Monday, May 23, 2016

Let's check out Brian T. Smith's latest offering

Brian T. Smith has a gem following the Rangers' 9-2 shellacking of the Astros yesterday. With an assist from our good buddy KevinBassStache (who planted the seed of the idea in my angry little head), let's pick it apart for fun.

We'd give you (the Astros) a tombstone on May 23. But you get what you pay for. And the 2016 Astros have barely been worth a thing.

I'm on board so far.

Considering the most disappointing team in the sport has scored five runs in its last 36 innings, it's no wonder the Astros' frazzled fans are wondering such crazy things as why Crane still hasn't spent any real money on his club...

I don't know that payroll is the first thing on Astros fans' collective minds. Payroll criticism is the Olney Gambit - more concern in the media than with fans. Because I can look objectively and see that they're paying Rasmus almost $16 million (which, I still believe the front office didn't think he would accept the qualifying offer. No other potential free agent had done so before.) 

I can look objectively and see that George Springer, Carlos Correa, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, Ken Giles, Mike Fiers, Will Harris are all pre-arbitration players and are making approximately league-minimum. I can look objectively and see that, combined, the Astros are paying Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa slightly over $4 million. That's not indicative of an unwillingness to spend, that's indicative of taking advantage of baseball's economics. 

In the last 18 months the Astros have spent about $50 million on Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Tony Sipp. Doug Fister looks like a steal at $7 million. They've been willing to spend payroll on players to fit their needs at the time. It's debatable how effective that money has been spent, but the construct of the team hasn't called for throwing $100 million at a free agent in the last two offseasons.  And remember, if Cole Hamels wasn't such an ass-clown pony boy (I don't even know what that means), the Astros would be paying him $23.5 million for each of the next three seasons to pitch in Houston. 

...or when general manager Jeff Luhnow is going to construct an everyday lineup that backs the year-plus hype.

I think A.J. Hinch makes out the lineup. Yeah, I'd prefer it if Luhnow sent Marisnick back to Triple-A, but it's Hinch who sits Tony Kemp on the bench while Marisnick tries to hit the weight of an Olympic gymnast. 

"The year-plus hype" was created by the Astros - the same players who currently make up the team now - starting out the 2015 season with an 18-7 record. That's where the hype comes from, the fact that these same guys came out so hot to begin last season.

But as a backward year has unfolded, it hasn't been the team's arms that have dragged this ballclub down...

Yes it has. Astros starters have combined for a -2.5 WAR - 29th in MLB. Relievers have a -1.3 WAR- 25th in MLB. In only twelve of the Astros' 45 games has a starting pitcher thrown a start with a Game Score of 60 or better. They've had seven starts with a Game Score under 30. This team isn't the mid-90s Braves with a 2012 Astros offense. The pitching deserves as much of the blame as the hitting, because - when the starting pitching does its job, you can often count on the bullpen to struggle. The Astros lost five of those 12 starts with a GS over 60. 

The 2016 Stros can't hit. And they don't have the lineup to realistically try.

Jason Castro's OPS is currently 110 points higher than it was in 2015. Colby Rasmus's OPS is 17 points higher than his 8-year career average. George Springer's batting average in 2016: .254. His career batting average: .256. His .802 OPS is currently only 12 points lower than his career OPS. Evan Gattis' .735 OPS in slightly lower than his .770 career OPS, and is 13 points lower than is 2015 OPS. Carlos Correa has struggled more this season than he did in his rookie campaign...but he's a 21-year old making adjustments after a ROY season.

Luis Valbuena's OPS is 144 points lower than it was in 2015, and is 90 points lower than his career OPS. Tyler White's OBP dipped below .300 yesterday and he has cooled off considerably after the heroics of his first week in the Majors. Carlos Gomez is hurt and terrible and his replacement, Jake Marisnick, is healthy and terrible. Super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez's .227 batting average is 52 points lower than his 2015 average, and his .683 OPS is 76 points lower than his 2015, but is exactly in line with his career OPS.

The 2016 Astros' struggles to hit are well-documented, and saying that they're a good-hitting team would be an overstatement. But to say that they "don't have the lineup to realistically try" is misguided. All except White has a track record of at least marginal success, and even he was a logical choice to make the Opening Day roster based on minor-league track record and the Spring Training he enjoyed. The Astros are trying to squeeze whatever value Valbuena has left out of this season, but it's clear he's running out of time - even if Hinch won't play Colin Moran. 

Combined batting average at third base entering Sunday: a lifeless .176. Center field: .184; Catcher: .193. First base: a whopping .232. I know BA is a little outdated in the new millennium, but if you can't hit, you can't hit. 

We've addressed Valbuena. We've addressed Gomez and Marisnick. None of those three have shown that they are worthy of being everyday options for the Astros. But let's try to have a little bit more focus here:

For all the crap I've given Jason Castro over the last three seasons, I'm perfectly happy to point out that his 115 wRC+ is 6th among catchers with 120 PAs this season and is 2nd in the American League behind Wellington Castillo. His .360 OBP is 4th among catchers in the Majors. Since he simplified his swing he is hitting .300/.447/.533. On a team with a lot of problems, Jason Castro is not one of them.

Yes, Brian Smith, batting average is a little outdated because it only tells a portion of an offensive story. The Astros' .312 OBP is 21st in the Majors - 10th in the AL. It's not great, but it's hardly an indictment of an organization. Their 10.1% BB% is 4th in the Majors. Their .173 ISO is 8th in the Majors. Their .402 SLG is precisely middle-of-the-pack in the Majors and 8th in the AL. Yes, the Astros' batting average is stupidly low - 29th in MLB, last in the AL - but that is simply one very limited and narrow way to measure an offense.

And a team that still refuses to spend cash like it plays in the fourth-largest city in the country...

Oh, we're back to this, okay.

...the Astros are about $145 million off the Dodgers' MLB-leading pace...

We're comparing the Astros' payroll to the Dodgers' payroll? The Dodgers have one of the most expensive teams in baseball history, and if we want to go down this rabbit-hole you can say that the Yankees are $17 million of the Dodgers' MLB-leading pace, the Red Sox are $45 million off the Dodgers' MLB-leading pace, the Tigers are about $50 million off the Dodgers' MLB leading pace.

At 27.1 years of age, the Astros have the 2nd-youngest offensive roster in baseball. Castro, Rasmus, and Gattis are in their Age 29 season. Valbuena and Gomez are 30. And you know what the Dodgers' MLB-leading payroll pace has gotten them? 22-23, 3rd in the NL West, 4.5 GB of the Giants. The Astros will pay Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve a smidge over $4m in 2016. The Dodgers are paying Carl Crawford over $21m to put up a .501 OPS in a part-time role. Young players do not cost as much as older players, and payroll is not indicative of on-field success.

