In one respect, the 2023 season is playing out just like every other season this decade for the Astros. They started the year 7-9 for the 4th straight season. This is the 5th straight year the team has been at least 2 games under .500 (remember that 2-5 start for 2019). At the time of this writing, they still sit under .500 (9-10) and face one of the toughest stretches of the season.
Presuming the Phillies don’t go on a hot streak over the next week or so, Houston will have played 18 straight games against teams over .500 by the time we get to the World Series rematch. The record so far in this stretch: 6-6. Not bad, but not up to the Astros’ usual standards.
The reasons for the stagnant start vary: Injuries to Altuve, Brantley and McCullers leave the team with talent shortfalls. The Astros’ big free agent acquisition, Jose Abreu, is combining his usual slow starts with age-diminished power numbers. The Astros, so used to meaningful ball in late October/November, can find it hard to muster up the motivation to excel in April. The pitching staff is hardly the lock-down force of last season, as Luis Garcia can’t find the range with his fastball, other starters are having inconsistent starts and Ryan Pressly can’t seem to navigate a clutch save situation. All of this while getting the best effort of every other team, eager to take their shot at dethroning the championship heels of MLB.
In 2020, the 7-9 start would set the stage for the season, as the team ended the year at 29-31. Injuries, dealing with COVID and all of the other off-season baggage coming off a World Series near-miss left the team stuck in neutral. However, the modified playoff schedule gave the team new life, and they proceeded to make their usual run to the ALCS, before falling to the Rays in 7. 2021 and 2022 saw the team slog through mediocre early season starts before going on a May-June tear, punctuated by 11-game win streaks powering the Astros up to their usual division-leading selves by the time of the All-Star Break and spring-boarding them to their scheduled World Series appearances.
Likely the early-season malaise shouldn’t last. The team returns most of the talent from last season’s juggernaut, and some of the slow-starters/underperformers don’t figure to remain that way for the entire season. Pitchers like Urquidy and Garcia will have their ups and downs, but usually find the range soon enough (see Garica’s dominant effort against Toronto). Brantley’s rehab is progressing to the point that his bat should be in the line-up in the next couple of weeks, and Altuve and McCullers continue to make progress from their Spring Training injuries.
Plus, no one has really separated themselves much in the AL West. While the Rangers hold a 3.5 game lead at the time of this writing, the Angeles and As also held AL West division leads in 2022 and 2021 respectively. Those did not last.
However, each season is different, and past performance does not guarantee future results. Sometimes players enter valleys and don’t get out of them. Sometimes, it is just not a team’s year. The recent long seasons for Houston can catch-up to a team’s players, and other squads will finally get their breakthroughs.
Houston has been consistently inconsistent to start the year. There are games where the team will play like everyone expects them to, with the starters throwing quality games, the bullpen locking down the last two-three innings, and the offense bashing the opposition. Those are followed up by games where nothing seems to go right, from poor starting/relief pitching, bad defense and an offense that seems allergic to hitting. The inconsistency might end, or it might be how the season will go for Houston.
The curse of expectations is a tough one. The Astros’ current run of dominance gives their fanbase the highest of expectations. It can be a nice problem, but it is also, at times, a problem. Pressure builds, fans lament, players press...the problems can multiply. 162 games is a lot of games. As the Astros this decade demonstrated, the struggles of April can easily fade into forgotten history in September. Still, it doesn’t make the sluggish times any better.
Even if the team is destined for a longer swoon, bad starts are hardly the kiss of death for a season. While 2016 is the nightmare example for this current run for Houston, where an 18-28 start kept the Astros out of the playoffs, more recent examples showed that talented, battle-tested teams with slow starts can overcome. The 2018 Dodgers opened 16-26, only to make their way back to the World Series. The 2019 Nationals stumbled to a 19-31 start. We know how that story ended all too well. Same with the 2021 Braves and their 52-55 start. Throw in the 2022 Phillies, who turned their 21-29 start into a season that was two wins away from the championship (which did require the firing of a manager, which is not required for Houston at this point) and there is a lot of recent examples that a slow start does not mean a lost season.
Will the Astros start a long win streak here? Perhaps. Will they continue to slog along, hovering around .500 or worse for a while? Also possible. So long as they don’t completely fall apart, they remain in contention.
Maybe the trade deadline becomes a pressure packed event as the team seeks to get off the snide and get into playoff contention. Still, and it is hard for our current society to be this way, we have to be patient and let the season evolve. We don’t have the power to skip ahead in the show to get to the conclusion, so we wait and watch, one game at a time.