Fans of mediocre teams have, from time immemorial, dreamed of trading all their high-priced talent for prospects, and then “giving the kids” a chance to show what they can do in the majors. But this is better in theory than in practice, just ask the 1998 Marlins (54 wins) or 2003 Tigers (43 wins). After losing 106 games in 2011, the Astros hired GM Jeff Luhnow, who promised to rely heavily on advanced metrics to rebuild the entire franchise, from the farm system out. Under Luhnow, the Astros’ payroll dropped from $70.6MM on opening day 2011 to a mere $22MM on opening day 2013. To put that into prospective, 8 MLB players made more than the entire Astros roster in 2013. In the majors, the results were ugly, with the Astros falling all the way to a 51-111 record in 2013. But the minor-league rebuild went well, with the Astros entering 2014 with BP’s 5th ranked system including 3 top 25 players and a fleet of major-league prospects. The Astros took a huge stride forward in 2014, winning 70 games and look to build on that in 2015.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The Astros rocketed back to, well, mediocrity on the back of a huge power surge. Houston finished 4th in MLB with 163 home runs, and were 10th in ISO. That number is likely to rise, with the additions of Evan Gattis (22 HR, .230 ISO in 2014 with Atlanta) Colby Rasmus (18 HR, .223 ISO in 2014 with Toronto), and Luis Valbuena (16 HR, .186 ISO with the Cubs). Houston is also hoping for improvement from rookie OF George Springer, who hit 20 HR in 345 PAs as a rookie in 2014 and lurking in the minors is highly touted slugger Jon Singleton, who flashed significant power in 2014 (13 HR, .168 ISO in 362 PAs) but otherwise couldn’t put the bat on the ball (.168/.285/.335, with a 37% strikeout rate). The power is not only real, but deep, with 5-6 potential 20 HR hitters in the lineup. Also, while Jed Lowrie’s power evaporated in 2014, he hit 15 HRs in 2013 and PECOTA suggests that power will bounce back a tad in 2014. On top of those power hitters, the Astros boast one of the American League’s best leadoff hitters, in batting champ Jose Altuve (.341/.377/.453).
But can they score runs? Despite the power, the Astros struggled to score–they were 21st in MLB (2nd to last in the AL) with 629 offensive runs. Because they had such a low contract rate, the K-prone Astros had trouble getting guys on base, as demonstrated by their 21st ranking in team OBP (.309). While the Astros walked at a decent rate (12th in MLB with 495 walks), it was a home run or nothing, as the team finished 25th in total hits, the primary driver of their low OBP. And it wasn’t a fluke–the Astros had a almost-exactly average BABIP. The Astros should generate some more baserunners in 2015 with the additions of Valbuena and Lowrie, each who bring a roughly league-average OBP to the lineup. The Ks were a thing of legend, as the Astros struck out an MLB 2nd worst 1442 times. That number is likely to stay in the stratosphere with the addition of K-prone Rasmus (124 Ks) and Valbuena (113 Ks in 149 games), and a full season from Springer (114 Ks in 78 games). Since so much of the Astros’ OBP problems are generated by swings and misses, any improvement to the contact rate will help the team’s run generation significantly.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
At first blush, the Astros look like a team that swings from its heels early and often, as displayed by their huge strikeout numbers. But as noted above, that really isn’t so. While they have an Astros-nomical 23.8% SO% (good for 2nd in MLB behind the Cubs), their walk rate is an excellent 8.2% (9th in MLB). It kinda figures that a team as dedicated to analytics as the Astros essentially hits like Adam Dunn.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
New manager AJ Hinch has a reputation as one of the most analytical managers in baseball–something that probably doesn’t help when you are the manager of the Luddite Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2009, Arizona was around league average in bunts, but then as a team they bunted only 17 times in three months with Hinch before he was toppled from the wobbly chair in 2010. The DBacks stole bases and pinch hit at about a league average rate in 2009 and during his tenure in 2010. Hinch spent the last 4 years as VP of professional scouting for the San Diego Padres, where he served as interim General Manager at the end of the season. As noted in the BP annual, in theory this is a perfect match–an analytics manager in an “Extreme Moneyball” organization.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
As noted above, Lowrie’s power vanished in 2014 and with it most of his offensive value. Lowrie doesn’t have a ton of defensive range, though he’s a reliable fielder on balls hit to him. Jonathan Viller was dreadful in 2013 (.243/.321/.319 in 58 games) and 2014 (.209/.267/.354 in 87 games), but he is only 23 and has had some minor league success. Marwin Gonzalez (.277/.327/.400 in 2013 games in 2014) is also an option at SS. And of course, waiting in the wings is BP #3 overall prospect, 19-year-old Carlos Correa.