Jake Marisnick's a better overall option than MIA Carlos Gomez as is.

Trying to determine if Gomez is better than Marisnick is like trying to determine if you would rather have someone rub their choad or the actual hole of their ass across your top lip.

But Marisnick's sweet running outfield catches against the Rangers were erased by the fact he's batting a measly .116 and has no business being written into a major league lineup right now.

I cannot agree with this more whole-heartedly.

The same can be said of most of the Astros' "hitters," who are pretty much the same guys who either swung big or missed hard throughout 2015. 

Hey hold up. Putting "hit" in quotation marks is my bit. While it is true that "these are pretty much the same guys," Houston is scoring 4.0 runs/game, 20th in the Majors and 11th in the AL. They are allowing 4.8 runs/game, 25th in the Majors and 13th in the AL. Last year the Astros scored 4.5 runs/game, but allowed 3.8 runs/game. While Valbuena/Gomez/Marisnick have been a disaster, and Tyler White looks very much like a rookie, the Astros brought the same guys back while theoretically improving the bullpen and rotation and hoping that some of the statistical anomalies of 1-run games and "clutch hitting" would regress back to the mean. The Astros may be guilty of misreading the stats, but a lot of people can be found guilty of the same crime.

Take away Jose Altuve and what does this team really have at the plate? Potential unfulfilled...in Springer and Correa, who are batting below .255 with a combined 99 Ks in 347 at-bats.

Okay, first of all, you can't just "take away Jose Altuve." Altuve has been unbelievable. A five-game swing in the standings and Altuve gets mentioned for MVP talk. But to call Springer and Correa "potential unfulfilled" is borderline irresponsible. Correa is 21 years old and has played in 143 games - not even a full season of Major League Baseball. Springer has played in 225 career games and has 999 career Plate Appearances. He has 45 home runs and a career .814 OPS. Are they struggling as much as it seems? Correa's power is down from last year (.512 SLG in 2015 to .418 SLG in 2016), but he still has a 114 OPS+ and HE'S 21 YEARS OLD.

Prior to Sunday, the franchise was tied for sixth in MLB in home runs (26) this month while ranking second in walks (86) and ninth in RBIs (86). But when they fail to make contact - which is quite often since 2013 - they don't do anything at all.

Wait. "When they fail to make contact - which is quite often since 2013 - they don't do anything at all." That is true. If you don't make contact, you don't do anything.

And at 24.2% the Astros do have the highest K% in baseball since 2013. But the 2013-2014 Astros are a different animal than the 2015-2016 Astros. They were in a different position in their rebuilding process. The 2013 Astros had Carlos Pena at DH, Matt Dominguez at 3B, Brandon Barnes in CF. J.D. Martinez had not yet turned himself into the second coming of Ty Cobb, posting a .650 OPS in 310 PAs. The 2014 Astros were coming out of it, promoting George Springer and seeing Jose Altuve return to form. But Robbie Grossman still played in 103 games. Jon Singleton hit .168 with a .620 OPS. Matt Dominguez played in 157 games with a .586 OPS. You can compare the 2013-2014 Astros to the 2016 Astros, but you might as well stop with the color scheme. Of the main lineup from 2014 only Castro, Altuve and Springer remain. Keuchel and McHugh are still in the rotation, but Feldman has shifted to the bullpen; Fields has been sent down, and Sipp is still working in the bullpen.

But no, Smith is right, not making contact is not ideal. I'll give him that.

These Astros aren't slumping, either. The same trends seen for the majority of 2015 have been painfully evident this year. When they put up nine runs in Boston? That's the real anomaly.

The Astros are scoring half a run per game less than they did in 2015. We've established that. They have played 45 games and have scored 5+ runs in 21 of them.

Nine runs in a game is the anomaly for the Houston Astros? Nine runs in a game is an anomaly for every team. There have been 1308 games played in MLB this year, and teams have scored at least nine runs in just 8.9% of them. And teams are 110-7 in games where 9+ runs are scored. It's even more of an anomaly in the American League. 651 games have been played in the AL and teams have scored nine runs in 54 of them - 7.9% of the total games. Only three games in the American League have been lost when a team has scored at least nine runs. That nine-run game in Boston is one of them because the pitching, which according to Smith isn't the problem, gave up ten runs. That's the real anomaly.

At its heart, this is still a cheap roster with little up-front investment. Calling up Tony Kemp and Colin Moran was fun for a few hours on Twitter. But both received phone calls ahead of the expected schedule and are only in The Show because the big league alternatives have been swinging at air.

Okay, back to Olney's Gambit. But typically the only reasons someone gets called up from the minors is because of injuries or because the "big league alternatives" aren't performing to their ability. The Astros presumably did not call Kemp and Moran to the Majors as a favor, or to give them a vacation. This is where I'll put some blame on Hinch by insisting on playing Valbuena and Marisnick over Moran and Kemp.

Against lefties this season Marisnick is 1x20 with a .050/.136/.100 line. Kemp's minor-league splits don't offer great hope for success against lefties, but it's at least worth a shot, right? Colin Moran, however, has hit .350/.395/.425 against lefties at Triple-A this season, and against lefty Cesar Ramos on Saturday? Moran rode the bench - didn't even get a single plate appearance. Even using Moran as a platoon option is being mishandled. I just don't understand why you're going to go to the trouble of adding someone to the 40-Man roster, call them up, and then not see what they can do in a limited role.

Manager A.J. Hinch is a less-than-average 103-104 since becoming Bo Porter's replacement. But this has nothing to do with the man who moves the pieces around. This is on the actual parts themselves: roster construction, daily lineup, hoping cheapness pays off instead of blending the promise of youth with proven bats. 

While it's true that the sum of the parts of the 2016 Astros are greater than the whole, everyone is to blame for the failings of this season to this point. The daily lineup is absolutely on Hinch. I don't believe the Astros are hoping "cheapness" pays off - this is the next logical step in the rebuilding process, seeing which of these guys is worth the long-term investment. You don't know which of the youth will pan out yet, so you don't know which "proven bats" to bring in. Carlos Gomez was a "proven bat," even if the Astros were hoping the sand pouring out of his career hourglass was moving a little bit more slowly.

The failings of the Astros are many. It's not just the offense. It's not just the pitching. It's not just the payroll. It's not just the lineups. It's not just Hinch. It's not just Marisnick. It's not just Gomez. It's not just Luhnow. It's not just youth. It's a combination of all of these things, and trying to paint a simplified picture ("Offense is offensive! Spend moneys!") is disingenuous and doesn't come anywhere close to being able to solve the probelm.

