May 20, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie (4) and second baseman Jose Altuve (27) stand with young fans during the national anthem before the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE
The Houston Astros have officially played over a quarter of their schedule and sit at a respectable 19-23. It's not a great record, mind you, but it's worlds better than the 15-27 they were at this time last season. What do we know about this team, though? What do these Astros do well and where do they need to shore things up?
Houston drew 401 walks in 162 games and 6,150 plate appearances last season. This year? They're already at 128 in 1,529 PAs. That's a difference of almost 2 percent over last year's rate, up to about 8 percent of the total team plate appearances. That may not seem like a lot, but that's a pretty big increase, especially if it holds up.
What's more, Houston's leader this season in walks is J.D. Martinez with 22. Last year's leader was Carlos Lee with 59. J.D. is already over a third of the way there, a quarter of the way through the season. There's even an outside chance J.D. draws 100 walks, which would be the first time an Astro has done that since 2006 (Morgan Ensberg) and just the 17th time in franchise history it's happened.
Weakness: Home Runs
Let me repeat something I rambled about Monday. Houston came into the weekend series with the Rangers just eight more home runs as a team than Josh Hamilton had as a single individual. That's not very good, though it did get better as the weekend went on and Houston added three more homers Saturday and one on Sunday.
Still, these Astros are not hitting home runs at a very good pace. They're currently set for 123 home runs as a team all season, which would be an improvement over the last two seasons (HOU hit 95 and 108 in 2011 and 2010, respectively), but still puts them 12th out of 16 NL teams and tied for 24th in all of MLB.
Strength: The Bullpen
It starts with a guy like Brett Myers transitioning well to his new role as a closer. He's 10 for 11 in save chances now (not that that means a whole lot), with a reasonably good xFIP of 3.50 and an uptick in fastball velocity. It moves down to Rhiner Cruz providing a ton of value for a Rule 5 pick, pitching effectively later in games. He's got control issues, but he also strikes guys out at a high clip.
What about Brandon Lyon, who is returning to form with his arm strength returning and a 0.69 ERA in his last 12 appearances, complete with 13 strikeouts in 13 innings. It's Wesley Wright providing more value than a typical LOOGY, even if that's how Mills tries to use him.
Houston's bullpen had a 2.85 ERA heading into Sunday's game, which was third in the NL. Last season, they finished dead last with a bullpen ERA of 4.51. There's still time for regression to happen, but right now, these guys are providing a ton of value to this young team.
There's even more after the jump...
Strength: The Defense
It's very early to tell based on metrics how this team is shaping up, but so far, things look good. Certainly, this team passes the eye test with most every fielder on the team looking competent. One of the few weak links in previous seasons, Chris Johnson, has looked passable out there, with some blue star plays sprinkled in every now and then.
The glaring weakness defensively has been at catcher. Jason Castro continues to struggle with balls in the dirt and in the running game, as teams test both Snyder and Castro. They're slightly ahead of where they were last year in terms of caught stealing percentage, but are still below league-average.
Weakness: The Bench
With a young team, it's not a huge deal, but when manager Brad Mills likes to start much of his bench throughout the week, having a weakness here can be a problem. None of Houston's non-regulars is hitting over .260 and only one has an on-base percentage above .310.
Marwin Gonzalez has been an upgrade defensively over Angel Sanchez and there's plenty of pop on the bench. The non-regulars have eight of Houston's 29 home runs. Plus, Travis Buck has been a dynamite pinch hitter, even if Matt Downs has fallen off a bit.
It's not a huge issue, but Houston could probably use at least one or two guys hitting better on the bench. Or just to get guys like Justin Maxwell and Matt Downs turned around. If that happens, that weakness clears up in a hurry.
Weakness: Right Field
Part of the problem with the bench is that Travis Buck and Justin Maxwell also have been asked to fill in for starter Brian Bogusevic in right field at times. Bogey has struggled this season with the bat and even his power hasn't been there. He was hitting .229/.321/.322 this season heading into Sunday, but he did have 13 walks in 134 plate appearances.
Even if Houston decided to pull the plug on Bogey getting regular starts in right (which I'm not sure they should do), Buck hasn't exactly been better. He's come up with some big pinch hits, but he's not hitting a ton and doesn't walk at a high rate at all. I don't get the sense that this front office has a ton of patience for everyday guys who don't walk.
Maxwell is even more enigmatic. While he has a ton of power potential, Maxwell hasn't shown it, with just two home runs since he joined the Astros. He plays well out there, but his arm isn't of the caliber of Bogey's, so Houston would lose something in the switch.
Of all the positions for Houston, right field is the biggest hole a quarter of the way through the season.
On the other hand, shortstop has been a bright spot for Houston so far. After picking up talented but oft-injured shortstop Jed Lowrie from the Boston Red Sox in the offseason, Lowrie has solidified the position for Houston and given them both solid defense and a good bat.
In hitting .274/.357/.444 heading into Sunday's game, he not only led Houston in home runs with five, but did everything Clint Barmes was supposed to do last year. Sure, his defense may not be on par with Barmes, but he's been solid on every play and throw. I see no reason to even suggest moving him over to third at this point in any situation. He's the guy.
Marwin has been a very able defensive replacement there too. He may not be providing much with the bat right now, but he's more than makign up for it with range and a good arm. This shoudl be strength for the team all season long, even if Lowrie's bat falls off a bit.