Houston Astros for Month of April: Hitting Must Improve

Richard ZowieCorrespondent IMay 11, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 13:  Miguel Tejada #10 of the Houston Astros makes a hit during the Opening Day game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on April 13, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The first month of the MLB season was rough on Houston Astros hitters with only two players (Miguel Tejada and Geoff Blum) finishing with an above-.300 batting average. Tejada hit .315 while Blum was close behind at .313. Both are regular players, so thankfully, the numbers don’t seem inflated.

Houston also had some hitters above .250: Hunter Pence hit .282 in April, Michael Bourn hit .261 and Carlos Lee hit .253. Again, all are regular players.

Encouragingly, only two regular or platoon players hit below the Mendoza Line (named after light-hitting major leaguer Mario Mendoza, it’s the “line” of hitters batting .200 or less) in April: Darren Erstad at .174 and Lance Berkman at .162.

In four of their 22 games in April, Houston was shut out. In five other games (including Opening Day), Houston scored no more than two runs.

One thing I have noted this year is how Houston struggles as a team against certain pitchers.

On Opening Day, they faced Carlos Zambrano, who entered the season with a 12-7 lifetime record against Houston with a 2.70 ERA. As expected, he pitched six innings, yielding five hits, one earned run and striking out six while walking only three. Three of those hits came from Tejada.

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I've noticed in the past that Houston consistently struggles against certain great pitchers, like Tommy Glavine and Greg Maddux. I remember being frustrated with how Maddux and Glavine shut Houston down one particular year in the playoffs, only to then practically pitch batting practice to Arizona Diamondback hitters.

What ails Houston's hitters? Is it just too early in the season? Are they really not great offensively? Is it the humidity? The ugly uniforms they must wear?

Looking at the stats, it’s disturbing the number of games Houston had where they had only two (and sometimes none) hits with runners in scoring position, along with many left on base. Three times, the heart of the order (Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada) each went hitless in a game. On a few occasions they gather only a few hits.

I’m not too worried about Berkman’s hitting. Yes, he could be having an off-year, but with his injury, I have to think once it heals he’ll get into a groove and start hitting. I suspect he’ll be at or near .300 by the season’s end. Perhaps even more.

Kaz Matsui’s .238 average for April bothers me, especially considering he’s supposed to be the leadoff hitter. Currently, he has 10 walks in 98 at bats, 9.8 at bats per walk. For a leadoff man, that’s not good at all. He also strikes out around once each five plate appearances, which is surprising for a hitter with few walks.

This tells me Matsui makes contact. I just wish he’d discipline himself and lay off some pitches to generate more walks. But even then, would it really do any good? He’s stolen five bases while being caught stealing thrice.

Bourn’s numbers are comparable, except he’s stolen twice as many bases while being caught thrice. I’d like to see Bourn lead off more.

Hunter Pence is starting to look like a good hitter for Houston. I like to think he’ll blossom and become one of those guys who can hit 20-30 homers a season while hitting around .282. He’s tall, so he’ll have a bigger strike zone to manage.

And now, a quick synopsis of Houston’s April games:

Opening Day against the Chicago Cubs, Houston falls to Zambrano 4-2 and allows a first-inning run.

Second game: Houston beats the Cubs despite leaving 11 on base. Hunter Pence hits Houston’s first homer of the season while utility third baseman hits the game-winning single on a bases-loaded, broken-bat RBI single in the 10th.

Third game: Despite five home runs hit by the Astros, they fall to the Cubs 11-6 on four first-inning runs by the Northsiders. Houston goes 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

Fourth game: Despite 11 hits to the St. Louis Cardinals’ 6, Houston still loses 11-2. They score two ninth-inning runs.

Seventh game: Houston is shut out 7-0 by the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. Berkman has a tough game, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and two left on base. Heart of Houston’s order (Berkman, Carlos Lee and Pence) go 0-for-11.

Ninth game: Houston gets 10 hits and wins 6-3 over the Pirates. Berkman hits a homer.

Eleventh game: a 7-0 shutout of the Reds. Houston gets 13 hits, goes 7-19 in RISP with three doubles.

Tenth game: Roy Oswalt (23-1 lifetime against the Reds) pitches 6 innings, allowing 5 hits, no earned runs, walking three and striking out four, but Houston scores only two runs the entire game.

Jose Valverde blows the save and takes the loss, giving up two ninth-inning runs. Houston fails to support Oswalt (who earns a hard-luck no-decision) despite getting six walks off the Reds starter.

Twelfth game: Astros’ 7 hits can’t overcome a 0-for-11 RISP and 13 runners left on base. No extra-base hits.

Fifteenth game: A 6-5 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers as Houston pounds out 11 hits (including a Pence double and homer). The team roughs up former teammate Randy Wolf for 8 hits and 4 runs in 7 innings.

Sixteenth game: Houston loses to L.A.2-0 as they go 0-9 in RISP and leave six runners. Matsui goes 0-for-3 in leadoff.

Seventeenth game: Houston loses to Milwaukee in an unusual loss where neither team draws any walks.

Twentieth game: Another Oswalt effort is wasted. He goes 7 innings, allowing 6 hits and an earned run but earns the no-decision in Houston’s 4-1 win. Maybe Oswalt should give Matsui hitting lessons.

Twenty-second game: In the last game of April, Houston gets only one hit while striking out six times against the Reds.

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