Jeff Luhnow: A Retrospective (Part 3)

This is the third part of an ongoing series where I do my best to recap and grade each of Jeff Luhnow's major decisions since taking over the Astros in December 2011. (part 1part 2)

December 3, 2013
Traded Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles to the Colorado Rockies. Received Dexter Fowler.

If players were measured by grit, Barnes would be an inner-circle Hall of Famer. The outfielder patrolled Tal’s Hill with reckless abandon during the 2013 season but hit just .240. He’s done essentially the same at Coors Field and is still with the Rockies though the speed that once made him exciting has receded at age 30.

Taken 38th overall in 2008 by the Astros, Lyles was called up to the majors at a really young age. Seriously, take a guess at how old he is. Doesn’t it seem like forever ago that he pitched with the Astros? He’s 25. That’s younger than Jose Altuve. Age aside, Lyles has never lived up to the potential of his draft spot. He’s had just one year (2014) with an ERA below 5. He is still with the Rockies.
Dexter Fowler is an on-base machine. Since his first full season at age 23, his OBP has never dipped below .350. In 2014 he hit .276/.375/.399 while playing center field for the Astros. But for all the value his bat provide, Fowler rated as one of the worst defenders in baseball. It was his second year of arbitration and the Astros paid $7.35 million.

Two replacement level players for a major league regular is a win in anyone’s book.

Grade: B+

December 6, 2013
Signed Scott Feldman as a free agent.

After coming up with the Rangers as a reliever, Feldman established himself as an innings eating starter by his fourth full season. In 2009, he won 17 games with a 114 ERA+. He signed a 3yr/$30MM contract with the Astros and has been exactly the back of the rotation starter they signed him to be.

Grade: B

December 18, 2013
Selected Collin McHugh off waivers from the Colorado Rockies.

McHugh had an ERA approaching 10 when the Astros scooped him up from the Rockies. Luhnow said that McHugh’s curveball had one of the best spin rates in baseball and hypothesized that it would play up if he would throw more high fastballs and escaped the thin air of Coors Field. All McHugh did in his first season with the Astros was post a 2.73 ERA, striking out a batter per inning and finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. In 2015, he finished eighth in the Cy Young voting due in large part to his 19 wins.

Grade: A+

March 22, 2014
Released J.D. Martinez.

There’s no beating around the bush here – this was a terrible move. A defendable move at the time, sure, but terrible none the less. Martinez was just 25 when the Astros gave up on him after three seasons in the majors. By now you know the story: he re-tooled his swing but the Astros didn’t give him a chance to showcase it in Spring Training. He was immediately scooped up by the Tigers (who had expressed interest in trading for him) and turned into a bona fide superstar. In 2014, while the Astros trotted out Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes in left field, Martinez hit .315/.358/.553 with 23 home runs. And it wasn’t a fluke. In 2015 he hit 30 home runs and received MVP votes. All told, he has had a 142 OPS+ in two-plus seasons with Detroit and has been worth almost 10 WAR.

Grade: F

May 1, 2014
Singed Tony Sipp as a free agent.

For reasons I still do not understand, Arizona granted Sipp free agency while he had a 0.90 ERA in Triple-A in early 2014. The Astros picked him up for the league minimum salary and he quickly became one of their more reliable relievers. A lefty capable of getting hitters on both sides of the plate out, Sipp had a career year in 2015 when he struck out over a batter per inning and had a 1.99 ERA.

Grade: A

June 7, 2014
Drafted Brady Aiken first overall. Welp. No need going into that here. Suffice to say this did not turn out how either party had hoped. Carlos Rodon, Kyle Schwarber, Aaron Nola, Michael Conorto were taken within the first ten picks and have already made their big league debuts.

Other Astros draftees – Derek Fisher, A.J. Reed, J.D. Davis and Daniel Mengden. All legitimate prospects. It’s probably way too soon to put a grade on a draft so recent, but hey, that’s what they pay me the big bucks for. (On an unrelated note, if anyone would like to pay me The Big Bucks, it would be greatly appreciated.)

Grade: C

July 31, 2014
Traded Austin Wates, Jarred Cosart and Enrique Hernandez to the Miami Marlins. Received Francis Martes, Colin Moran, Jake Marisnick and a 2015 compensation draft pick.

Ha.

Haha.

Hahahahahahahahaha.

Wates never made it above Triple-A and was released following the 2015 season.

Cosart, when he wasn’t busy complaining about rookies throwing bullpen sessions at the major league park, barely struck out more batters than he walked despite a 95 MPH cutter. He finished the 2014 season on a tear with the Marlins, posting a 2.39 ERA in 10 starts but was sent to Triple-A in 2015 after a terrible start to the season. He is still bouncing between the big leagues and the minors for Miami.

A super-utility player and a super-fun dude, Hernandez played in all of 18 games for the Marlins before they trade him to the Dodgers where he comes off the bench and jumps around in banana suits. 
Francis Martes had a 5.18 ERA in rookie ball when he was traded, but the Astros are said to have seen something they really wanted in him. All he’s done since then is become a top 100 prospect and a potential frontline starter. He is still just 20 years old and is currently in Double-A after posting a 2.04 ERA across three levels of competition in 2015.

The Astros considered drafting Moran No. 1 overall in 2013, but they chose Mark Appel instead. Pay no attention to that other third baseman who went to the Cubs at No. 2. None of the tools stand out when you watch Moran play, but there is no doubting hit ability to put bat to ball. He sports a .299/.356/.426 career line in the minors.

Jake Marisnick immediately took over as the everyday center fielder when the Astros acquired him. Lighting fast with great instincts, Marisnick is a fantastic defender – the only question was whether he could hit. In 51 games with Houston in 2014, he hit .272 but his production dropped off significantly in his first full season, hitting .236 over 133 games. He made the Opening Day roster in 2016 but is currently at Houston’s Triple-A affiliate.

The Astros used the pick they got in this trade to select Daz Cameron 37th overall in 2015. The toolsy 19-year-old has a long way to go to reach the big leagues, but many had him pegged as a top 10 talent in the draft that fell only due to signability concerns. Only the Astros were able to match his asking price and his career could take this trade from excellent to excellent-er.

Grade: A++

November 3, 2014
Selected Will Harris off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Diamondbacks apparently couldn’t find room on their 40-man roster for a man who has a 1.62 ERA with a 248 ERA+ in 88.2 innings with the Astros. Harris has been one of, if not the, best relievers in the Astros bullpen. As of now, he has locked down the 8th inning role for A.J. Hinch.
If you’re keeping track at home, two of the Astros top relievers (Sipp and Harris) have essentially been given to the club by Arizona. It’s like they’re snakebitten or something.

