It’d be hackneyed—and overkill—to begin a dissection of the Houston Astros‘ slow start with “Houston, we have a problem.”

It’s April. There are 145 games left on the schedule. Grains of salt must still be liberally sprinkled over every statistic and slot in the standings.

But this isn’t how things were supposed to go for the Astros.

After blossoming ahead of schedule in 2015, snagging a wild-card slot and pushing eventual champions the Kansas City Royals to five games in the division series, the ‘stros entered the season as a popular American League darling.

Sports Illustrated picked Houston to win the World Series in 2016and again in 2017.

Call it a double SI cover jinx if you want. But the point is Houston was a trendy pick to not only contend in the AL West but blast deep into October.

That goal, and those prognostications, are far from dashed. But after losing 6-2 to the Boston Red Sox Friday night, the Astros are languishing in last place at 5-12.

They were recently swept by their in-state rivals, the Texas Rangers, and they have dropped six of eight overall. The rocket isn’t smoking or plummeting to Earth, but warning lights are flashing.

The most obvious culprit so far has been the starting pitching.

Ace and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel has been unspectacular, posting a 3.71 ERA through four starts while allowing 27 hits and 11 walks in 26.2 innings. 

After that, it’s Scott Feldman (4.11 ERA), Doug Fister (5.94 ERA), Mike Fiers (6.48 ERA) and Collin McHugh (7.56 ERA). 

One thing this Astros rotation is missing—other than results—is heat. Entering play Saturday, their starters were dead last in MLB with an average fastball velocity of 87.8 mph, per FanGraphs

The return of the 22-year-old Lance McCullers, who is working his way back from a shoulder issue that surfaced in spring training, ought to help. He might be back by May, according to the team’s official website.

Last season, in his rookie campaign, McCullers fanned 129 in 125.2 innings while rankings among the game’s top 20 hardest throwers, again per FanGraphs

Speed isn’t everything, of course. But it’s important to give opposing hitters a variety of looks, and adding McCullers to the mix should do exactly that for Houston.

The team’s issues, however, don’t end there. 

The bullpen has also wobbled, particularly late-inning arm Ken Giles—acquired this winter from the Philadelphia Phillies for a package of prospects—who owns a 6.75 ERA.

The offense, meanwhile, has gotten a boost from the likes of second baseman Jose Altuve (.292 AVG., 5 HR, 7 SB), right fielder George Springer (.275 AVG., 4 HR, 11 RBI), left fielder Colby Rasmus (.286 AVG., 5 HR, 11 RBI) and shortstop Carlos Correa (.283 AVG., 3 HR, 7 RBI).

But others, including center fielder Carlos Gomez, third baseman Luis Valbuena and designated hitter Evan Gattis, are scuffling. Overall, Houston is hitting a pedestrian .238 and ranks in the bottom half of both leagues in runs scored.

All of that could be an early, anomalous blip. Perhaps the Astros are merely pressing under the weight of increased expectations.

That’s the diagnosis Keuchel seemed to suggest recently, per’s Brian McTaggart:

It’s a very team-oriented sport, but at the same time, you have nine individuals on the same field, and if one guy is breaking down and not [paying] attention to the game or being a very knowledgeable baseball player, it shows. At times, that’s what we’ve had. We have to clean that up and be in sync, all nine of us, at the same time. You saw that last year, and we know what to do and we’ve got to get back to it.

The Astros aren’t the only up-and-coming club that has limped to a slow start. The Minnesota Twins, another 2015 darling, are also 5-12. 

Both squads have the talent to reverse course and jump back in the race. Of the two, Houston is the more complete team. 

McCullers‘ return, coupled with more consistent production up and down the lineup, would do wonders. 

Plus, as Angel Verdejo Jr. of pointed out, the Astros, “played a loaded schedule to start, opening against the [New York] Yankees and facing the Royals and [Detroit] Tigers to open their home slate before playing the Rangers and [Boston] Red Sox.”

You could argue, correctly, that those are the teams Houston has to beat to claim American League supremacy.

The point, though, is the Astros will get another chance. And another. And another. The season is just beginning. 

The Astros don’t have a problem—not yet anyway. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be searching for solutions.


All statistics current as of April 22 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on