Apr 30, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker (30) drives in a run with a single during the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Three Up, Three Down: Astros through 30 games
Now that we have reached the 30-game mark of the 2023 season let’s look at the three most promising and three most concerning elements of the Houston Astros season to date.
The hot starts of Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Tucker is a notoriously slow starter and was a player I previously identified as someone who would benefit immensely from the new rules regulating the shift. Tucker has been one of, if not the most, consistent bat in the lineup. Through 30 games, Tucker is hitting .269 with a .376 OBP and .818 OPS. Compare that to his career April numbers of .231 AVG and .307 OBP with .725 OPS. Tucker is second on the team in home runs (5), RBIs (20), walks (19), and stolen bases (5) while continuing to play elite-level defense in right field.
The concern for Alvarez was injuries and rust after just a handful of spring training at-bats because of his lingering hand issue. Fear not, despite missing four games with a neck issue and having his load managed this season, Yordan leads the Astros in home runs (6) and RBIs (27) and has been their most impactful bat.
Strong production from the “other guys.” Players that were expected to be at the bottom of the lineup have performed unexpectedly well. In some cases, they have even been moved up in the order due to their play and injuries to various primary bats. Chas McCormick, in a normal Astros lineup, would have batted eight, but due to injuries, was moved up to seventh, sixth, and ultimately the leadoff spot in the order. McCormick was hitting .275, with a .383 OBP and .883 OPS, while playing terrific defense in center field. Chas had established himself as the team’s primary center fielder before vision issues put him on the sideline, and a back injury landed him on the IL a few days later.
Mauricio Dubón was nearly an automatic out a season ago, falling victim to the tantalizing short porch in left field and trying to blast home runs with power he doesn’t have. He made a commitment to change his swing and his body in the offseason, and the results have been better than anyone could have expected. He’s taken over as the everyday second baseman in Jose Altuve’s absence and had a 20-game hitting streak. The previously light-hitting utility man is batting .305 through 30 games and hitting leadoff with the injury to McCormick. Dubón has been one of the biggest bright spots for the Astros this season.
Corey Julks is writing his own version of “local guy does good” this season, as the former Friendswood and University of Houston star is playing well in his first taste of the majors. Julks is hitting .284 but only has a .289 OBP due to the fact he has only one walk. However, he has had some clutch base hits, demonstrating the moment is never too big for him. He is a plus defender in left field and can also play right well. His production has been unexpected as the Astros had exposed him in the Rule 5 Draft, and any team could have had him for $100,000. With Yordan Alvarez needing workload management due to a lingering hand injury and missing time with neck discomfort, Julks has provided needed production when called upon. The team is 13-7 in games he starts.
Jake Meyers has had a resurgence. Meyers went from organizational depth to being viewed as the team’s potential long-term answer in center field after a breakthrough 2021 at Sugar Land led to his promotion following the team’s trade deadline deal of then-starting center fielder Myles Straw to Cleveland for Phil Maton and Yainer Diaz. Meyers tore his rotator cuff trying to climb the wall in the 2021 ALDS and did not return to the Astros until midseason last year. Meyers was given a chance to win the center field job from Chas McCormick in spring training but underperformed and found himself on the bench until McCormick landed on the IL. Since then, Meyers has looked much more like the promising young player the Astros hoped he had blossomed into. After starting the season 3-for-19 (.158 AVG), Meyers has rebounded to raise his average to .257 with three doubles and a pair of home runs. His defense looks more like the player that was considered the top defensive outfielder in the team’s minor league system in 2021 than the wall-weary player we saw last summer in Houston.
Hunter Brown is already a front-runner for AL ROY. While some Spring Training wildness had some people on edge, Brown predictably worked through it and has started the season on an absolute tear. Now 3-1 in six starts, Brown boasts a 2.60 ERA and 1.18 WHIP (both best among Astros starters). He continues to strike out more than a batter per inning and has demonstrated some of the absolute filthiest stuff on the staff. Brown still walks batters (3.9 BB/9) but has front-of-the-rotation stuff. As he harnesses his pitches (he’s only 24), he could develop into an ace, with a floor of a good No. 2 starter.
Jose Abreu’s bat has been nearly nonexistent. Abreu is known for getting off to slow starts and for heating up as the weather heats up. However, it hasn’t been below freezing in the temperature-controlled confines of Minute Maid Park, and Abreu has been ice cold at the dish. Abreu leads the Astros in at-bats with 122, yet is hitting only .230 with a .260 OBP. He has yet to hit a home run and has only four doubles thus far. His .522 OPS is staggeringly low (perspective: Martin Maldonado’s OPS last season was .600, league average in 2022 was .706). Clearly, there is still time for him to heat up, and he is a notoriously slow starter, but this is the slowest start of his career.
The bullpen has not been nearly as strong as it was a season ago. After having the best bullpen in MLB last season, a pen that flourished in the postseason, the Astros brought back almost the exact same unit. However, bullpen arms are the most volatile in baseball in terms of year-to-year performance. While we are talking about a 30-game sample size, it is clear the underbelly of the Astros pen is much weaker than it was a year ago. While the team appears to be its usual lockdown self holding leads late with Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Hector Neris, and Phil Maton, who looks to be rejuvenated following an embarrassing end to last season, the rest of the pen has underperformed.
Fresh off a big contract, Rafael Montero has failed to recapture last season’s magic. He has been uncharacteristically hittable, allowing 15 hits in 13 innings. The fact that his ERA is only 2.77 is a testament to how nasty Bryan Abreu has become, as Abreu came into a bases-loaded none-out jam created by Montero a couple of weeks ago and escaped with no further damage (against the 1-2-3 hitters in the powerful Blue Jays lineup no less). Montero has not had a degradation of stuff but a degradation of command. While he could rectify this over the rest of the season, he has had a shaky first month of the season. Since the April 19 meltdown against Toronto, Montero has allowed just one run on four hits while fanning eight in five appearances covering five innings, so hopefully he’s on the rebound.
Ryne Stanek has regressed badly from last season, posting a 3.27 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. He has walked eight batters in 11 innings. Ronel Blanco (4.50 ERA and 1.92 WHIP) and Seth Martinez (6.35 ERA and 1.85 WHIP) have been hammered.
The starting pitching was last year’s biggest strength; it has not been so far this season. Starting pitching was not supposed to be an issue for the Houston Astros. They were six deep and likely would have utilized a six-man rotation had they been healthy. They haven’t been healthy.
Lance McCullers was shut down on Feb 14. He is not expected back until June. Jose Urquidy has been struggling through the worst stretch of his career, left his start April 30 with a right shoulder injury, and was placed on the 15-day IL May 1. Luis Garcia, who appeared to find his groove with 13 shutout innings over his last two starts, left his start May 1 after just eight pitches and is now on the 15-day IL.
Very few teams can overcome the loss of three starting pitchers at the same time. The Astros find themselves on the brink of early season disaster at this moment as a result.