Grade: A+

November 5, 2014
Traded Carlos Perez and Nick Tropeano to the Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim. Received Hank Conger.

If you will remember, Perez was part of the mega-trade with the Blue Jays in 2012. He played in 86 games with the Angels in 2015, hitting .250/.299/.346 while throwing out 38% of baserunners. He has taken over as their everyday catcher in 2016.

While he will never be confused as a top of the rotation talent, Tropeano has been a solid rotation piece for the Angles. In 15 games since being traded, he has struck out 77 batters in 74.1 innings with a 3.75 – good for a 101 ERA+.

Conger, meanwhile, hit .229/.311/.448 in 73 games as the Astros backup catcher in 2015. 42 people tried to steal a base on him. 41 succeeded. That is insane. He managed to scrape together 0.4 WAR thanks in large part to his excellent framing skills. Arguably his largest contribution to the club was his dancing robot in the dugout.

The Astros needed a backup catcher, but they traded away a better one than they got – not to mention the perfectly serviceable pitcher they gave up as well.


Grade: D

Monday Morning Hot Links

*The Masked Marvel has the recap of yesterday's season-ending loss to the Rangers, if you're into bondage and pain and whatnot.

*The Astros are off today. It is the 5th off-day in a row for the offense.

*Seven of the nine Rangers runs yesterday were scored with two outs.

*A.J. Hinch knows what's up when it comes to the Rangers:
They've just beat the hell out of us. They've come into our ballpark, at their ballpark, and they've just beat us. It doesn't mean it has to stay that way. We have a lot of games against these guys, but yeah, I'm tired of getting beat by them...We have to find a new approach against them.

*Angel Verdejo says elite opposing pitchers have given the Astros fits over the last four games. And I'll give you Chris Sale and Cole Hamels as tough opponents. But Colby Lewis? Cesar Ramos? Give me a f break. Hinch:
We've got to toughen up a little bit about those circumstances, whether it's a tough call or a line drive out. They give us 27 outs - we have to maximize them and overcome some of the negative vibe that can be created by being held scoreless and also not getting enough hits. 

So Hinch is noting "toughening up" and a "negative vibe" and this is what his role should be - keeping the team from pouting their way through a disappointing season.

*Dallas Keuchel was able to trot out the same postgame comments for the 10th time this season:
Ball is up, in hitter's counts. They've done a good job of taking advantage of the mistakes pitchers throw...I was the one that gave it up, so it's very frustrating...If I show up on a few pitches here and there, it's a totally different ballgame. It just seems like that's the way it's going right now.

*A.J. Reed, who has been on the DL with a strained hamstring, returned to Fresno's lineup yesterday. Really looking forward to the Astros calling him up and then sitting him on the bench in favor of Luis Valbuena or Tyler White.

*Brian Smith says Hinch will need to use his Stanford psych degree more this year than he did last year. Hinch:
I show up every day thinking today's the day that things are going to be good.

NOT TODAY, BOB!

*Erik Kratz was unconditionally released.

*I'm impressed that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Stefan Stevenson was able to write this piece will simultaneously tweaking his own nipples in glee.

*Oh cool, Yu Darvish is coming back on Saturday against Pittsburgh.

*It is 2016. You can order a pizza with a tweet. You can FaceTime with anyone around the world...from your watch. How it takes over a week to hold a hearing for an eight-game suspension appeal is absolutely beyond me. Furthermore, the decision on the appeal could take up to two days.

*Craig Kimbrel acknowledged to Nick Cafardo that there are some pretty significant differences between pitching in the American League as opposed to the National League. So just keep that in mind as you self-flagellate over Vince Velasquez and Ken Giles (...he said to himself)

*This pretty much says what you need to hear (and this was *before* yesterday's 11K game vs Hamels):

From the Office of the County Clerk - G45: Astros versus Rangers

Cole Hamels (4-0, 3.10) versus Dallas Keuchel (2-5, 5.43)

Anyone got a panic button handy??  I know just over a quarter of the season is gone, but the Astros not only have a poor record, but there are also concerns with how they have managed to lose games, and they are in the midst of prolonged slumps from key players.  Today's was Dallas Keuchel's turn to prolong his slump, and he continued pitching more like the 2013 version of himself than the 2015 version.  For most established, major league professional baseballers, playing like you did three years ago is a good thing.  For Dallas, not so much.  For Carlos Gómez, it would be great.

So Keuchel wore the loss in a 9-2 beat down.  The Rangers leave town with a sweep, all the Astros' lunch money, and a 25-19 record.  Meanwhile, the Astros are reeling at 17-28, good for the second-worst record in the American League and the fourth worst record in baseball.  They have a current losing streak twice as long as any winning streak this year.  And it isn't all an illusion, either, as the Astros have the third-worst run differential in the AL, although they are also just a lopsided series away from evening that up.

Being an Astros fan is hard.

Short-form of the recap today, thanks to the amount of time that has elapsed between the game and the writeup:

  • Kuechel.  Not good.  Keuchel has struggled with his command this year, and it was evident in this game.  He seems to have been missing mid-thigh a lot this year, instead of hammering the knees.  Plus, he relies on pitches that look like strikes until they break out of the zone, and lots of those seem to have missed the strike zone by a greater margin this year, making them clearly balls.  It is hard to get information on the latter, but we can look at the former thanks to the great work at baseballsavant.com:
    • 2015:
    • 2016:


How I interpret these is yes, Keuchel is missing in the middle of the zone more this year (12.5% of pitches mid-thigh in 2015 versus 14% in 2016) plus he is getting hammered more in that band in 2016.  Exit velocities are up across the board.  Command and control are everything for Keuchel, and in the fateful third inning earlier today, he was missing big when he was trying to throw out of the zone, and missing up when he was trying to hammer the knees.  Plus, he had trouble keeping his breaking ball down.  I am officially worried.

