Astros Recent Struggles Feel Significant. Are They? Four Thoughts.

Alex Bregman's return bodes well for the Astros.
Alex Bregman's return bodes well for the Astros. Photo by Jack Gorman
Mid-season doldrums are commonplace in professional sports. It's when injuries begin to mount and players grow weary of the grind of a long season, particularly in baseball with teams well over 100 games into a 162-game season. In recent weeks, the Astros have seen a combination of injuries and lackluster play decrease what was a healthy lead in the AL West down to — albeit briefly — under two games.

A couple of healthy efforts at the plate against the woeful Mariners certainly makes things feel a lot better, but are they really? Or are they just a team in the midst of a slump before busting out in time for the playoffs?

The Astros are not good against sub-.500 teams, but they don't have a losing record against them either.

Much has been made of the team's propensity for falling short against sub-par teams. Case in point, their recent 1-3 series loss at Kansas City. At one point earlier in the season, they were 40-19 against winning teams but just 13-14 against those without winning records. It is odd that they are 3-3 against Baltimore, 3-4 against Minnesota and 1-3 so far against KC. But, inside their division, they have been outstanding, a combined 34-16. They remain good against the best teams in the league as well.

If nothing else, it demonstrates this team does seem to understand the moment. Do they perhaps play down to opponents at times? Probably. Is it a major concern heading into the playoffs? Probably not. Given their strength within the division and the team returning to almost fully healthy status, it is unlikely they will slide despite their poor play against weaker teams.

Close games are another story, however.

One area of concern is how the Astros do in close games. In one-run affairs, they are 12-14 and only 5-7 in extra innings. Some of that falls on the shoulders of a shaky bullpen that GM James Click attempted to upgrade with several moves at the trade deadline. Despite their best two back-end-of-the-bullpen guys getting roasted by the Mariners on Sunday, both Ryan Pressly and Kendall Graveman, who they acquired from Seattle, have been outstanding. It is safe to assume that if their pitching rotation and bullpen stabilize, with health being a primary factor, the pen could be a strength.

The other question is clutch hitting. Despite being one of the best teams in the majors offensively, it sometimes seems like the Astros just don't hit well at the right times. Well, they do lead MLB in average with runners in scoring position. They also strike out fewer than any other team in baseball. And they hit well in virtually every inning — they are fourth in baseball in ninth-inning runs, for example. So, this would seem like something that will also even out over time.

It seems like forever since the team has been at full strength.

Perhaps the biggest issue for the Astros has been their inability to be fully healthy. They have had most of their starters miss a not insignificant amount of time, most recently Alex Bregman, who appears ready to finally return from a quad injury that has hampered him nearly all season. With Jose Urquidy back, it will give them flexibility with the rotation.

Having guys in and out of the lineup isn't just a problem because of what those players mean alone. It affects how other players hit in the lineup. It affects who plays what position in the field — or if they have to play there at all (see: Yordan Alvarez). It also takes players time to ramp back up into shape when they return (see: Yuli Gurriel). Getting everyone back in a very dangerous lineup and setting what should be a very solid pitching rotation might be the biggest factor in how this team plays down the stretch and into the postseason.

This is still a team loaded with veteran talent.

For those who still worry about their ability to turn on the jets when they need to, remember that this is a team loaded with veteran talent. Many of these guys have played deep into the playoffs season after season. Having guys who have been through difficulties and come through the other side, particularly when those players also happen to be all-star caliber and in the prime of their careers, makes a huge difference. The Astros are hoping that is the case this year.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke