave manager Joe Espada his first major league win, while his April 7 victory broke a two-game losing streak. He didn’t get a decision on Saturday, but his performance helped bring to a halt a string of four straight losses, the last three of which saw the pitching staff pounded for at least 11 runs. His three quality starts are as many as the rest of the rotation combined.

As the presence of Blanco — who last year was rocked for a 4.74 ERA and 6.91 FIP in his first seven major league starts — in the rotation suggests, this is a unit that’s been hit by injuries. Luis Garcia is recovering from May 2023 Tommy John surgery, and Lance McCullers Jr. from June 2023 surgery to remove a bone spur and repair a torn flexor tendon. Both Justin Verlander and José Urquidy landed on the injured list during spring training, the former due to shoulder inflammation, the latter due to a forearm strain.

Given the status of Garcia and McCullers, the Astros bypassed opportunities to fortify their rotation this winter and spring, even after several free agents remained available once camps opened. Shortly before Urquidy went down, they reportedly engaged in a “serious pursuit” of free agent Blake Snell but “balked at Snell’s asking price of at least a two-year guarantee for $60 million, including an opt-out after the 2024 season,” according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. The signing would have sent them over the second luxury tax threshold of $277 million.

Now it looks as though they could have used that depth given that Framber Valdez just joined the infirmary after being scratched ahead of last Monday’s scheduled start; he was placed on the 15-day IL due to elbow inflammation. The 30-year-old lefty had just bounced back from a six-walk Opening Day start against the Yankees with 7.2 shutout innings against the Blue Jays on April 2, one of the team’s three non-Blanco quality starts. (Cristian Javier, who has a 1.54 ERA and 3.68 FIP through three turns, has the other two, including one on Sunday.)

The other three pitchers who have started for the Astros have been absolutely pummeled, with Hunter Brown getting the worst of it by allowing 15 runs (14 earned) in 7.2 innings across three starts, for a 16.43 ERA and 7.29 FIP. After a decent four-inning debut on March 30, he yielded five runs in three innings to the Rangers on April 5, then was chased in the first inning after allowing 11 hits, one walk, and nine runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Royals on Thursday.

The 25-year-old righty got just one swinging strike from among the 40 pitches he threw, raising the possibility that he was tipping his pitches. Also making quick exits recently were a pair of rookie righties making their major league debuts. In place of Valdez against the Rangers last Monday, 26-year-old Blair Henley served up four hits and three walks en route to five runs allowed while retiring just one batter; he too got just one swinging strike from among his 39 pitches. Two days later against the Royals, 24-year-old Spencer Arrighetti threw two scoreless innings then gave up six hits, two walks and seven runs in the third inning. Also taking it on the chin so far is 29-year-old righty J.P. France (8.22 ERA, 4.10 FIP), last seen surrendering eight runs in four innings to the Rangers on Friday.

Arrighetti is in line to face the Braves on Monday night; Verlander could replace him as early as Friday, though so far his two rehab starts have been ugly, with 13 runs (11 earned) allowed in seven innings for Triple-A Sugar Land and Double-A Corpus Christi. Urquidy is nearing the point where he can throw a bullpen session, though he’ll need to be built up from there.

Unfortunately for the Astros, their problems don’t start and end with the rotation. The bullpen — which was nothing special last year (3.56 ERA, 4.15 FIP) and which has undergone considerable turnover since — has been hit for a 5.32 ERA and 4.96 FIP so far, and it’s not just a matter of middle relievers such as Brandon Bielak and the since-demoted Parker Mushinski getting lit up after entering lost-cause games. The A-listers have struggled as well, with closer Josh Hader allowing four runs in his first seven innings; he’s had just two save chances, blowing one of them by serving up a two-run homer to the Blue Jays’ Davis Schneider on April 2. Setup men Ryan Pressly (whom Hader displaced as closer) and Bryan Abreu have ERAs of 9.53 and 8.10, respectively; the latter has a FIP of 9.70. Rafael Montero has a 2.45 ERA but a 5.84 FIP and 6.83 xERA. Needless to say, all of these messes have been made in small samples, and the lack of consistent work protecting leads probably isn’t helping the high-leverage guys, but none of these performances inspire confidence.

Given their dreadful pitching, the Astros have allowed an AL-worst 5.5 runs per game, which has offset an offense whose 130 wRC+ actually leads the league but whose 4.50 runs per game ranks sixth. That contrast suggests that sequencing is an issue, and it turns out that the team’s 0.79 runs per game gap between their actual scoring and their BaseRuns estimate (5.50 runs per game) is the league’s largest underperformance. A quick check shows that they’re out of whack in the other direction as well, in that their 0.62 runs per game gap in terms of run prevention (4.85 per game via BaseRuns) is the majors’ largest. Thus they’re about four wins behind their BaseRuns-projected .561 winning percentage, but only one win behind their Pythagenpat-projected .427 winning percentage. You know it’s early in the season when you see weird stuff like that.

On the offensive side, Jose Altuve (.382/.462/.721) is off to a flying start, leading the majors in wRC+ (238) while ranking second in the AL in both batting average and slugging percentage and fourth in on-base percentage. Yordan Alvarez (.317/.427/.556, 184 wRC+) is mashing as usual, and Kyle Tucker (.269/.372/.507, 152 wRC+), Jeremy Peña (.348/.386/.470, 151 wRC+) and Yainer Diaz (.302/.348/.137 wRC+) have been hot as well. In fact, only two regulars have been below average, namely Alex Bregman and José Abreu.