  • Speaking of the fateful third inning: Alan Ashby and Bill Brown were saying how good Keuchel looked in retiring the side in order in the first two frames, striking out two and getting four groundouts in the process.  Then the third happened - 0-2 hit by pitch on a back-foot breaking ball (Ryan Rua had no intention of moving out of the way) on the leadoff guy, then a double to the LF power alley that scored Rua, followed by two strikeouts for the first two outs, then a single, a walk, a double to deep CF and a single to shallow CF, before another strikeout.  Five runs in, on a HBP, a walk, two doubles and two singles.
  • Keuchel also was scored on in the fourth, after a lead off double (Ryan Rua again) put a RISP.  A full count single to CF scored the run - more good hitting from the Rangers catchers, who had done well the last two games.  And also a run in the sixth - two one-out singles, K, RBI single scored a run.  All singles well hit, all found large holes some against the shift.
  • Devenski made it look easy in the eighth, setting the side down on seven pitches.  Sipp got the ninth, and after a leadoff single, Drew Stubbs' TOOTBLAN helped the Astros immensely.  Stubbs was on first when Desmond singled to RF.  Stubbs initially had ideas that he could go first-to-third, got a little too far off second, and Correa positioned himself between Stubbs and second base to catch Springers' throw.  A DP ended the night for the Rangers offense.
  • Not a good night for the Astros "O" - five hits and three walks was the sum total of their offensive effort.  Lots of line drives seemed to result in outs.  Evan Gattis was the pick of the Astros - 2-4 with a long home run into the LF power alley off Cole Hamels in the sixth.  Jose Altuve (0-4) was responsible for the other RBI - a groundout to short with two RISP in the third.  Handsome Jake was responsible for the other extra-base hit - a line drive to CF that Ian Desmond misplayed, and it got behind him.  Marisnick went 1-2, with a walk.
  • Also on base twice was Jason Castro (1-3, BB).  His line looks healthier: .223/.360/.398.  Castro's OBP now ranks second in the team, behind Altuve's .413 mark and ahead of Springer's .350 and Correa's .349.  Go Castro!!
  • The Astros got a bit hosed on the strike zone again.  Keuchel needs the low strike - he didn't get much, but Hamels got a couple of calls.  This umpiring crew seem to have done the Astros no favours at all...



Up Next:
Thankfully, the Rangers head out of town.  Next is a day off, then a three-game set with the Orioles... yes, the AL East leading Orioles.  Sigh.

Chris Tillman (6-1, 2.61) versus Doug Fister (4-3, 4.22)

8 Eastern, 7 Central.  On Tuesday, remember.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Morning Hot Links

The Masked Marvel has the recap of yet another loss to the Rangers.

*If I'm doing the math right, since the beginning of the 2015 season the Astros are 6-18 against the Rangers with a -36 run differential. Five losses to Arlington this season have come by a combined total of eight runs.
*Fiers:
It's frustrating losing. We know we're better. We know we should be better right now and things just aren't happening like we want to. But the only thing we can do is come back tomorrow and just play baseball, really. Just everyone do their part and hopefully we can turn this thing around.

*Surprise! The Astros are SI's Most Underachieving team.

*Hinch wants the entire offense to become more consistent.

*Fiers' return to the rotation was solid, assisted by Jason Castro.

*McTaggart wrote up how Castro simplified his swing in Seattle.

*Scott Feldman's leg kick is giving him more velocity.

*The Astros haven't talked about moving Feliz to the rotation yet, at least for this season.

*Luke Gregerson was all set to go to law school until he got drafted in the 28th Round.

*Ken Rosenthal said (video link) that if the Astros don't turn it around, guys like Rasmus, Feldman, Castro, Fister, and Gomez could be on the move...but Gomez's value is "close to non-existent."

*The Braves signed Lucas Harrell.

From the Office of the County Clerk - G44: Astros versus Rangers

Cesar Ramos (0-2, 4.32) versus Mike Fiers (3-1, 4.63)

When the expectations were low for the Astros, I found myself always commenting that people should tune in, because at least you get to see one good team play.  Occasionally, in the dark most-of-decade-after-2005, the Astros were the team that was fun to watch.  Mostly, however, they managed to make opposing teams look like the '27 Yankees on offense, or the... uh... 2005 Astros in the pitching department.

It is no secret that the 2016 Astros are not playing very well.  They also seem to have a similar vibe from yesteryear about them: they can make any opposition starter look like Cy Young.  This was the third consecutive night that they managed to lose by a score of 2-1, making junk-balling lefty Cesar Ramos look like dominant Chris Sale in the process.  If anything, Ramos was even better than Sale, as he allowed only 2 hits and one walk in six frames, allowing only a solo home run to MarGo.  This is the third consecutive game where the Astros lost by a score of 2-1, the fifth consecutive one-run loss for the Astros (dating back to the loss after the shelling in the first game of the Boston series).  Their record over the last seven games is 3-4, with a run differential of zero.  

Again, if you want a team that somehow manages to be less than the sum of it's parts, this is it.  This is a bad time for the Astros to go on an offensive swoon - for the first time this season the top of the order is struggling as a unit, and the bottom of the order has not managed to consistently hold up its end of the bargain for more than a game or two at a time.  The Astros' 2016 season could be done by the Rule 4 draft, incredibly.  A stunning swoon to start the first six weeks of the season... y'know, the season in which we had, like, expectations.  Sigh.

On the Mound:
I would classify Mike Fiers as a tough-luck loser tonight, because for the most part he was fairly effective.  His problem all season has been home runs, and that cost him again tonight.  However, he went deep into the game (seven frames), managed a WHIP of less than one (six hits, no walks), struck out six, and allowed only two earned runs.  Handsome Jake helped him in CF a bit, and Rougned Odor TOOTBLAN'd for an assist as well, shortly after driving in a runner from second.

I missed the first inning, because somehow I queued yesterdays game, and watched Lance McCullers for a few pitches before I realised that I was watching the wrong game.  However, Fiers set the side down in order without problem.  In the second, the first two batters were retired without incident before Elvis Andrus took a 3-2 changeup that hung a little, a deposited it into the third row of the Crawford Boxes, picking out the only Rangers fan there.  The Fox broadcast was all over the exit velocity (92mph), which was the fifth softest-hit home run hit all year, but the short porch in left giveth and taketh away, to tonight it cost the Astros exactly one run - the eventual losing margin.

Two consecutive hits - both with one out - plated another run for the Rangers in the third.  Bryan Holaday - the Rangers' catcher du jour - hammered a pitch into the LF power alley that hit the wall about a yard or two below the yellow line at it's highest point.  He cruised into second, and scored when Rougned Odor hit a line drive on a 2-2 curveball, driving it off the RF wall a foot or so below the yellow line.  Odor stumbled out of the box, and bizarrely tried to head for second despite not running that hard after the stumble, but he was out by miles.  Fiers stuck out Desmond to end the frame.

