If you haven’t read Part One of this series, please check it out.
Today, we examine the Houston Astros, the second-most strikeout-happy team in Major League Baseball last season, and the fourth-most vulnerable club in baseball history. They won only 70 games, and scored fewer runs per game than all but one American League team in 2014.
Houston turned over five of their nine lineup spots this winter, but in four of the five cases, they made either a lateral move or one that boosted their expected strikeout rate, rather than reducing it. Truly, they’re America’s team. In the same way that America treats its obesity problems with deflection and overcompensation, the Astros are treating their strikeout problem by trying to get better at everything except putting the bat on the ball. They’re as shameless and as whiff-tastic as a Cinnabon stand, a symbol of the prosperous potential in seemingly self-destructive behavior. The Astros struck out too much in 2014, but their plan for improving their offense this season turned out to be, boldly: strike out even more.
Here are the Astros’ cumulative lines at first base, at third base and in left field last season:
At the other six positions, they were either close to average (catcher, shortstop, right field), or well above it (designated hitter, second base, center field). They traded Dexter Fowler to help shore up third base, so they’ll have to hope that some combination of newcomer Colby Rasmus and post-hype prospect Jake Marisnick can make up for Fowler’s absence, but they’re not one of those teams with holes at five positions. There were a few gigantic holes in an otherwise dangerous lineup in 2014, so moving from bad to good simply means finding their way to respectability in those problem areas.
The most logical approach to solving those problems might have been finding some players at the given spots who made more contact. To save you some long division, the three positions produced collective strikeout rates of 33.1 percent, 20.6 percent and 23.3 percent, respectively. Even at third base, where contact rate might have been the greatest strength of their collective effort, they fanned more than the league average. GM Jeff Luhnow, though, decided to go the other way.
Obviously, Jon Singleton is a wild card at this spot. His ghastly strikeout rate and miserable BABIP suggest a seriously flawed game, but he showed strong patience and power. For just that reason, the Astros are going to give the man to whom they committed $10 million last summer another chance—kind of. The arrival of Gattis and the shoving of George Springer to a corner outfield spot complicate that somewhat, because presumably, Chris Carter and Gattis are now in position to eat into Singleton’s playing time somewhat, even as they share DH and occasional left-field duties, as well.
Singleton should still get at least as many plate appearances at the spot as he did last season, and hopefully, he’ll strike out less. With Gattis and Carter becoming the primary alternatives there, we can’t expect a drop in the strikeout rate provided by role players at the position. The hope will be that Singleton’s BABIP, at least, rises to meet the positive power and approach indicators. The hope will be that, despite no fewer swings and misses, the Astros will get many more hits and many more homers from the position. (Jesus Guzman and Marc Krauss combined for only five bombs in 70 total games. That should be easy to top, no matter who gets those vacated plate appearances.)
Luis Valbuena will take over for Matt Dominguez as the primary third baseman. Valbuena doesn’t have power surpassing that of Dominguez, also struggles to post solid BABIPs and had a slightly worse strikeout rate than Dominguez did in 2014. In this case, Luhnow and the Astros are biting the bullet of continued contact problems in the name of getting some better at-bats out of the position. Valbuena posted a career-best .341 OBP in 2014, and even figuring in both regression and some blending of Dominguez into the lineup against lefties, bringing in Valbuena could be worth 60 or 70 points of OBP at the hot corner over the course of the coming season. He’s one case in which strikeouts really are a necessary evil, the acceptable byproduct of good, patient, grinding at-bats.
The on-base skills Houston got from the many different people whom they auditioned in left field last season weren’t the main problem, not the way they were at the infield corner spots. Rather, the issue was a dearth of power. Nine total homers from left field is about 10 too few for a team with any hope of competing. Only the Mets had a lower collective slugging average in left field. Fourteen teams slugged at least .433 at the position.
Enter Evan Gattis. Maybe Gattis will end up spending significant time at first base, behind the plate or as the DH, but in even 200 plate appearances in left field, he would likely match the team’s total homer production at that spot a year ago. Gattis will strike out as much as Robbie Grossman did, but he’ll put a charge into the ball much, much more often than Grossman did.
The Astros also moved to address shortstop, even though their production there didn’t lag far behind that of the league as a whole. Jed Lowrie is the exception to the rule of the team’s winter additions, in that he strikes out considerably less than the league-average batter. Lowrie might help bring the team’s strikeout rate back to Earth slightly, though his arrival will probably be offset by those of Rasmus and Gattis, in that regard. The team also intends to give expanded roles to Jake Marisnick and George Springer this season, and that’s going to mean even higher strikeout rates across the outfield, as those two take playing time away from Alex Presley and other bad but less strikeout-prone hitters.
Still, the Astros are moving forward, and ignoring the strikeout is part of their means of doing so. They had the fifth-most home runs, ninth-highest isolated power and sixth-highest BABIP with two strikes against them in 2014, and a major reason for that is that they don’t ask their hitters to modulate their approaches very much in those situations. It’s also true, though sometimes overstated, that players are sometimes available only because of their ugly strikeout numbers, or are available at a much cheaper acquisition cost because of that flaw. Colby Rasmus will cost about $1.5 million less than Dexter Fowler in 2015, though they have similar overall value.
Trimming fat and staying in shape is part of the ideal lifestyle, but none of our lives are ideal. Some healthy and successful people build their lives around making other uses of their time and energy, and accept fatness as the cost of doing business. The Astros entered the winter with three glaring holes to fill, and found that the best way to fill them was to embrace their identity: vulnerable to striking out, but dangerous all the way until the third strike hits the catcher’s mitt. A team in a different position would have had to do things differently, making structural changes that included reducing the team-wide strikeout rate as part of a shuffling of the entire deck. It’s almost a coincidence that Houston ended up getting even more strikeout-prone. The only intentional element of it is that most teams would have shied away from adding anyone who might exacerbate the strikeout problem. This offense should be above-average in 2015, but permitting so many strikeouts is an experiment, and if it goes wrong, the naysayers will actually have a decent case that the team took an undue risk by building such an all-or-nothing attack.
Articles in this series:The Case for Not Trading Carlos Martinez
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