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Despite a shiny ERA, the Astros pitching staff is off to an inauspicious start

It may not seem like it, but nothing is going especially well for the Astros on the mound.

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Astros are 6-4 following yesterday’s victory over the Angels. It was one of their better pitched games of the season, allowing 3 runs on just 6 hits, featuring an impressive 12-to-2 strikeout-walk ratio.

Entering Monday’s home opener, Astros pitching had compiled a 3.22 ERA, good for 7th in the league. At first glance, it seems the pitching staff has picked up right where it left off, as it finished the 2021 season with the exact same ranking in terms of ERA.

But beneath the surface lie concerning developments, and though the sample size is small, they’re still worth highlighting and monitoring going forward.

First, the Astros are apparently not keeping opposing hitters off-balanced.

Through their first nine games, they’re 22nd in Whiff rate and 26th in Chase rate. Generating swings and misses is generally important, but it’s downright crucial if hitters are seldom offering at pitches outside the strike zone.

In addition, Astros pitchers are struggling in an unexpected area: inducing ground balls.

In 2021, they collectively ranked 7th in ground ball rate with a 45.6 percent clip, according to Baseball Savant. So far in 2022, they’re 27th in that department, with a percentage of 37.2. It could explain why the staff’s Barrel rate has increased and is in the middle-of-the-pack, whereas in 2021 it was one of the lower marks across the league.

The cherry on top may well be a strikeout-to-walk ratio that’s among the ten worst in baseball.

A lack of whiffs is ostensibly a big reason why the club’s strikeout rate has dropped markedly (24.1 percent in 2021 to 20.5 percent in 2022), but getting ahead has been particularly challenging for Houston’s hurlers.

Using the metric True F-Strike, which gives a more accurate look into how frequently pitchers are getting ahead in the count than plain First-Strike percentage, it’s obvious the Astros are struggling to get to 0-1, seeing that they’re dead last in that respect per True F-Strike.

While it’s not the be-all and end-all, regularly failing to get ahead not only impacts pitchers’ ability to produce strikeouts, it contributes to the number of walks they issue as well. Ranking 30th in that one category alone could principally explain why Astros pitchers have not fared well in terms of both strikeouts and walks.

As noted above, this data is based on a nine-game sample size, one that doesn’t include any output from one of the Astros’ top arms in Lance McCullers Jr. Moreover, it’s possible — if not probable — that the rushed spring training could have a somewhat lasting effect on the sharpness of pitchers around the league. (But not on a 39-year-old starting pitcher who’s coming off Tommy John surgery, apparently.)

It would be premature to sound the alarm in any capacity, but it is still slightly disconcerting for the Astros that their staff as a whole has struggled in most key aspects and thrived in virtually none of them.

Time will tell if there’s any legitimacy to this sluggish start.