The fourth inning resulted in no runs being scored, largely thanks to Handsome Jake, who started in CF.  Prince Fielder hit another 0-2 curveball just over the head of a leaping Altuve for a leadoff single, and he was joined on base when Fiers clipped a leaning Mitch Moreland with an inside pitch with one out.  Elvis Andrus then hit a deep fly ball to the RF side of CF, which Marisnick ran down on the warning track for the second out.  Nomar Mazara then hit a line drive that Marisnick made a nice diving play on coming in.  Handsome defensive work from Handsome Jake.

Another Holaday one-out double was the only action in the top half of the fifth, and a Beltré single with one out was the only action in the sixth.  Fiers came out for the seventh, and he retired the side on a ground-out, a pop-out and a fly-out to medium left.  Giles got the eighth and he struck out the top two hitters in the Rangers' order on six pitches (Odor on a back-foot breaking ball and Desmond on a high fastball away) before busting Prince Fielder with a fastball that resulted in a fly out to LF.  Giles has looked good his last few appearances, and his presence in the 'pen makes the Astros look a lot more solid.  Luke Gregerson did his bit, too, setting the side down in order, including a strikeout of Mitch Moreland.  So the pitching - again - wasn't the problem, with both the starter and the bullpen getting out without getting shelled.

'Twas the bats that was the problem...

At the Plate:
Boy, this won't take long.  Down in order in the first, on six pitches to boot.  Down in order in the second, this time on 11 pitches.  The third was remarkable for the first hit of the game for the Astros, and it was a deficit-halving solo shot to Marwin González, who got the start at third base.  MarGo got an 0-2 elevated fastball that was meant to be inside, but it ran back over the plate.  The ball wound up getting just out, just to the LF side of Tal's Hill.  Not a cheapie, for sure, and MarGo (1-3, HR) continued to push his case for a firm platoon role against lefties (which he pretty much gets anyhow).

In the fourth, George Springer looked to make some noise with a lead-off single to CF - a clean line drive up the middle.  Carlos Correa followed with a six-pitch strikeout - he flailed at a breaking ball down and away that was a solid pitch for a 1-2 count.  With Evan Gattis at the plate, Springer was going on first move, and the relay via first base nailed him at second.  Gattis struck out on a low fastball down the pipe for the final out.

A Rasmus walk was erased by a González GIDP to end the fifth, and the side went down in order in the sixth.  Matt Bush got the seventh - he looks like he has an amazing arm that hasn't been affected by nearly three years in prison.  Bush ran into some trouble, walking Evan Gattis (0-2, BB, but who put together some very solid at-bats tonight) with two outs, resulting in perhaps the most promising matchup of the night for the Astros.  Rasmus (1-2, BB) was up against a power righty who likes working low in the zone, and I had thoughts of Clay Buchholz or Craig Kimbrel from a few weeks ago.  Rasmus was able to manage a base hit - it was a line-drive to RF on a breaking pitch inside, which sent Gattis to third.  However, with runners on the corners Tyler White (0-3) could only manage a harmless groundout to shortstop to end the frame.  Best chance wasted.

In the eighth, the Rangers brought on power-lefty Jake Diekman.  He set the side down on order, although Handsome Jake (0-3) was a little stiffed, taking four pitches - none of which were in the strike zone.  The result - thanks C.B. Buckner - was a 2-2 count, and the Handsome one was retired on  a fly-out to RF on the fifth pitch, instead of standing on first.  Buckner's strike zone was poor at times - inconsistent, especially to righty hitters..

The ninth was short and sweet.  Sam Dyson was assigned the save for Texas, and on the first two pitches, he was the recipient of near-identical ground-outs off the bats of José Altuve (0-4, end of his 12-game hit streak) and George Springer (1-4).  Carlos Correa (0-4) battled him to a 2-2 count, but he went down swinging on the fifth pitch of the at-bat to cap a poor night.

Turning Point:
Pick any of the Astros' weak at-bats.  They pop up a lot - the Fox commentary team noted that they were dependant on walks and fly balls, and as a result, they are a poor team when it comes to putting rallies together.  Which is why I think some different looks from the hitters would be interesting.  Contact guys like Tony Kemp and the old Tyler White (the one from the minor-leagues, not the one we have seen lately) could provide an interesting contrast.  The Astros seem too reliant on the home runs, and if the opposing pitcher is locating and keeping the ball down, their offense could struggle for quite long periods.  As we have seen lately.

Man of the Match:
I dunno.  Rasmus got on base twice.  Giles retired the side on eight pitches, getting two K's in the process.  MarGo hit a home run.  Pick one from those three.

Goat of the Game:
Carlos Correa - 0-4, 3K.

Up Next:
The final game of the Rangers series.  2-1 scoreline, anyone??

Cole Hamels (4-0, 3.10) versus Dallas Keurhel (2-5, 5.43)

2 Eastern, 1 Central.

Then a day off.  Then the Orioles head into town for three.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

From the Office of the County Clerk - G43: Astros versus Rangers

Colby Lewis (2-0, 3.12) versus Lance McCullers Jr (0-0, 9.64)

The Astros were looking to start a home stand on the right note against a Rangers team that struggled getting swept by the Oakland A's, seem cool offensively, and have a bullpen in tatters at the moment.  Plus, the Rangers were starting a righty junkballer on the mound who struggles to pump gas anywhere in the 90's, with occasional home run difficulties.  Plus, the Astros were starting their own righty pitching phenom, who has the stuff to strike out any player in the game, with a wicked breaking pitch that he can add or subtract on, and a riding fastball that occasionally nears three figures on the gun.  Recipe for a great Friday night, huh??

No, not really.  Best laid plans going to waste and all of that.  The Astros pretty much replicated last nights' efforts against Colby Lewis, who I definitely undersold above, and that is without considering that he turns into Cy Young against the Astros.  Lewis sliced through the Astros again, recording multiple outs on weak contact, painting the corners, and never really being threatened at any point in the game.  The Ramgers didn't exactly score many runs themselves, so this game was over in just over two-and-one-half hours, with the result being not what the Astros wanted, a 2-1 loss.  The game wasn't long, and neither will be this recap...

On the Mound:
Lance McCullers made his second start of the year, and I gained the distinct impression that he still has some improving to do.  Not that he wasn't good in the final wash-up - his line was 6IP, 8 baserunners (5 hits and three walks) against seven strikeouts.  He allowed two earned runs, both on one swing of the bat.  However, he scuffled early with his fastball command, and seemed to be best able to throw his breaking pitch for strikes.  Later in the game, he seemed to throw the fastball in better spots, but frankly he got away with too many pitches in the middle of the plate.

