added 7/15/2015 by Greg Thurston
With the All-Star game behind us and a couple of off days staring us in the face, I thought it would be a good time to rate the Astros first half performance. I'll be giving the team a letter grade in the areas of offense, starting pitchers, bullpen, defense, manager, and front office. Let's get started by taking a look at the offense.
Offense The Astros offense has been the least consistent of all the facets of the game that I'll be covering today. On the good side, the team leads the American League in both home runs and stolen bases by a healthy margin. The Astros have five players with double-digit home run totals and three players with double-digit steals. On the down side, the Astros have struck out more than any other team.
The Astros currently rank 14th in the A.L. with a .240 batting average. The league's fourth best walk percentage (8.8%) contributes to a .306 OBP, which ranks 12th in the A.L. Jose Altuve leads the team with 45 runs scored and Evan Gattis is the top RBI man with 54. George Springer is second on the team in both walks and runs scored. The club has been unable to replace Springer's production since the outfielder went on the disabled list with a broken bone in his right hand.
Luis Valbuena has added plenty of thump to the lineup but is hovering around the .200 mark with his batting average. Chris Carter has also been somewhat of a disappointment, also failing to keep his average above the Mendoza line. Jason Castro also had a sub-par first half with the bat. Offseason additions Hank Conger and Colby Rasmus have picked up some of the slack and Marwin Gonzalez has been outstanding as an injury replacement. Rookie shortstop Carlos Correa has been a joy to watch. More on him later.
Add it all up and you have a team that relies a bit too much on the long ball. During their current 6-game losing streak the Astros have scored only one run without the aid of a homer. The inability to play small ball has been a huge factor in the recent struggles. A more well-rounded approach in the second half would seem to be in order. Grade: C+
Starting Pitchers The Astros used 11 different starting pitchers in the first half of the season. That's tied for the most in the A.L. All-Star starter Dallas Keuchel and right-hander Collin McHugh have been the only constants. Asher Wojciechowski made only three starts before heading back to AAA. Roberto Hernandez has pitched better since being banished to the bullpen, and Scott Feldman is working his way back from a knee injury.
Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez have surprisingly beaten highly touted Mark Appel to the big leagues and McCullers has been a most pleasant surprise. The 21-year old righty from Tampa has made 11 starts, fanning 71 batters in his first 64-1/3 innings. McCullers has pitched to a 2.52 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP while winning four of seven decisions.
Brett Oberholtzer has a 1.59 WHIP in eight starts and Brad Peacock, who looked great in Spring Training, hasn't been able to stay healthy. Dan Straily has been mediocre in two starts. Astros starters rank ninth in the A.L. with a 4.02 ERA but are second best in the league with a mark of 0.84 HR/9 IP. Keuchel has tossed a league-high 137-1/3 innings and has three of the club's four complete games. Grade: B
Bullpen The one area that General Manager Jeff Luhnow paid the most attention to last winter was the bullpen, and for good reason. After suffering through the worst 'pen in baseball for two straight seasons, Luhnow added veterans Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek for late inning duty. Mission accomplished! Both have been outstanding, as has waiver wire pick-up Will Harris.
Houston relievers rank first in the A.L. with a 1.01 WHIP and .193 batting average against. They are second best in strikeout percentage (24.6%) and ERA (2.67). They have also been good at limiting walks, ranking fourth with a 7.7 BB%. Grade: A
Defense The Astros continue to deploy the infield shift more than any other team in the league. And, for the most part, it has worked. Gone are the days of Lucas Harrell losing his mind when a grounder couldn't be reached by an infielder who was "out of position".
Advanced defensive metrics have not caught up with the new way of positioning players but anyone who has watched a decent number of Astros games this year can attest to the fact that this team plays good defense. With the possible exception of Chris Carter at first-base and, on those rare days when Evan Gattis dons a glove, every player on the team is an above-average fielder.
The Astros rank second in the American League with a .987 fielding percentage. Thay have made only 46 errors in 91 games. That's basically one error for every two games. Jonathan Villar, who has spent most of the year at AAA is responsible for nine of those errors. No one else has more than six. Jake Marisnick and George Springer have played Gold Glove caliber defense in the outfield, when healthy. Luis Valbuena has been outstanding at the hot corner and Carlos Correa has made a number of highlight reel plays at shortstop. Conger and Castro have been good behind the plate and Dallas Keuchel is on pace to win a second straight Gold Glove. Grade: A
Manager There were plenty of doubters when the Astros tabbed A.J. Hinch to be the field manager. Hinch had a rough go of it in his first stint as a big league manager with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The former catcher had a .420 winning percentage in 212 games before being dismissed by the D-backs in the middle of the 2010 season.
But Hinch has been a pleasant surprise in Houston. The 41-year old appears to be a great fit with this young team. The players like playing for him and, unlike Bo Porter, he always has their backs. Hinch has done a good job of getting his bench players plenty of action and his bullpen usage has been above-average. His success earned him a spot on Ned Yost's coaching staff for the A. L. All-Star Team. Grade: A-
Front Office Jeff Luhnow's first three seasons as the Astros General Manager were filled with turmoil. But, while the Astros were gutting payroll, failing to sign first overall draft picks, getting their database hacked, and losing games at a record pace, Luhnow was quietly turning things around. The first half of the 2015 season has people taking notice.
Prospects like Lance McCullers Jr. and Carlos Correa have burst onto the scene, perhaps even sooner than was anticipated. Other Luhnow draft picks and acquisitions like Preston Tucker, Collin McHugh, and the aforementioned bullpen pieces have been key contributors as well. And, with players like Brett Phillips, Brady Rodgers, Andrew Aplin, Tony Kemp, A.J Reed, and Mark Appel still in the pipeline, the future looks bright. Grade: A
A team that was expected to struggle to get to .500 spent 85 consecutive days in first place in the first half of the season. It has been the most fun Astros fans have had in a long time. The Astros appear to be poised to compete for a playoff spot in only their third year in the American League. What happens in the second half remains to be seen. But Luhnow has gone on record saying he will be aggressive in seeking to add pieces to help the team reach its goal. I'm looking forward to seeing what the Astros can do to make the second half as enjoyable as the first.
- Greg Thurston