Another interesting question is what to do with Singleton–who displayed a ton of power but not much else in 2014. First base will probably be manned primarily by some combination of Chris Carter (.227/.308/491 with 37 HR and .264 ISO) and Gattis, with the other getting regular ABs as the DH. But the Astros could get Singleton some PAs by moving Gattis to LF, where he played 48 games in 2013, and Springer or Rasmus to CF. If Singleton can hit MLB pitching on a regular basis, the offensive boost might be worth some adventure in the outfield.
Optimal Astros Lineup:
Vs RHP vs LHP
2b Jose Altuve 2b Altuve
RF George Springer RF Springer
LF Colby Rasmus LF Rasmus
1b Chris Carter 1b Carter
DH Evan Gattis DH Gattis
3b Luis Valbuena SS Lowrie
SS Jed Lowrie C Castro
C Jason Castro 3b Matt Dominguez
CF Jake Marisnick CF Marisnick
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
Minute Maid park has played generally average over the past three years, with a slight advantage to home run hitters:
Triples and Home Runs are up a bit compared to the rest of the league, while singles are a bit depressed. The park plays nearly equally for both left-handed and right-handed hitters, with the sole exception that over the past two years the park has been slightly more friendly for home run hitters who are left-handed (106) versus right-handed hitters (104).
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
At first blush, the Astros were not a very good defensive team, finishing 21st in DRS in 2014. Adding Rasmus and Gattis to the mix won’t help this much, but the Astros’ defensive metrics are somewhat deceiving. As noted by SB Nation blog The Crawfish Boxes, The Astros shifted more than any other team in 2014 and analytic-minded AJ Hinch should continue that tradition. The Astros’ 643 out-of-zone plays in 2014 were 34% higher than average, and nearly 100 plays better than the 2nd best New York Yankees (547). That explains why Altuve can be rated as a poor defender, and yet he was 8th in MLB among 2B turning unlikely (10-40%) batted balls into outs (26.3%). The Astros should continue to take advantage of their ability to position defensive players, and thus make up for any inefficiencies.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
The Astros have a stable of decent, mainly pitch-to-contact starters with exceptional control. Two starters had break-out seasons for the Astros in 2014. First was 27-year-old Collin McHugh, who had a breakout campaign after flailing with the Mets and Rockies in 2012 and 2013. McHugh was the lone strikeout artist on the staff, with a K rate of 9.1 SO/9 and a K percentage well above league average. His 2.73 ERA in 2014 was fueled by a .263 BABIP, and so he is a prime candidate for regression. Also breaking out in 2014 was lefty Dallas Keuchel, who threw a career high 200 IP and became the first Astros starter in 17 years to throw 5 complete games. Keuchel doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters (6.6 K/9 in 2014), but generates a ton of ground balls. His 63.5% GB% rate was best in the majors–by an astounding 6.5% over the second-best pitcher. The next three guys in the rotation, Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Brad Peacock, are far less exciting. All three have excellent control, Oberholtzer in particular gave up only 1.75 BB/9, good for 18th among starters with 135+ innings. All are significantly below average in strikeout rates. The Astros acquired Dan Straily in the Dexter Fowler trade and signed Roberto Hernandez (the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona) to a minor-league deal. Peacock is probably the favorite for the #5 starter job, but will miss the beginning of the season due to hip surgery. Until he comes back, several candidates including Straily, Hernandez, Jake Buchanen (who had a 4.58 ERA and a 1.5 WHIP in 17 games as a rookie), and Asher Wojciechowski (4.74 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 7.0 K/9 in AAA Oklahoma City) will challenge for the #5 spot.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
The Astros bullpen was downright dreadful in 2014 and rebuilding it was a top offseason priority. The Astros came out of the winter meetings with Luke Gregerson (3 years, $18.5MM contract) and Pat Neshek (2 years, $12.5MM), both of whom are a substantial upgrade. They will join 2014 saves leader Chad Qualls to form a solid, if not exciting, back-end of the bullpen. Gregerson’s deal included incentives related to closing and he should be the leader in the open competition for the closer role. Gregerson is yet another strike-thrower who doesn’t generate a ton of strikeouts (7.3 K/9 in 72.1 IP with Oakland). Neshek doesn’t walk anybody either and had a career year in 2014 with the Cardinals. Qualls issued 5 walks in 51.1 innings. One of these three will earn the closer role, and AJ Hinch has already stated that he will not go with a bullpen by committee. Rounding out the bullpen is 2014 opening day closer Josh Fields, who pitched his way out of the closer’s job before reclaiming it in September. Fields’ 4.45 ERA was due to an extreme BABIP (.343) and was over 2 runs higher than his FIP (2.12). Fields and lefty Tony Sipp are the only two pitchers out of the Astros bullpen that can generate swings and misses (11.5 and 11.2 K/9 respectively).
