ASTROS PITCHING LIKELY TO TURN AROUND
The Houston Astros have plummeted like a rock, both on the field and in the esteem of the Las Vegas betting markets, since the season opened. In the heady days of March, the Astros were a tri-favorite with the Royals and Red Sox to win the American League pennant. A 14-21 start has changed all that. But has the market overreacted?
Houston is now 25-1 to win the World Series - eighth among American League teams. Perhaps more intriguing is that they draw a healthy (+700) price simply to win the AL West - a division where only the Mariners and Rangers have played well in the early going.
Good price or not, there's no value in any ticket unless it cashes in, so one has to first decide if Houston is just off to a slow start or if they've fallen and can't get up. There's considerable evidence to suggest it's simply a slow start that can be turned around.
Starting pitching is at the heart of Houston's problems. Dallas Kuechel, last year's AL Cy Young Award winner, has a 4.70 ERA. Dough Fister is at 4.22, Mike Fiers has a 4.65 ERA and Collin McHugh's number is a bloated 5.70. These pitchers have combined for 28 starts, so it's not hard to see why the Astros' record is poor.
But in every case, those performances are significantly under career norms and at a time in their careers when performance should either improve or at least stabilize.
Keuchel, Fiers and McHugh are all young arms. While no one should have expected Kuechel to repeat the 2.48 ERA of last year's Cy Young drive, he did post a 2.93 figure in 2014 and even if a pessimistic handicapper wants to pencil him in for the low 3s this season, that still leaves a lot of room for improvement off the current pace.
Fiers had two full seasons of regular rotation work under his belt prior to this and had ERAs consistently in the 3s. McHugh, an 18-game winner a year ago, did it with a 3.89 ERA and had a 2.73 ERA in 2014 when he began to get regular starts.
Fister's pitching tracks a little more closely with last year when he finished with a 4.19 ERA for the Nationals. But even here, if you go back into the seasons before that we see Fister consistently in the 3s and occasionally the 2s. He's a veteran, so perhaps age is catching up to him - but at 32, he should be given the benefit of the doubt on that front.
It has to be emphasized that these are all cases where improvement can not only be reasonably expected, but significant improvement is likely based on recent seasons. None of that optimism requires Keuchel to be a Cy Young contender again and it all involves four different starting pitchers knocking a run or more off their ERAs. That's going to show up in the standings.
If the starting pitching comes around, the rest of the team should be able to follows suit. Houston is in the middle of the league in runs scored - nothing unsustainable - and the players who have carried the are second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and rightfielder George Springer. While Altuve's torrid pace of a .409 on-base percentage and nine home runs will surely cool down, he's still a top young hitter and any decline can be made up for by expected improvement from centerfielder Carlos Gomez, who's currently doing next to nothing.
Statistically the bullpen is a problem, ranking 12th in the American League in ERA. By contrast, the starters rank eighth. But this is a case where numbers are deceiving - the best Houston relievers, notably Will Harris and his 0.57 ERA, are pitching well enough to close games. The same goes for Luke Gregorson and Tony Sipp, neither who have been spectacular, but have been good enough. The problem is the scrub relievers. If Houston's starters get them into position to win more games, the relievers who would come on in those spots will finish them.
Pitching can be fickle and it's possible that the Houston rotation might just have "one of those years." But at this point in the season, it's still worth letting probabilities play themselves out and right now those probabilities say that the Astros will get significantly better starting pitching and win more games.