As a case in point, McCullers' first three pitches were balls: to Shin-Soo Choo, who later walked.  However, the next three batters went down in order to strand Choo at second base.  In the second, Rougned Odor singled against the shift to open the frame, then Mitch Moreland went down on a nasty back-foot breaking pitch for the first out.  On the following batter, McCullers looked to have a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out DP to end the frame, but the second base umpire apparently called a balk just prior to the 3-2 pitch that was called a strike.  Confusion reigned, and Alan Ashby was apoplectic, but McCullers had come to a stop with his glove at his belt, then come to a stop again in a high set, and this seemed to be the basis on which the balk was called.

Gosh, I thought, this is going to matter, and Odor is again in the middle of it (having been tagged out on the 'steal').  But no - Mazara grounded to second, and Bobby Wilson popped up to end the frame.

The third inning was the deciding inning of the game.  McCullers opened the frame by enticing Elvis Andrus to fly out to CF.  Then Choo walked on a full strike count - McCullers throw a fastball or changeup that ran just off the plate.  Ian Desmond singled to CF to put runners on first and second, bringing Prince Fielder up for the second time.  Alan Ashby hinted the first time that Fielder was up that the new "book" on him was to hammer him inside with hard stuff, and he kind of couldn't believe that McCullers hadn't done that in his first at-bat.  Well, McCullers made Ashby look like the Oracle, because Fielder lined a fastball down-and-away the other way, just to the CF side of the Crawford Boxes.  Tony Kemp was there, but his jump was in vain, and the ball got over his head.  Choo scored, and Desmond would have been dead-to-rights at the plate had the relay play not sailed (and Ian Desmond ran through the stop sign anyhow) so Fielder pulled into second with a double.  Kemp's throw from the wall was also a little weak, and in this case, two bad throws combined to pretty much cost the Astros the game.

Adrian Beltré then struck out on three pitches (all breaking balls) for the second out, and Rougned Odor flew out to the LF power alley, with Rasmus (starting in CF) completing a fine running catch to keep the remainder of the inning scoreless.

In the fourth, the Astros successfully completed a relay throw to erase a runner (Nomar Mazara) at the plate.  Mazara was on first with Elvis Andrus at the plate, and Andrus hit a hard grounder down the LF line on a low breaking pitch from McCullers.  Kemp got to it in the corner, relayed to Correa, and Correa made a good throw to a well-positioned Castro, who got the tag on Mazara about three yards before the plate.  McCullers then settled down, allowing only a two out walk to Prince Fielder and retiring the side in order (with two strikeouts) to close the sixth, and end his night.

Michael Feliz took over, and he shut the Ramgers down for the last three innings.  Nine up, nine down, six strikeouts.  Three perfect frames.  Five K's on his fastball, one on a back-foot breaking pitch.  Feliz looked great, although he was ably assisted by Rasmus coming in and making a diving catch in CF on a Prince Fielder bloop.

At the Plate:
Lots of weak contact was the story of the night for the Astros, who were also often hacking early in counts.  Lewis was locating well - lots of pitches just off the plate - and the Astros were doing a good job of locating fielders when they were making hard contact.  The Astros managed only six baserunners - all hits - and two of those occurred in the ninth frame.  This wasn't their most impressive offensive performance, that is for sure.

George Springer (1-4) reached on an infield grounder in the first (Lewis tried to make a behind-the-back grab but missed), but he went nowhere as Carlos Correa grounded into a fielder's choice, and Colby Rasmus struck out swinging.  The side was retired in order on eight pitches in the second, with the TV guys wondering whether the open roof knocked down Colin Moran's fly-ball the other way, leading it to be caught on the warning track just in front of the scoreboard.  Jason Castro (1-3) singled leading off the third on a hard-hit liner to CF, but he was erased on the next pitch as Tony Kemp (0-2) GIDP'd.  Carlos Correa singled to CF - a dropping line drive - with one out in the fourth.  He then stole second, and all that did was give him a better view to watch Rasmus K and Gattis pop up on the first pitch to retire the side.  Lewis faced the minimum in the fifth and sixth as well.

Some drama in the seventh - Carlos Correa (1-4) opened the frame by hitting a clean line drive up the middle.  The ball caught the back of Colby Lewis' head, rebounded high into the air, and was caught in shallow CF to complete the out.  Lewis wasn't even staggered, and after a couple of warm-up tosses, he got back to work to record another scoreless frame.  He may have been pulled for precautionary reasons (after 93 pitches) to open the eighth, because Jake Diekmann came out and set the side down in order.  In the ninth, a José Altuve (1-4, 2B) double down the RF line to lead off was followed by a two-out Rasmus (1-4, RBI) single resulted in the only run of the game.  Evan Gattis (1-4) made it interesting by engaging in an 8 pitch battle with newly anointed closer Sam Dyson, but he struck out with the tying run on first to end the game.

Turning Point:
Perhaps the relay throw from the unknown Astro in the third inning.  Tony Kemp had the ball get behind him on a line drive the other way off the bat of Prince Fielder.  He eventually rescued the ball from the corner between the Crawford Boxes and the visiting bullpen.  Kemp didn't get much on the throw but he seemed to hit the cut-off man.  The relay was way too high - I didn't see who threw the relay, but I am pretty sure it was an Astro.  The ball sailed, got away from Castro, and Ian Desmond (who ran through a stop sign) scored without a play.  Sigh... little details again cost the Astros.

Man of the Match:
Michael Feliz, especially given no one did anything offensively.  He retired nine hitters in order, six on strikeouts.  I wonder about a tandem start with Feliz, Devenski and Feldman all getting three innings each.  Hmmmm...

Goat of the Game:
Any Astro holding a bat.  Lewis deserves some credit, but watching the Astros hack away was painful for the second game in a row.  At least you can see how Chris Sale dominates.  A couple of weeks in an offensive slump, and the Astros' 2016 could be gone.

Up Next:
versus the Ramgers for Game 2 of the series.

Cesar Ramos (0-2, 4.32) versus Mike Fiers (3-1, 4.63)

7 Eastern, 6 Central.  

The game is televised nationally on Fox.

Friday, May 20, 2016

It's Time To Talk About Moving Carlos Correa To Third Base

I don’t think I’m breaking any news here when I say that Carlos Correa is a very good baseball player. Opposing pitchers fear him, and with good reason – the 2015 A.L. Rookie of the Year hit 23 home runs in his first 100 games at the major league level, all while still figuring out how to get carded when buying alcohol. Everything seems to come easy to him. Well, almost everything. He has a kryptonite. Hang with me and please save your boos until the end – Carlos Correa is not a good shortstop.

I know it seems impossible. We’re talking about a guy who makes spectacular play after spectacular play at the game’s most difficult position. I mean just take a look at this throw or this montage or this diving catch.

