The Astros can blame their sluggish start on injuries and close losses

The Houston Astros lost their fourth game in a row on Saturday, dropping to 6-8 on the season with a loss against the Oakland Athletics. The Astros are now 4 1/2 games behind the A’s in the American League West, making this the first time since 2016 that they’ve been that far back this late in the season, according to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs’ research.

For those who haven’t been following along with the Astros’ early season woes, allow us to explain what’s going on in Houston by highlighting three talking points worth knowing.

1. Offense has been good, with a notable exception

The Astros’ lineup was stymied on Saturday by Frankie Montas, but they’ve been one of the most productive units in baseball from an aggregate perspective. Houston entered Saturday ranked fourth in the majors in runs scored and fifth in FanGraphs’ wRC+ metric — a catch-all offensive stat that adjusts for ballpark and appropriately weighs on-base percentage.

Based on history, it would be fair to expect Jose Altuve to be leading the offensive charge. That hasn’t been the case. Of the nine Astros hitters to receive at least 40 plate appearances entering Saturday’s game, only three had OPS+ under 100: one expected, in catcher Martin Maldonado (82), and two not, in young outfielder Kyle Tucker (76) and Altuve (82), who disembarked from Saturday’s game with a seasonal line of .177/.261/.355.

In a small sample to date, Altuve has been swinging and missing more often than normal and making weaker contact when he connects, according to Statcast. He’ll ostensibly get going at some point, but his struggles are noticeable when compared to the rest of the lineup’s success.

2. Injuries, youth abound on pitching staff

Houston looks like itself offensively, but that isn’t the case on the pitching side of things. The Astros are currently operating without stalwarts or potential stalwarts like Justin VerlanderJose UrquidyRoberto OsunaBrad Peacock, and Chris Devenski due to injury. Factor in Joe Smith‘s decision to opt out and Will Harris‘ offseason move to the Washington Nationals, and Dusty Baker has been left with a largely anonymous pitching staff.

The Astros rotation includes Framber Valdez (who threw the ball well in defeat on Saturday), Cristian Javier, and Brandon Bielak. The bullpen, meanwhile, features the following names: Blake TaylorAndre ScrubbEnoli Paredes, Humberto Castellanos, Carlos SanabriaNivaldo Rodriguez, and Brandon Bailey, who was taken by the Baltimore Orioles in last winter’s Rule 5 draft and then returned before the pandemic started and the league shut down.

Is it any wonder why the Astros rank 15th in staff-wide ERA, as opposed to taking their normal perch near the top of the league? Or why they’ve had the third most bullpen meltdowns (a stat based on win probability added), ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Angels

Reduce any team to that many rookies and they’re going to face some relatively hard times.

3. Lots of close defeats

Here are the margins-of-defeat in the Astros’ eight losses, in chronological order:

  • 1
  • 2 (in 13 innings) 
  • 1 (in 10 innings) 
  • 1 (in 13 innings) 
  • 2

That’s four one-run losses (second most in MLB) and three extra-inning losses (most) in 14 games. The Astros have lost so many close games that, despite their record, they entered Saturday with the 10th-best run differential in baseball on a per-game basis, ahead of teams with significantly better records, such as the 10-3 Chicago Cubs and 8-6 Chicago White Sox.

It can be argued that run differential is a misleading metric for a team like the Astros, who have so many young relievers and who are likely to suffer more high-leverage damage than the typical team. It’s a fair point. Still, run differential tends to be a more reliable indicator of a team’s play in small samples than their win-loss record.

Maybe the Astros prove to be fatally flawed due to their pitching staff exposure. For now, and despite their early deficit in the AL West, it’s probably too soon to write them off as a bad team.

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