World Series

What’s going on with the Houston Astros? And can they turn it around before it’s too late?

What’s going on with the Houston Astros? And can they turn it around before it's too late?

Over the past decade, few things in baseball have been more reliable than the success of the Houston Astros. Since 2017, the Stros have the second-most wins in MLB, and in that span, the orange-and-navy juggernaut became the first franchise to make seven consecutive American League Championship Series. They’ve appeared in four Fall Classics along the way, winning in 2017 and 2022.

The Astros have been the sun rising and setting, the tides crashing against the shore. All October roads have led to and run through Houston. It’s the closest thing to a dynasty that baseball has seen since the late-'90s New York Yankees. José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, Yordan Álvarez, Kyle Tucker, Framber Valdez: These are some of the names and faces that have defined this era of playoff baseball.

But now, for the first time in a long time, there appears to be darkness at the end of the tunnel.

Nearly one month into the 2024 season, the Houston Astros are a paltry 7-17. Only three clubs — the White Sox, Rockies and Marlins — have worse records. Even the underfunded, soon-to-be-nomadic Oakland Athletics are above Houston in the American League West.

Which leads to a few key questions: How did this happen? Why has this roster — strikingly similar to last year’s division-winning group — produced such horrid baseball? How likely is the tide to turn? What are the reasons for legitimate concern, and what’s small-sample gobbledygook?

The season is still young. April has yet to fade into May, and there is ample time for Houston to right the ship. But at the same time, the warning signs for this team are bright, loud and impossible to ignore.

Houston has an entire elite pitching rotation on the injured list right now. That group includes Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy, Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia. Future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander returned from the shelf last week after missing three weeks due to shoulder inflammation. It’s a rash of bad fortune that has surpassed the typical attrition rate and forced multiple second-level arms into the fire.

Ronel Blanco, who hurled a no-hitter in his first start of the season, has been a miraculous discovery, but the other unproven starters have scuffled, with J.P. France, Hunter Brown and Spencer Arighetti all looking overmatched. In 50 combined innings across 12 starts, that trio has allowed 49 runs.

From here, things could get better. Houston is hopeful that Valdez will be back next week. Verlander still projects as a frontline starter at age 41, even if injury concerns are omnipresent at this point in his career. Javier was throwing well before a neck issue landed him on the shelf. That trio, alongside the suddenly masterful Blanco, would make for a formidable playoff rotation — if Houston can get there.

But Garcia, McCullers and Urquidy aren’t expected back for a while. Javier doesn’t yet have a return timeline. Verlander is “baseball ancient,” which means his body could fail him at any moment. Valdez’s elbow discomfort isn’t exactly resolved and is the type of ailment that could reappear or worsen. Blanco’s track record is shorter than the distance down the left-field line at Minute Maid Park. Improvements from the second-tier starters are a must if Houston is to climb out of this already imposing trench.

In the offseason, Houston made an uncharacteristically splashy move, signing Josh Hader, one of the game’s most dominant closers, to a five-year, $95 million deal. His addition was set to bolster an already fantastic bullpen helmed by Ryan Pressley and Bryan Abreu. Instead, Houston’s relief corps have been the club’s weightiest anchor and the primary reason behind its early struggles.

Eight times this year, new manager Joe Espada has turned the ball over to Hader, Pressley or Abreu with a lead in the later innings. Six of those times, a save was blown. That’s an unsustainably bad rate — the worst in baseball, in fact — for any bullpen, let alone such a pricey unit projected to dominate foes in the later innings.

That said, had the Astros' 'pen held on to just two more of those leads, the club would now be a disappointing but not earth-shattering 9-15. This is an area where improvement feels inevitable, despite the recent run of poor results.

Despite all the injuries, late-game chaos and ugly losses, Houston’s vaunted offense has, for the most part, held up its end of the bargain. Yes, Josè Abreu looks cooked, unfortunately, and impending free agent Alex Bregman has stumbled out of the gate, but the majority of this lineup has sizzled. Houston’s offense, 7-17 record aside, has performed like that of a playoff team.

To wit, the Astros are fourth in baseball in team wRC+, behind only the Dodgers, Orioles and Braves. Altuve should be in the AL MVP mix. Álvarez remains one of the most fearsome hitters in the sport. Tucker is a force. The second-level guys, such as Yainer Diaz, Jeremy Peña and Jake Meyers, have been fabulous.

But there’s clearly a gap here between offensive outcome and run production. Houston, despite the good-looking numbers, is 19th in MLB in runs scored. The culprit is a combo of small sample size, bad baserunning and poor offensive sequencing. Houston’s production with runners in scoring position is notably worse (closer to league average) than its overall production. It’s difficult to say how much of this is luck vs. skill, and some of that will surely improve over time, but it's worth noting that the 2023 San Diego Padres were sunk by a historically poor showing with runners on base.

So can the Astros pull themselves out of this hole? Possibly. Possibly not. This team is probably a true-value 90-win club. Unfortunately for the Astros, they will need to play like a 100-win team the rest of the way if they are to continue their magnificent, seven-year stretch of contention.

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