In the last few weeks of the season, the Astros remain ahead in the division race and don't have an overly difficult schedule to close it out (save a trip to Boston this weekend). But, for anyone hoping for a repeat of 2017, there are certainly some concerns. There are also some things that no one should even think about.
Think about this for a moment. The Astros sit at 86-53, the exact same record they had last year at this time. So, for some of the struggles, they have amassed plenty of wins. This season, however, they have a much tighter division race and they've dealt with some key injuries. It's a mixed bag, which is why we have mixed emotions.
Home Field Advantage
On Sunday Night Baseball, Alex Rodriguez made an interesting point. He said he thought some of the hitting problems at Minute Maid Park might be related to the "batter's eye," the huge green square of ivy in center field designed to act as a backdrop for hitters so they can see the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand. He said that it is very small and there are seats to one side and a large red advertisement on the other. It might seem like with the short fences in both corners, Minute Maid would be a hitters' park. Not so. In fact, Minute Maid hasn't ranked in the top 20 in scoring since 2014, when the Astros were awful and long before the batter's eye took the place of Tal's Hill. Whatever the case, the 'Stros don't hit the ball well at their home park (no one does, apparently). For an offense with the big play potential of this one, that certainly does seem like a negative.
The Astros rank dead last in baseball in hitting into double plays and are on pace to break the single-season team record for it. Double plays are rally killers that have definitely cost the Astros at times this year. The good news is that Boston is in the bottom five as well and the Astros are dramatically off the pace from last year when they won it all. Still, this isn't a stat to aspire to.
Credit to ESPN 97.5's Charlie Palillo for this one. In the 67 games since May that Carlos Correa has played, he is batting .210 with just over a .300 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of about .370. He has no business in the clean up spot at this point. He is only there on reputation and the hope he will get it going. Correa was on the DL for a long stretch with back issues. Maybe they linger or maybe he just doesn't have his swing back yet. Whatever the case, the wildly talented short stop needs to figure out his swing or AJ Hinch may need to consider moving him down the lineup until he does.
The A's have been a remarkable ball club this season. In April, if you asked virtually anyone who might threaten the Astros in the AL West, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who would say Oakland. Yet, as of writing this, they are three-and-a-half games back and pushing the Astros, who had nearly a 15-game lead this time last season. Still, with the schedules ahead for both and a recent dip (if every so slight one) by the A's, it feels like the Astros are going to win the division again.
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Whenever one of the best hitters of the last five years goes four games without a hit, it's surprising and a little concerning, especially when he just returned from the DL with a knee injury. But Altuve is as resilient as they come and if there is one thing that guy can do, it's hit. He hasn't had the power numbers we saw in 2017 and he is out of the race for hits, batting title and other postseason accolades. But he remains the team's best hitter. Sooner rather than later he will return to form and we'll all wonder why we even considered for a second that he wouldn't.
Last year in August, the chief concern for the Astros was pitching. Dallas Keuchel was struggling, Lance McCullers, Jr. was hurt, the bullpen was gassed and the guy who pitched the most innings was Mike Fiers. Trading for Justin Verlander at the deadline certainly helped to change their fortunes, but even then they relied heavily on their historic offensive firepower. In the postseason, their greatest weakness was their pitching. This season, it might be reversed. They have three legit number ones in Verlander, Keuchel and Gerrit Cole, and a bullpen that is loaded for the postseason. This is one area of the team that seems solid as a rock.