If there was one thing that the Astros could bank on last season was their incredible run prevention. Not only was the pitching staff among the best in baseball but their defense was also top notch. Whoever was pitching that day usually kept the game close enough when the lineup sputtered. The fielders did their job, too.
That script on the field worked so well that the Astros basically ran it back. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Sure, we can quibble about lineup choices or certain front-office decisions from last offseason, but the framework was still there to run this thing back in 2023. But every plan has a weakness and, for the Astros, it was assuming two things: Injuries would continue to remain a non-issue and regression would be staved off for another year. But baseball is funny, or cruel, like that. It’ll poke a hole, or twenty, in your best plans and humble you. That’s the 2023 Astros, in a nutshell. Injuries have hampered the roster all season and regression has come for multiple pitchers on the roster. Some of it was expected, others it wasn’t.
Take Hunter Brown, for example. While his sample size last season was noticeably small (20 1⁄3 innings), he dazzled us in his debut. His mechanics, for crying out loud, are reminiscent of Justin Verlander. Lofty expectations were automatically, and unfairly, placed on him. His debut was one reason, if ultimately minor, why the organization felt comfortable enough to not break the bank on Verlander last offseason. But here’s the thing about young players, pitchers included: Progress isn’t linear. Brown would likely have a rough patch or two in his first full season.
Take Sunday’s start against the Mariners as an example. You know, that game we somehow stomached to watch. The right-handed rookie wasn’t effective, at all. Six runs in 2 2⁄3 innings. He wasn’t sharp and it showed. He needed around 60 pitches to traverse the first two innings. If there is a reason to think Brown could struggle at the major league level, it is his sometimes faltering control.
Ironically, he picked up 13 whiffs in this game with five strikeouts and two walks, so if you’re looking for optimism then I’d probably start there. But, again, Brown was dreadful on Sunday. He was the primary culprit in this one.
Stop me if you heard this one before: The top five hitters in the lineup were 9-for-22 against the Mariners. The bottom half? 3-for-16, with Jeremy Peña accounting for two of those hits. The other hit was a big one with Mauricio Dubón driving in two runs in that five-run third inning.
But inconsistency remains problematic in the bottom half of the lineup. Outside of that third inning, however, the Astros mostly struggled with runners on base. There were five innings in which the lineup had at least one runner on base, but no runs scored. That third inning was the only time in this entire three-game set against Seattle when the lineup was arguably productive.
Alas, it doesn’t help the cause when Framber Valdez and Brown allowed 12 runs in their 7 2⁄3 innings of work this weekend. The lineup failed J.P. France and the bullpen on Friday, but the last two games were primarily lost due to the Astros' sudden aversion to run prevention. Yes, the lineup didn’t help, but it is all a moot point if your starting pitcher allows the opposing team to seemingly score at will in the early innings. In a weekend filled with bad baseball from an Astros’ point of view, this series finale was the gut punch. With seven of their next 10 games against a hot Red Sox team, I am curious to see how these Astros respond.