From 2017 to 2019, the Astros won 311 games, three AL West titles, two pennants, and a World Series. They made three consecutive LCS—the only team to do so in that time period—and featured players who won an MVP, a Cy Young, and a Rookie of the Year award. By any measure other than a crude Counting of the Rings, it was one of the most successful three-year runs in MLB history.
Well, you all know what happened next. Post sign-stealing scandal, a very different-looking Astros team sits four-and-a-half games behind the Athletics in the AL West; in fact, after Sunday’s loss to Oakland, the Astros were five and a half games back. Now, for a team that has this much talent, that’s not an insurmountable head start—even in a 60-game season. But before this week, the Astros hadn’t been five and a half games out of first place since the last day of the 2016 season.
Sunday also brought the Astros back into the national spotlight with the first real fight of the baseball season. Houston pitchers plunked Oakland outfielder Ramón Laureano three times over the weekend, and Laureano said that in the series finale, Astros hitting coach and serial shit-stirrer Alex Cintrón shouted something unrepeatable about his mother. Laureano, a former Astros minor leaguer, charged at Cintrón, who ducked behind teammates while backup Houston catcher Dustin Garneau tackled the enraged Laureano.
“I regret charging [Cintrón] because he’s a loser,” Laureano told ESPN the following day.
MLB has cautioned teams against fighting this year, as a garden-variety benches-clearing incident violates social distancing protocols. For that, the league suspended Laureano six games and Cintrón 20.
Laureano charges the Astros dugout and the brawl breaks out pic.twitter.com/CQ2K8kFnlb— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) August 9, 2020
But the fight, which came as the Astros were on the short end of a series sweep against a division opponent, was a useful narrative inflection point. Watching it unfold, and knowing Laureano was basically in the process of cutting a wrestling promo against the defending AL champions, one can almost hear the record-scratch sound effect as the video pauses. And indeed, we are wondering how the Astros ended up here.
Because the pandemic shut down MLB before the baseball world ever got closure on the sign-stealing scandal, and because of Cintrón’s involvement in the same, everything that happens to Houston for the foreseeable future will be viewed through the lens of the banging scheme. Those who believe MLB didn’t punish the Astros severely enough can certainly find reason for schadenfreude in Houston’s slow start, and from a pure storytelling standpoint, metaphors this obvious don’t come around very often. But it’d be facile, and inaccurate, to blame this 7-9 start on the scandal’s fallout, and there are three reasons for this.
First, if we’re operating under the assumption that the 2020 Astros are playing on the level for the first time since 2016, it’s too early in the season to tell what impact, if any, the lack of signal intelligence has had on their hitters. That’s particularly true in a year when offense is down across the league—we don’t have enough information yet to make a true year-to-year comparison.
Second, the Astros’ offense isn’t the problem. Despite injuries to Aledmys Díaz and George Springer, the mysterious absence of 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez, and an absolute bear of a slump from José Altuve, the Astros have scored 82 runs through 16 games. That figure ties them for first in the American League. Maybe we don’t know for sure that the Astros aren’t suffering some kind of offensive hangover from the scandal, but we certainly don’t know that they are.
Finally, without empirical evidence of offensive effect, the only remaining link between the Astros’ underperformance and the sign-stealing scandal is metaphysical, as if the baseball gods are meting out punishment where baseball’s bureaucracy did not. In which case, if you’re living through 2020 in the United States and still believe that wrongdoing is met with immediate, tangible karmic retribution, I’d like to talk to you about buying a bridge.
Since the Astros’ record is merely an aggregate measure of individual performance, it makes sense to examine this slump through individual cases. There are a few minor variations from expected performance: Carlos Correa has been red hot to start the season, for example, while Alex Bregman is hitting “only” .224/.316/.448. But there are two holes in the lineup. The first is Kyle Tucker, who’s been Houston’s “left fielder of the future” for about three years running. Tucker was thrust into the lineup due to Álvarez’s absence, and he is hitting just .190/.230/.328 through 15 games. But despite a global top-10 prospect pedigree, and a swing that got him cast as Ted Williams’s body double in a PBS documentary, Tucker has never hit big league pitching consistently. In 205 career plate appearances through three seasons, the lanky Floridian has hit just .201/.263/.360, and could most charitably be described as a work in progress.
Not so Altuve, who, after a decade as one of the most consistently excellent hitters in baseball, is hitting just .183/.256/.338. The most obvious explanation for that slash line is Altuve’s BABIP, which sits at just .196; his career BABIP is .335. That smacks of nothing more or less than bad batted-ball luck. But Altuve is also striking out 21.8 percent of the time, up from 15 percent in 2019 and 11.6 percent for his career. His swing-and-miss rate is the highest of his career, and his contact rate on pitches outside the zone is the lowest of his career by more than 10 percentage points. Given that Altuve has batted only 78 times this year, that could be noise, but the prospect of his skills declining is a trend scary enough to monitor.
