The Astros most glaring weakness has reared its head early in the 2021 season.
Following an impressive 6-1 start to their season, the Astros have looked rather dreadful in these last five games. The most recent series against the Tigers, in particular, was rough to watch. And now there is the question based on last night’s developments if that series finale should’ve been actually postponed due to health concerns.
What a mess of a first home stand.
Health issues aside for a moment, the Tigers did outplay the Astros for almost every minute of that three-game series. Before a last-minute run in the bottom of the ninth in the finale, Houston’s bats were cold with not scoring more than three runs in any of their preceding four losses. They managed to cross the threshold into four runs last night, thanks to that ninth inning run.
But the lineup will eventually come around. Even with this recent slide taken into account, only the Dodgers (139 wRC+) have a higher rated offense than the Astros (127 wRC+) thus far in 2021. It may be ugly for a little while as we await the return of Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, and Alex Bregman, but there isn’t much cause for concern in the long-term.
However, I can’t state the same about starting rotation, which is slowly becoming a cause for concern in the first 12 games.
First, a basic breakdown of each start.
Not terrible, but not great.
Next, in terms of quality starts, the Astros rank among the worst in baseball right now. Only three teams have a lower quality start rate than Houston (17 percent) at this time.
- BOS – 8 percent
- STL – 8 percent
- PIT – 0 percent
Lastly, look at how this staff compares to the legendary staffs of Houston past in terms of innings pitched per game start. The more successful a starting rotation, the more likely they are to pitch deeper into games.
By the same measurement, only six clubs rank lower than the Astros in this regard in 2021: Blue Jays (4.7), Padres (4.6), Yankees (4.6), Royals (4.6), Cardinals (4.4), and Pirates (4.4). On the other end of the spectrum, the Dodgers rank first with 6.1 innings per game start.
However, through the first six games of the season, the starters actually did an effective job limiting opposing lineups to an average of 1.5 runs per appearance. While the strikeout numbers aren’t particularly noteworthy, the rotation did manage to keep walks down. The only knock against this unit in that first week was the lack of innings pitched from three of their first five starters. In a sample size of one week to start a season, with two of your projected starters shelved, it is a development you can deal with in the short-term. Incidentally, only the Dodgers (38 IP) in their first six games actually had starters throw more innings than the Astros (29 1⁄3 IP).
Then this home stand happened and it all went downhill from there. While a pair of off days in the past week does complicate matters, the Astros’ starting staff only has 27 2⁄3 innings to their credit in the past week. That is tied for last with the Orioles, who, like Houston, have played in six games since April 7th. Even if the team played a seventh game, it is unlikely the starter would accumulate more than five to six innings, which would keep the staff firmly in the bottom half of innings pitched category for that time period.
That current slide is heavily attributed to the recent appearances from Zack Greinke, Jake Odorizzi, and Lance McCullers Jr., the presumptive top three starters at this time, who combined for only 11 2⁄3 innings pitched as the Tigers scored 17 earned runs. While McCullers Jr.’s poor appearance can be explained by him fighting the side effects of his COVID-19 vaccine, it remains discouraging to see Greinke and Odorizzi struggle early at a time when length from starters is important to help preserve the bullpen. In turn, the relief corps have thrown nearly as many innings (50) as the rotation (57) in only 12 games. That is simply an untenable plan going forward.
Where do the Astros go from here? Well, they have to bank on some regression to the mean from a couple of their starters and some improvement from others. The goal is to have Framber Valdez at some point this season and that he picks up where he left off in 2020. Odds are that Odorizzi will pitch better than he did in his debut. If Greinke and McCullers Jr. can pitch as expected, there is enough depth at the front of the staff to keep the team in games. But if the starters continue to not pitch past the fourth or fifth innings anytime soon, then we could be in for a long April.