Madness at Minute Maid

Alessandro Zilio
10 min readMay 29, 2024

Reader discretion announcement: don’t ever do what I’m about to do.

As of today, not even June, I’m tossing the towel on the 2024 Astros season.

It’s early, the AL West is a joke of a Division, there’s not much of a gap and a lot of games to be played, still I’m not doing this out of sheer anger, rather because of a disparaging lack of trust on the organization and yes, a bit for the memes and to reverse jinx it.

“Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result”

That’s the definition of madness, and that’s where the Houston Astros are at, a team that is stuck in a broken merry go round and shows no willingness to step off.

Madness doesn’t happen on the spur of the moment, it’s a malaise as Brian Kenny would say, a disease that spreads if not contained.

The Astros are ill, from top to bottom, and they don’t seem like they know better or want to be treated.

Failure might be the mother of success, I sure hope it’ll be a beacon of changes, that’s what Houston needs more than anything, a purge that entails not its roster but most importantly their FO, whose decisions are to blame first and foremost.

As I’m not a doctor, I’ll quickly show you the symptoms and have basic answers as to how they can be cured, you’ll do your own research…whatever that means.

The easiest thing to do when everything goes wrong is to blame the players, whether you are a disgruntled fan or Pedro Grifol.

That’s not necessarily wrong though it’s important to understand who and to what capacity the blame should go to.

As for the Astros, many are directing their anger at a pitching staff that is periodically hurt, undermanned and underperforming in some parts, namely the back of the rotation and bullpen.

Starters ERA does paint a bleak image of the Astros rotation and 10 blown saves are enough to be dejected, but allow me to have a scorching hot take: Astros pitching is getting better.

Both Hunter Brown and Spencer Arrighetti made valuable changes in their M.O. and performed as of late: the former added a sinker against RHB, with that came more groundballs and better results on breaking balls; the latter started to trust his spin in the zone, more called strikes and less traffic on the bases followed.

Even with Javier and Urquidy down, the two youngsters along a hopefully calm Framber, the savior that is Ronel Blanco and rock solid JV make for a good 1–5, not as good as Seattle but not as bad as advertised.

Bullpen is having a grand ol’ time lately, unless your name is Ryan Pressly, who should throw more fastballs and appear in lower leverage situations for the time being.

Scott and Martinez are quintessential guns for hire, multi inning poor contact machines, a sight for sore eyes. Josh Hader is hadering, just don’t fall in love with the changeup, Bryan Abreu’s stuff is up, control not so much, Montero’s luck is still there.

If you want to blame someone, you should point at the offense.

Wait, what? But they are first on MLB in AVG! Great OBP! They can slug a bit!

Here comes the first symptom of the disease: a maniacal focus on quantity of contact over quality of contact.

Astros batters put the ball in play more than any other team in baseball, which is to say they don’t strike out AND they don’t walk much: outside of MVP frontrunner Kyle Tucker and Big Joe Singleton, nobody is walking at a 10% clip or more.

Those two and Bregman are also the only batters with a Chase rate under 20%: every other Astros hitter is out there to swing, swing early, swing often, swing at everything, afraid of striking out.

What made past Astros lineups so deadly was a never-ending deluge of quality ABs, walks, deep counts, starters getting their pitch counts to the moon come the 4th.

Nowadays it’s a common thing for an opposing hurler to get out of the inning unscathed with less than 10 pitches.

There’s also another small issue: the Astros are noticeably worse with RISP. All the runners they get on due to their aggressive approach are getting stranded because of it, there’s no smart baseball, no small ball, no situational hitting, no run manufacturing when needed.

That can be said for in-game and game-to-game adjustments too: slumps are never-ending, flaws are obvious but there’s no visible shifts in swing decisions and mechanics, for anyone at that.

Bregman is a tinkerer and he’s the one who changes the most, the bat itself, the swing path, timing mechanisms and all, but he has yet to find a way not to pop it up.

