May 25, 2024

Which Houston Astros players’ stock is up/down after first month of the MLB season

HOUSTON — The Astros’ miserable month came to a magical end on Tuesday when backup catcher Victor Caratini crushed a walk-off home run against the Cleveland Guardians, one of baseball’s most surprising teams.

Baseball’s most disappointing team received what it rarely had: a clutch hit with a runner in scoring position. Caratini’s home run arrived with Houston an out away from its 20th loss and the tying run standing 90 feet away.

Before that homer, the Astros had just two extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances with a runner on third base and two outs. Injuries have ravaged their rotation and baseball’s most expensive bullpen combusted countless times, but the Astros’ inability to deliver in the clutch became their biggest concern.

Perhaps Tuesday’s result started to shift that. Houston still finished its first month 10-19 and created a deficit from which few clubs have emerged as legitimate championship contenders. Here is a stock watch for five players as the season’s second month begins.

Stock up

Jose Altuve

In a season where nothing else is normal, Altuve is crafting one of his signature starts. He just finished one of the best months of his brilliant career, a 41-hit, 29-game assault upon opposing pitching that puts him near the top of most American League leaderboards.

Altuve started Wednesday with the sport’s sixth-highest batting average. Only five players had more hits and, according to FanGraphs, only two American League players — Gunnar Henderson and Juan Soto — have accrued more wins above replacement.

Altuve’s 41 hits in March/April were his most in any month since he struck 42 in June 2016. Altuve had at least 40 hits in eight other months across his 14-year major-league career. His 189 wRC+ is the fifth-highest of any month in which Altuve has taken at least 100 plate appearances.

Altuve is annihilating four-seam fastballs — he saw 130 last month and slugged .800 against them  — and pulling the baseball at an increased rate. Altuve has lamented getting too pull-happy in the past, but he hasn’t sacrificed much. A 25.7 percent line-drive rate, up slightly from his career average, ensures it.

Jeremy Peña

A season after watching his slugging percentage plummet, Peña produced a power resurgence in April and ascended into the middle of Houston’s batting order.

Peña overhauled his batting stance this winter in hopes of elevating the baseball. He eliminated the pronounced wag of his bat and rested it on his back shoulder to produce a more steady bat angle through the strike zone.

Peña’s 26 percent line-drive rate is already three percentage points higher than last season. More importantly, he slashed his ground-ball rate from 54.4 percent to 43.8. Peña’s average exit velocity is up almost a full mile per hour, too, while his average launch angle is almost eight degrees higher than it was last season.

Peña ended April slashing .327/.367/.451. Of the 10 qualified hitters with a higher batting average, only one of them is a shortstop: Philadelphia’s Trea Turner.

Ronel Blanco

Though he’s bound to regress toward a mean, Blanco has blossomed into a bona fide big-league starter, become one of baseball’s most surprising stories and secured a spot in the Astros’ rotation for the foreseeable future.

Blanco’s no-hitter in Houston’s fifth game of the season remains the highlight of an otherwise horrible start to the season. His four subsequent starts suggested it was no fluke. Blanco boasts a 1.65 ERA across 32 2/3 innings while limiting opponents to a .144 batting average and .451 OPS.

Both a 2.33 expected ERA and .168 expected batting average against signal there’s nothing fortunate about Blanco’s torrid start. Opponents are hitting .121 against his slider, which has a run value of 6, according to Baseball Savant. Blanco’s changeup, which carried him through the no-hitter, has a run value of 4.

If not for injuries to Justin Verlander and José Urquidy, Blanco would not have opened the season in Houston’s rotation. Now, it’s difficult to envision him ever exiting.

Stock down

Chas McCormick

José Abreu’s jarring decline captured much of the April attention, but McCormick’s miserable start to the season can’t be ignored. McCormick slashed .236/.325/.278 in his first 83 plate appearances, forcing manager Joe Espada to divide outfield playing time more among McCormick, Mauricio Dubón, Jake Meyers and Yordan Alvarez.

McCormick aggravated his right hamstring during the team’s series in Kansas City, which forced the club to place him on the injured list Wednesday. Before his injury, though, McCormick was just 7-for-33 with two extra-base hits and no home runs.

Only Abreu and Alex Bregman had a lower OPS than McCormick across the season’s first month. Houston shipped Abreu to its spring training facility and Bregman is a notoriously slow starter who can receive the benefit of the doubt during his doldrums. McCormick doesn’t have that luxury.

During that series against the Royals, McCormick bemoaned missing pitches that he normally hits. He emerged as one of baseball’s best fastball hitters last season, hitting .358 with a .745 slugging percentage against four-seamers and a run value of 22, according to Baseball Savant.

McCormick is slugging just .250 against four-seam fastballs this season. His hard-hit rate has dropped from 38.8 percent last season to 34 percent this season. McCormick adjusted his hand positioning to get his barrel into the strike zone quicker, a modification he must hope translates into more production.

Hunter Brown

Brown threw better than his line indicated during Tuesday’s start against the Guardians, but the six-run outing did little to settle concerns about his long-term viability in Houston’s rotation.

Brown boasts a 9.78 ERA after six starts. He failed to throw five innings in four of them, including an inglorious two-out, 9-run start against the Royals on April 11. That start skewed his season-long numbers, but even without it, Brown still has a 6.45 ERA.

Hunter Brown reacts after allowing a single to Ronald Acuña Jr. on April 16. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

Brown isn’t missing many bats — his 23.4 percent whiff rate is below his career average — and hitters aren’t chasing any of his secondary pitches.

According to Baseball Savant, Brown’s minus-8 chase run value is the lowest of any qualified pitcher in baseball and his 91.3 mph average exit velocity is in the ninth percentile among pitchers. Opponents are hitting line drives 27.3 percent of the time, too, with just a 46.8 percent ground-ball rate. Last season, Brown induced groundballs at a 52.2 percent clip and 20.8 percent line drives.

Brown may only be guaranteed at least one more turn in the Astros’ rotation, but the impending return of Cristian Javier could force the club into a difficult decision between him and top prospect Spencer Arrighetti. That Brown sat in the bullpen during both of the team’s games in Mexico City as a long-relief insurance policy may have signaled its intentions.

(Photo of Jeremy Peña and Jose Altuve: Tim Warner / Getty Images)