The Royals host the Astros this weekend for the first time since they finished off Houston in Game 5 of the American League Divisional Series. The young Astros were expected to be major contenders this year, and after a slow start, it looks like they may be in the pennant race. We talked to Ryan Dunsmore, editor of Crawfish Boxes, about the Astros and bouncing back from last year’s post-season disappointment.
The Astros were nearly in the ALCS last year until the Royals staged their improbable comeback in Game 4 of the ALDS. How has the team responded to that disappointment going into this year?
Ryan Dunsmore: You’re trying to give me flashbacks? Because that is how you get flashbacks.
Now to actually answer your question, I don’t think the ALDS loss was the cause for the Astros slow start to the season. I think the Astros have learned the concept of what it takes to win a championship, and how the small things matter the most. The Astros saw in Game 4 alone how important it was to have extended at-bats to create success. That has translated to a few batter making modifications their at-bat tendencies highlighted by Jose Altuve.
I think the Royals were the one main reason that the Astros went out and got Ken Giles. It wasn’t to follow the mold of building a high powered bullpen like Kansas City had successfully used the past two seasons. It was to get a pitcher that could blow a batter away with his stuff instead of pitching to contact. The Astros didn’t have that kind of weapon in 2015.
I don’t know if the Royals losses are particularly fueling the Astros season because the sting was taken out a bit by the fact the Kansas City finished the job and won the World Series -- aka "We’ll at least we got beat by the champions." To be honest, I think the disappointment of not winning the A.L. West Division crown from the Rangers has lingered in a more negative way over the Astros then the collapse against the Royals. Houston still hasn’t figured out the Rangers and are 1-9 against them this season.
Houston seemed buried a few weeks ago, stumbling off to a 17-28 start. But they have been red-hot lately and have climbed back to .500. What was their issue early on and how did they rectify their problems?
Ryan Dunsmore: The issues were everywhere to start the season. Every member of the starting staff fell flat on their face: Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers, Scott Feldman, and Doug Fister were all pretty much terrible in April. The bullpen had two key cogs come out shooting blanks in Luke Gregerson and Ken Giles. Gregerson has had five blown saves this season. Giles had an ERA of 9.00 during the month of April. A.J. Hinch attempted to allow both to work through their problems as the closer and setup man but it kept blowing up in the Astros face each time.
Almost everyone on offense started slow and struggled to drive in runners in scoring position expect Jose Altuve. Altuve has been playing at an MVP level and carrying the team during this early part of the season.
The turnaround has come as pitchers have turned around and Lance McCullers returned. McCullers and Fister have stabilized the rotation. A.J. Hinch is using "closer by committee" but really Will Harris is now the closer -- pushing Gregerson back to his proper role in the bullpen as a setup man. The offense has found another gear with Carlos Correa and George Springer swinging a hot bat.
The reigning Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel, seems to have struggled quite a bit this year, with a 5.32 ERA and a league-high nine losses. What has been the source of his struggles thus far?
Ryan Dunsmore: Dallas Keuchel has been a head-scratcher all season long. The main two factors most can point to has been a dip in velocity and location. Our excellent writers on staff pointed out in an article or two that MLB’s new enforcement on the strike zone as squeezed Keuchel -- but that is only a part of the problem. Keuchel had a severe problem with teams sitting on a first-pitch fastball and knocking them out of the park -- Keuchel has given up 11 home runs in 2016 already in first half, closing in on his 2015 total of 17.
All pitchers have to go through an adjustment period when the lose velocity and it appears Keuchel will have a lost 2016 season as a result of it. It also doesn’t help that Keuchel has been getting under three runs of support in games in which he starts.
Houston had bullpen issues down the stretch last year and it bit them in the ALDS against the Royals last year. What is the state of their bullpen right now?
Ryan Dunsmore: I was a bit perplexed by the question because I didn’t remember the Astros bullpen struggling down the stretch minus Luke Gregerson. I looked back at the stats and yes the main culprits were Luke Gregerson and Josh Fields. Both of them are now in lesser roles with the team -- Gregerson isn’t closing and Fields is in Triple-A.
The bullpen in 2016 has been stiller outside of the previous problems mentioned. Scott Feldman has found a new role as an early arm out of the pen. Young pitcher Michael Feliz and Chris Devenski have pitched their way into trusted status. Ken Giles has turned it around and Will Harris has done nicely as the team’s closer. At this point, it feels like the bullpen is the strongest of the three major parts of the Astros’ roster.
First baseman A.J. Reed is one of the top first base prospects in baseball. When will we see him in Houston?
Ryan Dunsmore: That is the million dollar question in Houston. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has been pretty strict about keeping as much control as possible on prospects minus the call-ups of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers. Reed has struggled a bit in Triple-A but has come on in June -- batting .282 with 5 home runs and 12 RBIs.
I’m honestly not sure if we’ll see him this year. Luhnow has said he is close, but if the team calls up Reed they would be basically punting on Jon Singleton and to some level Tyler White as well.
What do the Astros need to do the rest of the way to get back to the playoffs?
Ryan Dunsmore: The Astros are 13-7 in June and 30-29 since the start of May. I think we’ve seen the Astros hit their groove again. If they continue to play at the level in which they have shown in June they will make it back to the playoffs.
The Astros dug themselves the steepest of holes with a 7-17 record and as of Friday are one game over .500. The pieces on the current roster are doing what they are suppose to do and it has paid dividends for the Astros.
If the team wants to do more than just make the playoffs, Houston may want to look into getting another rotation arm (which will cost deeply in today’s MLB) and improve on the DH spot -- Astros as a team are getting a 74 wRC+ from DH, currently 3rd-worst in the AL.
Many thanks to Ryan Dunsmore for his time. You can read all the latest Astros news and analysis at Crawfish Boxes.