The 30-year-old Bregman is hitting just .241/.305/.333 for an 88 wRC+. He has yet to homer, and he’s barreled just two of his 45 batted balls (4.4%), though he’s never been one to light up Statcast. More notably, after walking more often than he struck out in both 2022 and ’23 — and in four of the past six seasons — he’s walking in just 8.5% of his plate appearances (down from 12.7% last year) and is striking out in 15.3% of them (up from 12%). His swinging strike rate has shot up from 4.9% to 7.1%, and while those numbers are still comparatively low relative to the major league average of 10.8%, that rate is worth keeping an eye on, particularly as he’s in the walk year of his five-year, $100 million extension.

His production is fine when compared to that of the 37-year-old Abreu, who’s hitting an unfathomable .111/.180/.133 for a -7 wRC+. Recall that in the first year of his three-year, $58.5 million deal, Abreu got off to a miserable start last season, hitting for just a 50 wRC+ through May, and going through a 67-game homerless streak that stretched back to the previous September. He battled inflammation in his lumbar spine and finished at .237/.296/.383 (86 wRC+) with -0.5 WAR before showing signs of life in the postseason.

There’s just no good news to be had in Abreu’s underlying numbers thus far. His swinging strike rate has shot up from a career-low 9.8% in 2022 to 12.1% last year to 15.2% this year, with his strikeout rate skyrocketing from 16.2% to 21.9% to 28% in that same span; his walk rate has plummeted to 4%. When he’s made contact, he hasn’t barreled a single ball and has averaged just 87.1 mph in exit velocity with a 28.1% hard-hit rate. His .154 xSLG doesn’t suggest he’s getting too raw a deal when it comes to his quality of contact, either. Espada recently dropped him to eighth in the batting order and briefly benched him.

So far, backup Jon Singleton is hitting .250/.344/.321 through 32 PA. But for as positive a human interest story as he is given last year’s return from baseball oblivion after eight years out of the majors, his .165/.267/.264 (51 wRC+) in 105 PA was sobering, and it’s not at all clear that given enough playing time he could have improved upon Abreu’s performance. Notably, prospect Joey Loperfido, a 24-year-old lefty-swinging outfielder who ranked fourth on the Astros’ 2023 updated list as a 40+ FV prospect, recently played four games at first base during a week-long span at Sugar Land. He played the position regularly as a freshman at Duke in 2018 and has kept it in the mix during his run in the minors while playing mainly the outfield with some second base. Eric Longenhagen had some nice things to say about him in last year’s writeup, describing him as “athletic and rangy… could be a plus defender at first because of his size [6-foot-3, 220 lbs] and mobility.” More:

Loperfido’s hard-hit rate is sky high, north of 50% as of list publication. Still, there is room for improvement here. He’s a bit passive at the plate, his swing isn’t actualized to get to all that power in games yet, and he’ll probably always post a higher-than-average K%. But if Loperfido can get to his power and play center field part-time, he’s going to be a high-use role player. We want to take the long view on lefty power hitters built like this and think there’s a chance Loperfido is a meaningful piece.

So far, Loperfido is hitting .333/.429/.895 with a league-high 10 homers in 14 games; he’s barreled an absurd 37.1% of his batted balls, the highest rate of anyone being tracked at Triple-A, though he’s also got a 34.3% strikeout rate, and was at 24.8% across three levels last year while hitting a combined .278/.370/.510 (125 wRC+). He’s not yet on the 40-man roster, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were added soon given Abreu’s struggles.

Despite their slow start, the Astros still rate as the favorites in the AL West, and have the league’s second-highest odds of making the playoffs. Even so, their chances have taken a substantial hit since Opening Day:

Astros Change in Playoff Odds Since Opening Day
Date ProjW ProjL ProjW% W L W% GB Div Bye WC Playoffs Win WS
Opening Day 90.5 71.5 .559 0 0 0 61.8% 52.5% 24.1% 85.9% 11.0%
April 15 86.6 75.4 .535 6 11 .353 2.5 53.0% 36.2% 17.1% 70.1% 8.5%
Change -3.9 3.9 -.024 -8.8% -16.3% -7.0% -15.8% -2.5%

Among AL teams, only the Mariners have seen their overall odds tumble further, as their 6-10 start has dropped them from 60% to 37.8%. While the Mariners’ stumbles feel all too familiar given that they so frequently wind up outside the playoff picture, we tend to forget about the Astros’ struggles to get into gear. This weekend’s series may be the start of their turnaround, and this slow start could well be just another blip on the radar en route to 95 wins, but they do seem to have a lot to sort out if they’re going to get there.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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CC AFCmember
1 month ago

I feel like “maybe he was tipping pitches” is the go-to whenever a pitcher gets rocked and also doesn’t have some kind of crazy in-game velocity dip, in which case “probably injured” is the excuse. I just think Brown is not in a good spot and also got bad luck on top of it. Look at the clip that’s already embedded: it’s not a lot of crushed xbh in there. Dumb day, team will be fine, brown maybe not but for reasons other than he got singled to death that day.

Last edited 1 month ago by CC AFC
sandwiches4evermember
1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

The BABIP gods are notoriously fickle.

dangledangle
1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Watching the clip and most are weak liners with some grounders what can you do? It was death by paper cuts. I am surprised they left him out there after the HR however but by then the damage has been done but at some point you have to say today is not your day kid.

EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  dangledangle

It also just seems like he sucks at locating his fastball in general. He locates most of his fastballs either right down Broadway or slightly up. Nearly 15% of his career fastballs have been dead-center. 40%+ have been within the nearest zone of dead-center. That’s awful.