MLB Baseball

Do the Astros have enough pitching for the postseason?

CHICAGO — The Houston Astros, a franchise that has never won a World Series, raced out of the gate this season and finished a 60-29 first half with a 19-1 thumping of the Toronto Blue Jays. They have been as many as 34 games over .500, the last after the games of July 28, and have held a lead as large as 18 games in the AL West.

Even after their recent 3-9 stretch, the Astros hold a 13-game lead in their division, own a run differential that completely supports their won-loss record and have a six-game bulge for the best record in the American League.

The regurgitative capsule of the Astros’ season you just read are the most important facts you will encounter in this story. They, more than anything else, tell you where Houston resides in the MLB pecking order.

You always start with a question and if you’re lucky, the answer becomes the story. Alas, sometimes the search only leads to more questions. With the Astros in town, that meant three days of pondering their potential postseason rotation, the issue that has dogged them for weeks.

At least for the moment, that issue has been shoved aside by the team’s first prolonged struggles this season. The Astros slunk out of Chicago late Thursday, winless in three games there, their comet tails fizzling into dust. Just one night earlier, I wrote of the kind of malaise every team goes through during a season. After watching Houston drop three straight to the White Sox — statistically the club with the worst current roster in baseball — it’s still not time to panic, but the vibe is off for a team with World Series aspirations, and the postseason only weeks away.

“We’re not playing our best baseball,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “I don’t think we can look too far ahead or not take ourselves seriously when it comes to how we’re going to compete. Getting healthy and staying healthy is key.”

The Astros’ biggest current problem from a tangible standpoint is getting their roster healthy, and luckily it seems as if they have a good chance of being whole by the time postseason arrives. Aside from that, the rotation and its No. 25 post-All-Star-break rank in ERA is causing a lot of hand-wringing.

The Astros’ lead in the AL West remains massive. Houston will win its division for the first time since Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio led the Astros to the NL Central crown in 2001. But if some forward momentum and a collective positive frame of mind isn’t established over the next month or so, Houston will be in trouble, because in-season maneuvering has left its own roster in roughly the same talent neighborhood as the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees.

“Every team goes through these stretches,” Hinch said. “This is really one of the first tough stretches where we had a couple of weeks where we haven’t got the results we want. The reality is you’ve got to play baseball. We’ll do it because we have a really good team.”

The rotation remains the central topic, because whether or not it’s true that the Astros needed a boost in that area for October, it’s apparent that the clubhouse felt that it did. The challenge for everyone right now is to figure out how to keep that perceived problem from become a de facto problem.

“We’ve got to get our pitching on track,” Hinch said. “With our team, it’s specific. Getting our starting pitching on track and getting our bullpen slotted. We have the opportunity to worry about ourselves and try to get ourselves right and tighten up some of the things we haven’t done well.”


Game One: Dallas Keuchel vs. Derek Holland

Whether or not this is what he intended, the heightened scrutiny over Houston’s starting staff is a product of Keuchel’s publicly expressed disappointment over the team’s deadline inactivity.

It started well before that, at least externally. Rumors have been matching Houston with various starting pitchers thought to be on the trade market since last winter. Such a player looked like the missing piece on a championship roster. It seemed all but certain that something would happen.

Eventually.

One by one, the best options dried up. Oakland’s Sonny Gray landed with the Yankees. The Cubs acquired Jose Quintana from the crosstown White Sox. Jaime Garcia went from the Braves to the Twins to the Yankees. Detroit’s Justin Verlander, an Astros rumor that just won’t die, remains a highly compensated Tiger who happens to have been dominant of late.

With that as the backdrop, Keuchel took to the mound with plenty of work to do on his own account. After a brilliant start to his season, he went on the disabled list in May because of a pinched nerve in his neck. Two months later, he was back in the Astros’ rotation but his early season dominance remains missing.

That continued Tuesday against a White Sox lineup that entered the game with a collective .317 weighted on-base percentage (WOBA). But Keuchel’s pitch count ran up to 90 by the end of the fourth and he was done, giving up eight runs and 10 hits. Keuchel finished with a game score of 9 — the worst of his 140 career outings.

“Just not a great night for him,” Hinch said. “I’m surprised any time he’s not almost perfect. He’s been so dominant for so many starts that when he’s not particularly sharp, it’s a little bit surprising. But he had a real injury, took a lot of time off, he’s trying to find his rhythm and timing.”

Over three starts since coming off the DL, Keuchel has now gone 0-2 with a 10.75 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.

“I had been really, really good before I went down,” Keuchel said. “Been really, really bad the three starts since the DL. We’ll get it right and get back to it.”

One of the most fascinating things about watching a baseball game, or even a series of three games, is that you cannot necessarily believe what you see. The results are real enough but to interpret the meaning of those results you have to take a wide-lens approach, and even then you have to proceed with care.

Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Keuchel ranks 17th among all starting pitchers in WAR. Which is to say he’s an established No. 1 starter. He’s not in the ace tier, where you can only find the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and, probably, Corey Kluber. Keuchel is solidly in the next tier, and when he’s right, there aren’t many better options for a Game 1 starter in a playoff series.

The mention of Kluber brings to mind another factor. Given the growing trend of postseason managers yanking nonelite starters as soon as they’ve cleared the lineup a couple of times and run into any sign of trouble, that might actually heighten the advantage of having an ace-type pitcher who can reliably navigate three or four times through the opposition, saving the wear-and-tear on the high-leverage relief staff. Keuchel, more than any other Astros starter, is built for that.

Over that past three years, only three starters have held opposing batters to a lower WOBA after the first two times through the order (minimum 500 batters faced): Kershaw, Kluber and David Price. After Keuchel comes Sale and Scherzer. This is the elite group.

Speaking of the past three years, Keuchel ranks 10th among all pitchers during that time with 31 outings with a game score of at least 65. He is 26-0 in those contests, which is to say that Keuchel has more games of pure dominance than the vast majority of big league starters, and when he has one, the offensively potent Astros do not lose.

But regardless of whether the Astros have made or will make a splashy rotation addition, Keuchel will remain the No. 1 starter. It all begins with him. Houston’s chances in October are much more closely tied to Keuchel returning to form than whether or not the teams lands Verlander. That’s what makes outings like the one in Chicago so worrisome.

“It’s very frustrating,” Keuchel said. “[Chicago’s] a talented lineup, but it’s a lineup I should have done some damage against.”


Day Two: Collin McHugh vs. Miguel Gonzalez

But if the deadline didn’t create the perception of the need for a starter, the circumstances since then have only fueled the chatter.

Part of that is the lackluster post-break rotation ERA and lack of consistency. There were the DL stays of Keuchel and Lance McCullers, whose early season performance made him look like Houston’s answer for a No. 2 starter. McCullers started 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA and averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his first 15 starts. But he was bombed in each of his past four outings before ending up on the disabled list. McCullers wasn’t with the team in Chicago and the club has been reluctant to put a timetable on his return.

If McCullers can get healthy and recover his first-half performance, he’s as tough a No. 2 as any Houston opponent can roll out. Just to compare him to the trade rumor guys:

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