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
As noted above, the Astros relied on the shift more than any team in baseball. One article from MLB.com indicates that the Astros lead the MLB in using the shift to create extra outs. Given Hinch’s sabrmetric bent, I see no reason why this will not continue in 2015.
The Astros were 7th in MLB in turning double plays in 2014 with 373 and according to Fangraphs’ Team Double Play Runs, they were about league average at 13th overall, 0.4 runs above average. In the outfield, only Jake Marisnick is above average, both in range and arm. Putting Marisnick in CF would paper over the defensive deficiencies of Rasmus (presumably in left) and Springer. If the Astros decide to start Gattis primarily in left field, that means either Rasmus (who was dreadful in center in 2014) or Springer (who played CF in the minors) will patrol center field. That will give the Astros an outfield rarely seen outside of beer league softball. I would expect Marisnick to see significant action as a defensive replacement if that is the case.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Jason Castro had a breakout season as a pitch framer in 2014. After being below average in his first two seasons, he was rated 12th in Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs Added by Count, with 12.3. But he’s no Hank Conger, who is a terrific defensive catcher overall and ranked 3rd in FRA. Neither catcher is particularly skilled at controlling the running game. Castro throws out a pedestrian 24.3% of baserunners over his career, and 22.1% in 2014. Conger is no better, throwing out 22.4% of baserunners over his career.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
As noted above, Minute Maid Park plays fairly neutrally, except for home runs. But that isn’t much of a problem for a groundball heavy rotation like the Astros.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The Astros feature 3 players in BP’s Top 101 Prospects of 2015: SS Carlos Correa (3), RHP Mark Appel (35) and RHP Vincent Velasquez (75). Despite a number of promotions to MLB, the Astros are still the 12th rated organization in MLB. Besides the aforementioned Singleton, the Astros have Appel lurking probably in AAA. Alex White, who went through Tommy John surgery in 2012, will probably try to rebuild arm strength in AAA to start the season.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
The Astros took a big step forward in 2014 and have been a trendy pick to contend for one of the Wild Cards in 2015. But while they spent some money on upgrading the bullpen and brought in some veteran talent, I think they are still in “building” mode. And I think that’s a good plan, the Astros have a young, exciting core of players and there are several high-impact players in the minors. The Astros increased payroll by $20MM over 2014 and ownership is likely to have more funds available after the Astros’ nightmere-ish television contract problems were resolved over the winter (for the past several years, millions of Houstonians did not have access to Astros games on TV resulting in several 0.0 Nielson ratings).
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
To the extent the Astros are looking to make a move, I think they need to add a top of the rotation starter. Not necessarily a #1–but another 4 WAR pitcher like McHugh and Keuchel would be a significant boost to the Astros playoff chances. But with Appel having a decent chance at 2015 mid-season debuts and Velasquez lurking in high-A, it’s not a do-or-die proposition. Still, if the right pitcher comes along at the right price, it would make the 2015 significantly better.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
The Astros are going to be a fun team to watch. They are going to hit a ton of home runs and generate a ton of strikeouts. Unless they improve their contact %, the Astros will probably lose more games than they should because many of those home runs are going to be of the solo variety. The rotation is decent, but not terribly exciting after the top two, and the bullpen should be improved from 2014. Both PECOTA and Fangraphs are predicting another season of significant improvement, with the Astros winning 77 or 78 games. Frankly, that strikes me as just about right. I expect that the Astros will be around .500 all season and should be in the race for the 2nd wildcard at least into September. But you can see why fans are excited and people are predicting this team to surprise in 2014. A breakout performance from, say, Brett Oberholtzer would put the Astros solidly in the top 1/3rd of pitching staffs and if they can simultaneously generate more baserunners, this could be a team to contend with.
I expect Houston to go 80-82 this year, a bit better than the projections, and finish in 4th place ahead of Texas.
Next post: Season Preview Series, Part 8: The Baltimore Orioles in a Box
Previous post: Can David Wright Right His Course?