The word “surprise” has been miles away from the Houston Astros over the past several seasons. In fact, the most stunning thing about them is their ability to normalize dominance.

Few franchises can leave baseball fans feeling numb to consistent excellence, but after coming back from a cheating scandal and overcoming the departure of multiple superstars, underestimating Houston seems quite foolish.

Horror movie junkies know better than to let their guard down when a killer ostensibly falls to their doom or explodes in a fire. Presuming the Astros' demise after a rocky start to the 2024 season is akin to thinking that Jason Voorhees died after plummeting to earth from outer space.

Sure, the end of their prolific run could be on the horizon, but nobody should be jumping out of their seat in terror if this perennial World Series contender takes control of the American League West by summer's end. That being said, it is still jarring to see Houston in this position, even in April.

Baseball is a game of peaks and valleys more than any other sport– the 2020 Stros can attest to that– but a last-place standing is reason to at least take pause. Maybe this is just another red herring designed to lull everyone into a false sense of security before the squad re-emerges in October to deal a punishing gut punch to all rival fan bases.

We're going to take a closer look at this unexpected development and more as we break down three shockers in the early portion of the Astros' 2024 season.

Astros' slow start transports fans back a decade

Since we have already begun dissecting this topic, we might as well cut a little deeper. At 7-15, Houston owns the third-worst record in the AL this season. Context is important– opponents have a combined 71-49 record thus far and there have been costly injuries— but it is also the manner in which the team is losing that warrants at least an iota of concern.

The offense is leaving far too many runners on base and the bullpen is blowing leads late in games. The top of the lineup is loaded with big bats, so the Astros should substantially improve with runners in scoring position. The unpredictability towards the bottom, however, could conceivably be a problem throughout the year.

The pen, which we will discuss more in-depth later, also has the firepower to work past its early troubles and should be better than the bottom-five relief unit is has been to this point. This is not about the future, though. Even in a 162-game season, starting off cold can have negative consequences. Playing in stressful conditions before the All-Star break can be mentally exhausting.

But the good news is that the Astros are only three games behind the AL West-leading Texas Rangers despite their subpar showing.

Josh Hader looks out of sorts in his new home

Houston Astros pitcher Josh Hader (71) pitches against the Atlanta Braves in the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Handing closers monster contracts has not paid immediate dividends of late. First, Edwin Diaz, who after signing the richest relief pitcher contract in MLB history in 2022, suffered a knee injury after celebrating a victory in the World Baseball Classic and missed all of 2023. Now, Hader is getting shelled a couple months after inking a five-year, $95 million deal with Houston.

The five-time All-Star has recorded a ghastly 8.38 ERA in 9 2/3 innings pitched in 2024. His low point was a catastrophic outing versus the Atlanta Braves on Monday– gave up four runs on four hits with one walk and retired just one hitter. It is early, but when the team is already in a tight spot, it is hard not to blow a gasket watching Hader implode.

The good news is that the 30-year-old lefty was in peak form in Wednesday's extra-inning loss to the Braves. He struck out the side on 15 pitches, giving Minute Maid Park a glimpse of the superb reliever the organization broke the bank for in the offseason. Josh Hader started miserably with the San Diego Padres as well, so this could be the precursor to a lights-out run in the near future.

If more trouble occurs, however, he might serve as a cautionary tale for other closer-seeking teams in winters to come.

Ronel Blanco has been one of the best pitchers in baseball

We're going to end things on a high note, as we shine the spotlight on one of the most interesting storylines in the early goings of the 2024 MLB campaign. In his previous 24 appearances with the Astros entering this year, Ronel Blanco provided little to no evidence that he might be able to carve out a meaningful role in the team's pitching rotation.

Throwing a no-hitter in his first start of the season at home versus the Toronto Blue Jays was absolutely remarkable, but it was not necessarily incomprehensible. Unknowns and journeymen have accomplished that feat many times in this sport. As the legendary John Sterling famously used to say, “well, that's baseball, Suzyn.”

But following up that career-defining performance with another scoreless gem and two more quality outings suggests that we could all be witnessing a phenomenon take place. Blanco is 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA and an extremely stingy .124 batting average allowed. And he is doing it all without striking out a bunch of batters.

Can the 30-year-old keep it going? It seems unlikely, but at minimum, he is giving fans a reason to smile. Considering the Astros are currently stuck in the basement, that is no small triumph.