The Astros hit their lowest point of the season on May 22. That day, their in-state rivals from Arlington walloped them 9-2. The Rangers' blowout win completed a three-game sweep for Texas, one that saw Houston score just four runs all series. Add a series-ending loss to the White Sox just before that, and the Astros had dropped four in a row. They scored just five runs in that span, including three straight 2-1 losses, falling to a season-worst, last-place record of 17-28.
For the next game, manager A.J. Hinch made a change: George Springer would jump to the leadoff spot. Managers have become a little less rigid with their lineup construction in recent years; Jose Bautista recently took over the leadoff spot in the Jays order, with manager John Gibbons figuring Bautista's on-base skills trumped any compulsion to leave his power bat in the middle of the order.
Still, trusting Springer to kickstart Houston's offense was anything but conventional. Though he does own a solid walk rate, his on-base ability isn't considered as impressive as, say, Bautista's. In having Springer lead off, Hinch was trusting a power-hitting, 6-foot-3, 215-pound outfielder who ranks among the most prolific strikeout victims in the league to revive the most disappointing team in all of baseball.
Man, has it ever worked. Since taking over the leadoff spot, Springer's batted .432/.490/.795, with four homers, four doubles, eight runs scored, and nine driven in. His season line now stands at .290/.377/.520, with Springer leading the American League in Wins Above Replacement coming into Thursday's games (per Baseball-Reference).
Meanwhile, the Astros have averaged 4.6 runs per game since Springer started leading off, up from 4.0 per game beforehand. Most importantly, Houston's won eight out of 10 since the start of The Springer Experiment, propelling themselves out of the cellar and starting to fulfill the immense potential that so many people saw for them coming into this season.
The optimism in Houston this spring made tons of sense, given how the Astros fared last year. After six straight sub-.500 seasons (including three straight with 106 losses or more), the Astros reeled off 86 wins in 2015, making the playoffs for the first time in a decade. With zero World Series titles in franchise history, any playoff appearance offers the promise of something franchise-changing, and last year looked like it might have some championship potential. But right when the Astros looked like they might surge to the ALCS, their bullpen melted down against the resilient Royals. Season over.
Baseball teams are, if nothing else, reactive. Seeking to upgrade that beleaguered bullpen, GM Jeff Luhnow traded five players for Phillies reliever Ken Giles (and prospect Jonathan Arauz). From day one, the deal looked like a disaster.
In his first 11 appearances as an Astro, Giles posted a brutal 9.00 ERA, allowing 16 hits, four walks, and four homers in 10 innings. That ugly performance highlighted an Astros bullpen that went 0-4 with a 4.75 ERA and a comical 15 homers allowed in 77 2/3 innings during the first month of the season. In games decided by one or two runs in the month of April, the Astros went an abysmal 4-10. Meanwhile, Vince Velasquez quickly established himself as one of the most dynamic young starting pitchers in baseball ... to say nothing of the four other players the Phillies got in the deal who might also pan out.
After that slow start, Giles is back to firing triple-digit fastballs with biting secondary stuff and much improved results. He's had ample help lately too -- led by 2015 hero Will Harris, who's sliced last year's sparkling 1.90 ERA down to 0.36 this year, with fantastic peripheral numbers (6.75 strikeouts for every one walk, plus a nice 69.4 percent groundball rate). In fact, Springer magic seems to have infiltrated the pen too: Since the slugging outfielder seized the leadoff role, Astros relievers have flashed a 1.78 ERA (capping a phenomenal May for the pen), offering a friendly reminder that lineup order only matters so much, and that it usually takes strong performances across an entire roster to win games.
The question then becomes how good this roster truly is. It's a healthy one, which is good news. No player from the usual 25-man roster sits on the disabled list, with tantalizing young righty Lance McCullers, power-hitting DH Evan Gattis, and center fielder Carlos Gomez all back from injuries.
Unfortunately, a fully healthy Astros roster hasn't been nearly as good as we might have thought at the end of spring training. Gomez might be the worst everyday hitter in the league, batting a terrifying .182/.239/.242, and prompting Luhnow to recently say the team could soon bench him if he doesn't turn things around soon. Gattis's power has been offset by a .226 batting average and .287 OBP. Colby Rasmus's torrid start to the season has turned to dust, and he's now down to .219/.314/.388. Luis Valbuena's batting just .223/.320/.399 at third. And after a hot start to the season for rookie Tyler White, first base has become a mess, with the punchless Marwin Gonzalez sucking up way too many at-bats for a team with playoff hopes.
An even bigger concern might be Dallas Keuchel. Last year's AL Cy Young winner has seen his ERA balloon by more than three runs, from 2.48 last year to an atrocious 5.50 in 2016. Keuchel's seen considerably worse results on balls in play this year, which you can perhaps partly attribute to bad luck. But Keuchel's fastball, which already lived on the margins at just above 90 mph last year, is down nearly 2 mph this season. Combine those softballs with some bad location, and you've got fewer strikeouts, a lot more walks, and a ton more hard contact this year, making these early poor results look like they might not be a fluke.
Still, there's hope here. In Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa, the Astros feature three of the brightest young stars in the game. Meanwhile, we could see organic improvement from multiple players, with Correa falling short of sophomore-year expectations so far, while Gomez and other veterans sit far below career norms. With impressive young first baseman A.J. Reed knocking on the door from Triple-A and some other young talent poised to help the big club this year, the talent base should improve shortly. And Luhnow has shown he's not afraid to make aggressive moves at the deadline, if Houston can keep climbing in the standings.
It won't be easy, of course. The Mariners have joined the Rangers as a team likely to contend for the AL West crown. And even in a best-case scenario, Keuchel likely won't replicate last year's Cy Young form, meaning fellow starters McCullers and Collin McHugh will need to catch a little luck to lower their ERAs closer to what their solid fielding-independent numbers would suggest.
Still, we can now close our eyes and imagine the Astros in the mix by the All-Star break, and beyond. If it takes Springer leading off the rest of the season to make that happen ... well, a little contrarianism could work out great.