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The Astros in May: What has gone right, wrong

Looking at Houston's overall record in May and why they've had some success.

Jason O. Watson

This off-day is conspicuously situated halfway through the month of May. After a disastrous April that saw the Astros go 9-19, Houston is a surprising 5-8 in May. What's more, the Astros have only been outscored by one run in May, meaning they're a lot closer to .500 for the month than their record might indicate.

What a difference four days makes, huh? After Saturday's loss, Houston was 3-7 in the month and looked just as aimless as before. Detroit had just outscored the Astros 18-12, including an embarrasing 11-4 loss that was only made better by a mini-rally at the end.

Flash forward and Houston wins its first series against the Rangers since 2008 and the first since the Astros moved to the American League. If the Astros lose four straight, they'll still be back circling the drain. But, let's look at the month so far to check on why Houston has been more successful than it was in April.

  • First off, my new favorite statistic is that Houston is 13-11 in games when they hit at least one home run. 
  • Houston is 10th in the league with 14 home runs in May and seventh overall with 43 on the season.
  • The Astros have the sixth-best on-base percentage in baseball in May at .335. 
  • The Astros have also scored the 13th-most runs in baseball in May.
  • Only two teams have stolen more bases than Houston this month. The Astros have 13 steals in May.
  • Houston is also tied for the highest line drive rate in baseball at 24.2 percent in May. Only the Athletics have hit fewer ground balls than the Astros this month.

That's just the offense, but I wanted to point out a few things before moving onto the pitching side. While Houston has struggled on the defensive side according to the advanced metrics and have been pretty inefficient on the base paths, the offense has done really well.

They're doing it by hitting more fly balls and more line drives this month. While the Astros' infield fly percentage is sixth-highest in the majors, they also have the 10th-best homer-to-fly ball rate. The Athletics have a higher fly ball rate, but hit less pop ups while hitting about as many home runs on fly balls.

Why, you ask, has the offense not been lighting it up then? Well, of the teams in the top ten for the month in batting average on balls in play, only the Cardinals and Rays have lower batting averages. That's probably explained by Houston striking out more than any of those teams in the top 10.

Speaking of that, Houston has been good at the strike zone judgment this month, swinging at just 25.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Only two teams have lower percentages in the majors. Unfortunately, Houston swings and misses a lot. They're ninth in swinging strikes and have the eighth-worst contact rate of any team in the majors. 

Now, onto the pitching. 

  • Houston starters have the fourth-highest ground ball rate this month.
  • They also have the home run-to-fly ball rate in the majors, suggesting they've either been a little unlucky on homers or tend to give up too many in-the-zone meatballs.
  • The Astros are 20th in the majors in runs allowed at 58 this month. Thirty-eight of those came from Astros starters and 20 from relievers. Only eight teams have allowed more relief runs than Houston this month.
  • Houston is solidly middle-of-the-pack in starter ERA at 3.75 this month. But, Houston's starters have the sixth-best expected FIP and seventh-best SIERA in the majors.
  • While Astros starters are solidly middle-of-the-pack in strikeout rate, they're in the top 10 in low walk rate at 6.4 percent. They're also second-lowest in line drive rate this month.
  • Any success the starters have had isn't due to a low BABiP. The Astros starting pitchers have the 11th-highest BABiP in the majors this month. 
  • Are Houston relievers being successful at all? For one, they're generating the most outside zone swings of any team in the league this month at 38 percent. They're also sixth-best in swinging strike percentage and are just 0.4 percent away from a top two finish. That's all led to Houston having the 10th-lowest contact rate in the majors this month.
  • Houston starters are similarly baffling hitters, getting the third-most outside zone swings in the majors this month. They're 11th in lowest contact rate at 80 percent and are 14th in swinging strike rate.

What does all this mean? The bullpen, while derided nearly universally this season, has been better than expected this month. They're missing bats and getting plenty of bad swings. A few bad outings may color the stats, but overall, the bullpen has been better than its reputation.

I'm not as surprised by Houston's lower swinging strike rate out of its starters. With heavy sinkerballers like Scott Feldman, Jarred Cosart and Dallas Keuchel in the rotation, they're not going to miss as many bats. That doesn't mean they're pitching to contact, as that outside zone swing rate indicates Houston will try to force bad swings as much as possible.

Overall, there's plenty of signs of improvement overall. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the losses and general malaise that's fallen over the fan base. But, this team is not as bad as it seems. Baseball Prospectus' projected records have Houston finishing 2014 with 65 wins and avoiding 100 losses. Since they're "on pace" for much worse than that, I'll take a little optimism when we can find it.