Early struggles gave way to a very hot stretch and now the Astros are serious contenders again.
I wrote an article that ran May 4, analyzing the Astros as possible surprise sellers on the summer trade market. Eight weeks later, that looks like an awfully silly article, because the Astros are now 41-37. Despite the Rangers leaning way out over their skis and building a 10-game lead in the AL West, Houston is a very legitimate playoff contender.
Let me defend myself, however lamely, by pointing this out: the Astros started this season 17-28. No playoff team last season had any 45-game stretch in which they lost 28 games. Since then, they’ve won 24 of 33, something only one team (the mid-May Twins) managed to do last season without making the playoffs. Highs this high and lows this low usually don’t fit into the same season, let alone the same half of one. Obviously, though, the Astros were always better than their early record showed. They caught some bad waves in the crashing surf of in-season variance, and they simply got aberrant, miserable starts from a few players who are better than that.
A year ago today, Francisco Lindor was recalled. Since (roughly) that day, the position has gone from a dead spot to historically great.
Eleven months ago Alcides Escobar was voted into the All-Star game as the AL’s starting shortstop. Escobar is an oft-praised defender with plus speed on a Royals team that was coming off a World Series loss and headed for a World Series win, but he also ended the first half with a modest .699 OPS and finished the season with a .614 OPS that nearly matched his .636 career mark through age 28. Alcides Escobar, All-Star starting shortstop just seemed a little lofty.
Royals fans stuffed the ballot box so much that second baseman Omar Infante and his .555 OPS nearly got voted into the game as well, but in Escobar’s case the story wasn’t so much about an undeserved selection as no other AL shortstops standing out as clearly deserving. In other words, don’t blame Escobar or Royals fans for his being in the starting lineup alongside the biggest stars in the league. None of the AL shortstops had an OPS above .750 at the All-Star break. The chosen backup was light-hitting Jose Iglesias, another glove-first player whose career OPS is .680.
Eleven months later, the AL’s shortstop landscape has changed so dramatically that the position as a whole has a higher collective OPS (.709) than Escobar had at the time of the All-Star break last year (.699) and Escobar has been the worst-hitting shortstop in the entire league. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .359/.405/.527 for the Red Sox. Manny Machado, who shifted from third base to shortstop following J.J. Hardy’s foot injury, is hitting .308/.376/.600 for the Orioles. Francisco Lindor, who made his debut exactly one year ago today, is hitting .304/.360/.450 for the Indians. Carlos Correa, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is hitting .256/.351/.423 for the Astros.
Which offensive stat is most important to a hitter’s value? Not the one you may think.
On Wednesday night, this image created a small Twitter sensation. Mind you, it was a small sensation. On a night that featured noteworthy pitching performances ranging from Yu Darvish’s injury to Jameson Taillon successful debut to James Shields to Snoop Dogg, there wasn’t room for a large sensation. But this screenshot during the Houston broadcast (in a game in which the Astros actually beat the Rangers in Arlington!) caused some of us to drop our slide rules in amazement:
Is anybody doing anything interesting, or are we all just waiting for the apocalypse?
The Oakland A’s started the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1973 World Series ahead 5-1. There is video of this. Rollie Fingers is on the mound. The great A’s relief ace is already the great A’s relief ace by this point. He was an All-Star in ’73, his 1.92 ERA the fifth best in baseball (minimum 50 innings; third best minimum 100). He saved 22 games, third-most in baseball. He had pitched in six of the seven World Series games, for a total of 12 2/3 innings as John Milner worked him to a 3-2 count leading off the ninth in Game 7. Milner pulls the pitch foul, and that’s when the video of Game 7 cuts off. The final half-inning of that game doesn't appear to exist online.
The Mets erstwhile ace gets back on track, the Braves are on a bona fide not-cold streak, and Wood beats Wood.
The Monday Takeaway
It’s been rocky sledding for Matt Harvey in recent weeks, especially his last three starts, when opponents hit the right-hander hard and often, to the tune of 27 hits—four of them homers—in 13 1/3 innings. That wouldn’t do on Memorial Day, not with Jose Quintana continuing a breakout season that’s seen him emerge as one of baseball’s elite left-handed starters. And to the great thrill of the fans in attendance at Citi Field, the Matt Harvey they’ve come to know and love returned and proved up to the task.
The Astros strike out a slew to set one record, Fernandez whiffs a bunch to tie a franchise mark, and Jackie Bradley is back to being a regular guy.
The Thursday Takeaway
With the power-packed but whiff-happy Astros and Orioles squaring off this week, strikeouts were sure to be a-plenty at Minute Maid. Suffice it to say that the Astros’ arms held up their end of the bargain.
After Houston struck out 19 Baltimore batters in the opener and 18 more in the middle match, Lance McCullers took it upon himself to bring his team into record territory. The right-hander was effectively wild Thursday,
That’s the reality to which many big-league GMs woke up Tuesday morning, now that Strasburg appears to have agreed to a seven-year deal worth $175 million (or more) with the Nationals. For those among that group who hadn’t gotten their free-agent pitching spending out of the way by now, this is very bad news. Billy Eppler, Brian Cashman, Dan Duquette, Dayton Moore, Neal Huntington, A.J. Preller, and Jerry Dipoto all would have liked the chance to bid on Strasburg this winter, even if most of them run teams unable to realistically meet the asking price he would have been able to set on the open market. Now, they face the unpleasant prospect of improving their pitching staffs for 2017 without having a single ace to chase. It’s perfectly possible that Rich Hill will get the biggest free-agent deal handed out to any starting pitcher in the coming winter.
“From the beginning,” Ted Cruz said, “I’ve said that I would continue on, as long as there was a viable path to victory. Tonight, I’m sorry to say, it appears, that that path has been foreclosed.” He said it slower than you just read it. (Nope, even slower. Try again.) What he was saying, though, was that he no longer had any hope of winning the Republican nomination for President, and so, he was finally giving up. To be sure, Cruz hung in there as long as he could. If his opponent were anyone other than Donald Trump, or if Cruz were anyone other than himself, the pendulum would have swung in one direction or the other long ago, and things would have been decided. As it was, the nomination fight dragged into the spring, allowing Cruz’s capitulation to act as a backdrop (perhaps) for the dying of another Texas dream.
The Astros won Tuesday night. That’s the good news. The bad news, beyond the fact that the win came over the lowly (and even lowlier than we thought, maybe) Twins, is that that win pulled them up to 9-18. The only team in the Wild Card era to make the playoffs after such a start was the remarkable Oakland unit from 2001. That team was streaky: They surged from that 9-18 mark to reach .500 at 22-22, and then treaded water until the halfway point, before finishing a ridiculous 63-18 over the second half of their schedule and racking up 102 wins for the season. Those A’s aren’t really a model you want to count on reproducing, especially given that the league of which they were a part, the league they eventually routed past, was a more polarized, weaker one than the Astros have before them. History says it’s probably too late already, for Houston.