Yainer Diaz is grounding out at an absurd pace, he’s back swinging a la Javier Baez and the last time he barreled a ball in the air it might have been early April.

Altuve and Yordan are dreadful with runners in scoring position, and they have been for a long time.

All this to say, struggling Astros hitters are not showing any sign of improvements or meaningful changes in how they approach ABs and design their swing decisions and bat paths.

Which brings me to identify the first possible cure: getting rid of these hitting coaches.

I wouldn’t blame you if you ever wondered what Alex Cintron is looking at his tablet, whether he’s watching TV shows reruns or not, and if Troy Snitker is actually there, because I’m left speechless too.

What they preach might have worked years ago but the Astros offense is feast or famine, against good pitchers more of the latter, and that’s been true for a couple seasons now.

This lineup needs discipline, selective passivity, more focus on doing damage than making contact, and someone else might help with that.

The second easiest thing to do when things go awry is to blame the manager.

I won’t lie to you, Joe Espada hasn’t been perfect: he tends to be a little cute with starters, leaving them in trying to save a bullet or two in the pen, and he sticks too much with set roles instead of adapting to each situation’s leverage index.

He likes to mix it up lineup-wise, 47 different ones as we speak, but he’s had a hard time pushing down Bregman as he slumps, or to find enough playing time for deserving rookie, now in AAA, Joey Loperfido.

Many would love to see him lashing out more, getting ejected and stuff, others see him as too much player-friendly and not enough of a motivator. I do not care a single bit about tirades and such, as long as players are on his side he can be Earl Weaver or Dusty Baker, that doesn’t matter at all.

There’s one question that every conscious Astros fan has though: is Joe Espada actually the manager of this team?

Which leads to the core problem of Houston’s madness: his front office.

When the Golden Era will be over, sooner rather than later as it seems, books will be written, stories will be told as to what happened following the 2022 WS win.

James Click, a GM who managed to build the best bullpen in recent Astros history and fleece a couple of teams in the meantime, was unceremoniously “offered” a one year deal for his efforts, a nice way to push him out.

For months nobody took his place, leaving the Astros future in the hands of its owner, Jim Crane, and his friends, golf buddies and Hall of Famers, Jeff Bagwell and Reggie Jackson.

Before Dana Brown was hired as GM, whether you believe he’s an actual GM or just a spokesman as I do, the tres amigos managed to burn around $40M AAV in negative production, as in an injured Michael Brantley, Montero’s nonsense contract and the crux of Houston’s recent madness: Jose Abreu.

There’s no getting around it, the Astros needed a 1B, Yuli Gurriel was done and there wasn’t much else on the market, still a 3 year deal at almost $20M AAV for a 36 y.o. first baseman is a risk at best, a massive blunder at worst.

Decline was to be expected, because of age and a horrid slashline against 95+ mph fastballs in 2022 with close to zero power, a sign that Abreu’s bat might be getting old with him, maybe not to this degree.

What followed is a perfect image of the Astros madness, the Jose Abreu saga as an omen, foretelling the demise of what once was a cutting edge, analytics driven organization, into a boys club, open for friends and families.

After a putrid 2023, Abreu came back promising better returns thanks to pilates and…well, pilates at least. What followed is a sub .100 AVG, defensive lapses and a demotion to the FCL for him to “find his timing”.

In the month he was away the Astros went 15–10, recovered ground on both Seattle and Texas, found good contributions from Singleton, Loperfido and the rare Dubon start, while he managed to bat .300 against rookie ball pitchers and 0–7 in two games at Sugar Land, prompting Brown to gift us a “hits don’t matter” quote for the ages.

Nobody expected Abreu to end the season in Florida, even less so to announce his retirement or anything, but what the FO managed to cook up is the kind of malpractice putting the Rockies to shame: calling him back up for arguably the most important series of the season so far, a 4 game set against the Division rivals in Seattle.