Still, even with Tucker and Altuve struggling, and Springer and Álvarez out of the lineup, the Astros’ offense is better than most. In fact, the culprit behind the Astros’ uninspiring start is so obvious as to be downright anticlimactic: All their pitchers are hurt.
OK, maybe not all. Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. haven’t missed a start yet. (The fact that McCullers has thus far evaded the injury bug only adds to this year’s perpetual Opposite Day atmosphere.) But the Astros went into this season already needing to replace free-agent departures Gerrit Cole, Will Harris, and Wade Miley, and in the past month, they’ve run out of depth faster than an oil tanker stranded on a sandbar. Of the 12 pitchers the Astros used in last year’s World Series, only three—Greinke, Josh James, and Ryan Pressly—are on the active roster now, and the latter two both currently have ERAs over 10.00.
Cy Young winner Justin Verlander managed only one start before he went on the IL with a forearm strain, and though both Verlander and the Astros denied initial reports that he’d be lost for the season, recent developments have hardly been cause for optimism. Closer Roberto Osuna is on the IL with elbow soreness, where he’s joined by Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Joe Biagini, and Austin Pruitt. World Series hero José Urquidy, like Álvarez, arrived at summer camp late and has yet to play a competitive game this season. Another key reliever, veteran right-hander Joe Smith, opted out of the 2020 season. Top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley, an obvious candidate to fill a Verlander- or Urquidy-shaped hole in the rotation, is likewise dealing with elbow soreness and unavailable to pitch.
Josh James, who’d been hoping to return to the rotation after spending 2019 in the bullpen, quickly pitched his way back into relief after allowing seven earned runs and 11 walks in six innings of work. And things haven’t been much better since he returned to the pen—James blew a save in his first appearance and allowed four runs in an inning-plus of work in his second.
Not even the Astros, a team that not too long ago had more pitchers than they could use, could withstand that level of attrition. The two guys who hit Laureano with pitches last weekend were Humberto Castellanos and Brandon Bailey, a pair of rookies with a combined 35 batters faced in their big league careers. In other words, about one in every 12 opponent plate appearances for Castellanos and Bailey ends in Laureano being hit by a pitch.
At one point, the Astros trotted out a 10-man bullpen of substitute closer Ryan Pressly, Cionel Perez, and nine rookies. Some, like Brandon Bielak, are among Houston’s top pitching prospects and are performing well. But others are just live arms, offerings to the god of Someone’s Gotta Pitch Those Innings. Last winter, FanGraphs lead prospect writer Eric Longenhagen mentioned 64 prospects in his Astros’ system ranking; Castellanos was neither on his top 40 nor in the appendix of other names worth tracking.
As you might expect, this hasn’t panned out well. On Friday, for instance, Greinke took a scoreless game into the sixth inning, but the bullpen not only allowed the A’s to come back and tie, they blew the save when the Astros finally peeked back out in front in the top of the 13th. And on Monday, after Houston had escaped across the bay to San Francisco, McCullers took a no-hitter into the seventh. He left the mound with a six-run lead, which James and Pressly nearly coughed up; Pressly picked up the save with the tying run on first base.
The Astros’ bullpen is 29th in baseball, and dead last in the American League in win probability added. Last year’s pitching staff led all of baseball in strikeout rate and finished third in ERA-. This year, they’re 27th and 20th in those categories, respectively. Last year’s Astros won more games than any team had in 18 years thanks to their exceptional offense and exceptional pitching. So far in 2020, they’ve had a pretty good offense and pretty bad pitching, which—again, somewhat anticlimactically—levels out to a team that’s two games under .500. It’s not what you’d expect from this team, but it’s about right for this roster.
The big question moving forward is whether that will change. Some of it will—Altuve will start hitting sooner or later, and so will Bregman, who currently has a BABIP of just .226. Pressly and James will probably not rock sub-replacement-level ERAs for long. Álvarez is already playing intrasquad games at the team’s alternate training site, and while Houston hasn’t put forth a public timetable for the slugger’s 2020 debut, he can’t be too far from returning. And even the schedule has been slightly unkind to the Astros, who are 0-5 against the Dodgers and A’s (combined record 23-11) and 7-4 against everyone else.
With that said, even if Houston’s luck changes, the pitching injury issues remain. Osuna is almost certainly out for the season. Verlander and Urquidy could return, but neither is anywhere close to taking the mound in a meaningful game right now. Those would be tough losses for any team to overcome—even the Astros.
All stats current through Monday.