A man who could barely hit high schoolers, save for AAA arms, penciled in against the likes of Castillo, Gilbert, Kirby and Bryce Miller, some of the best pitchers in the AL not to mention all right handers with fastball heavy, plus stuff.

His only hit so far, a RBI single on a Miller heater, can be considered a victory, his defense is still a black hole and he’s inevitably late on fastballs but let’s be honest, nobody was hoping for much more than that.

Now, it’s possible he agreed to the demotion with the promise to be brought back into the fold after a set period, but even if that’s the case, why not landing him soft against Oakland and its middling rotation?

This is not only a disservice to the team, who needs every decent AB they can get, but to Abreu too, who’s now getting bashed for his unfortunate, mistimed comeback.

You could argue he should DH and put Big Jon at first, though they are both pretty bad defensively, and there’s more than a decent argument to simply not play the man against such unfavorable matchups, whereas a Dubon could do better.

And here falls the domino: who is making roster and lineup decisions?

Who decided to bring back Abreu now? To keep Bregman in the 4 hole through his slump?

Espada is the manager and he’ll be criticized for that, so will Dana Brown as the GM.

Don’t be fooled though, the chain of command in Houston has all but changed since the Luhnow days. If you are in the mood to yell and point fingers, there’s a man for the taking: Jim Crane.

The 2024 Astros could be summarized by what has become a feared, loathable expression, popularized in Houston by the “de-facto assistant GM” that is Jeff Bagwell:

The back of the baseball card

What the Astros organization as a whole can’t grasp is that past success does correlate but DOES NOT guarantee future success!

Bregman, Abreu, even Yordan, they might really be looking at the back of their cards wondering where it all went wrong, the powers that be could really be clueless as to why a team with so many big names has more chances to miss the Postseason than getting in, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Going through a shocking 7–19 start, the mantra of the organization was to wait for better days, because the team was too good to be that bad.

Because the Astros are too big to fail

So were the Golden State Warriors, and look at them now.

There’s no such thing as a guaranteed win. No team is given free access to the Playoffs just because they have good players with great careers and accolades.

The game changes, things are figured out, injuries happen, bad seasons are not out of the realm of possibility.

When push comes to shove, when the process you once followed starts yielding negative results, that is not always only small sample size, variance, luck, whatever.

When you keep on doing the same thing over and over again, and losses keep piling on, how can you ever expect a winning streak to happen?

That is madness at its finest, and that is what has spread all throughout the Astros organization, a stale relic of days gone by, of past successes, so that, while the baseball world kept going on, Houston has not.

How to cure that? What is the treatment?

One word: change

Whether it’s personnel, hitting approach, bandanas, anything that is not what the Astros are doing right now, because as it stands, Houston is not a Playoff team by any stretch of the imagination.

Will it ever happen though? I fear not.

When the decision makers have no idea where the fault is at, when a system’s depth, its foundation, is set aside in the name of shining objects like a premier closer, I don’t see how the Astros can get out of this.

What really worries me is not now, this season’s results, rather the long term future of the organization.

With subpar decision makers come subpar decisions, mediocre rosters, mistakes, wasted capitals and an inevitable rebuild, one that might not come out as good as the last one without those brilliant minds behind it.

This season is not over yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Astros managed to sneak 87 wins and somehow get into the dance again, but I’m not buying it.

In his second to last start, all was going well until Framber Valdez decided to change plans, do it his own way, overthrow his sinker at 99 and hang curveballs like paintings in the Louvre.

He went rogue when the situation didn’t call for it, and lost the game as a result.

Timing might have been wrong, not the idea though.

When everything else fails, when you’re stuck in your own madness, try something different.

Hitters, take a pitch, go oppo, even try a bunt for a hit, go rogue.

Joe, Dana, make your calls, risk it, do what you think it’s best, go rogue.

Houston Astros, go rogue.

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Alessandro Zilio

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, NPB and Korean dramas. A lot of Astros related content and obscure references.