But hear me out: these plays look amazing, and they are, but a better shortstop wouldn’t even have to make these plays. What Correa makes up for in fantastic catches and a big arm, he lacks in range and quickness. This isn’t a knock on Correa, it’s his own Paul Bunyanesqe gene’s fault. He launches balls out of stadiums because he’s built like an ox, but those skills aren’t conducive to being a good shortstop.

Since the turn of the 20th century, there have only been 33 shortstops over six-foot-two (minimum 500 games). At six-foot-four, Correa would be tied with Cal Ripken Jr. for the tallest shortstop of all-time. Ripken was listed a 200 pounds, Correa is already at 215 and at 21 years old could still be growing.

According to ESPN, of the 73 players who have spent any time at all at shortstop in 2016, Correa has been the 69th-best. That’s not nice. Baseball-Reference has him at -0.4 WAR through 41 games, projecting him to lose his team 19 runs with his defense over the course of a full season.

FanGraphs, the industry leader in advanced defensive metrics, has Correa rated as the worst qualified shortstop in major league baseball. At -4.6, his defensive rating is a full run worse than the next shortstop, the Yankees Didi Gregorius. Correa’s UZR (an advanced defensive metric that uses play-by-play data to estimate each fielder’s defensive contribution in theoretical runs above or below an average fielder at his position in that player’s league and year) has the Astros shortstop at -6.5. That means in just 41 games, Correa has cost the Astros six and a half runs with his defense. In contrast, Brandon Crawford has saved his Giants a league-best 7.9 runs.

It’s not like Correa is hopeless in the field. He has a soft glove with an above-average arm and great instincts. It doesn’t seem to matter how hard the ball is hit at him, he makes a great first step and has elite reactions. The problem is Correa simply doesn’t have the range to play shortstop – his -5.7 range rating from FanGraphs is by far the worst in baseball. You know what that sounds like? A third baseman.

At six-foot-four, 215 pounds with room to grow, Correa would immediately profile as an above-average third baseman with the possibility to become elite. With his natural talents and exemplary work ethic, there is no reason to doubt that Correa would make an excellent defender at the hot corner.

The problem here is obvious. Correa has the makings of a once-in-a-generation talent with plenty of self-confidence who has made it very clear that he wants to stick at shortstop. You don't want to upset him by telling him he has actually been hurting the team in the field. He doesn’t often make bad plays – he just doesn’t have the range to make plays that even an average shortstop could make. I don’t think the Astros would consider moving Correa to third mid-season, even with top prospect Alex Bregman nearly ready to play shortstop in the big leagues. This seems like a conversation A.J. Hinch would need to have after the 2016 season.

But the sooner the better. The Astros are in position to be contenders for the forseeable future. There is no time to mince words: Correa needs to step aside and move to the position most scouts said he would eventually have to go to anyway. I don’t think Correa is too naïve or too proud to force the Astros put him at shortstop. Hinch has the backing of stats, video, and could use one of the best defenders of his era, Astros roving instructor Adam Everett, to drive his point home.


Besides, it’s not like anyone reads the “position” part of Hall of Fame plaques anyway.

Friday Morning Hot Links

*This is the last Hot Links until Monday morning as I have to go out of town this weekend with such a dumb schedule that it will not allow me to Get On This Blog.

*Check the Masked Marvel's recap on a night where Collin McHugh was good and Chris Sale was...well, Chris Sale.



*"George is just doing George things out there..." - Collin McHugh, on Springer's over-the-wall grab.

*Evan Gattis had a pretty good night behind the plate. McHugh:
I know a lot of people haven't had a chance to see him because it's been a couple of years since he's been back there, but he's solid. He's a big league catcher and everybody needs to understand that and recognize that.

*Tyler White is finally adjusting to all the adjustments the League made to him:
It's having to calm his body down and he's doing that not (as) consistently as he's going to do, but quite a bit. So his mechanics, his body rhythms, his timing all seemed to take a hit as the league adjusted to him. 

*Hinch is hopeful Carlos Gomez can resume "baseball activities" next week.

*The Astros are Jayson Stark's Most Disappointing Team of the Year.

*Corpus' J.D. Davis hit three home runs last night as the Hooks won their 10th straight game, his 7th HR in his last 12 games. Alex Bregman homered again, too. '

*Oh hey whaddayaknow the Ramgers have apparently decided that maybe a roof is a good idea.

*The Cheatin-Ass Cardinals former scouting director's sentencing is delayed, yet again, until July 5.

*Vanderbilt pulled off a triple steal.

From the Office of the County Clerk - G42: Astros @ White Sox

Chris Sale (8-0, 1.67) versus Collin McHugh (4-3, 5.58)

The Astros, fresh off taking their first road series of the year, went for their first sweep of the year against the White Sox (the earlier games were wonderfully recapped by Jexas here and here).  Standing in the way was 6' 6" Chris Sale, who has threatened to put together a Cy Young Season for a few years now.  Since making his debut in 2010 as a 21 year-old, his year-to-year ERA's read 1.93, 2.79, 3.05, 3.07, 2.17 and 3.41.  So this was never going to be an easy game, but on the line was the first sweep of the season and a three (3!) game win streak which would blow past the previous season high of two (2!!).

Things haven't been great for the Astros.  They really could have had a five-game win-streak going, after losing two very winnable games in Boston which, in turn, occurred after they opened the series by getting shelled - the only non-competitive game of a tough series.  They are playing better baseball, especially on the pitching-and-defence side of the equation, but they still seem to be remarkably un-clutch.  It is kind of remarkable that the Astros, at the time of report, lag behind a 23-17 Mariners team by only seven games, and the Fightin' Ramgers (who may be finally getting a domed stadium) by 5.5 games.

So the Astros were unable to overcome a dominant complete-game pitching performance from Chris Sale, narrowly losing by a score of 2-1.  That drops the Astros to 17-25 through just over one-quarter of the season.  Things, clearly, need to improve, but at least they seem to be trending the right way for now.  Interesting night, too, because Evan Gattis made his Astros debut as a starting catcher.

On the Bump:
Chris Sale was pretty good - more on that later - so Collin McHugh needed to be perfect.  McHugh couldn't quite manage perfection, however, thanks to being unable to solve the riddle of that offensive behemoth Jerry Sands.  Sands played a key role in both runs being scored for the White Sox... and of course he did, thanks to the 28 year-old living up to his season slash-line of .237/.293/.316.  That isn't good, but it also isn't so bad that the Astros wouldn't take that line from their All-Star CF right now (who is currently residing on the DL).

McHugh cruised through the first two batters, sitting both Adam Eaton and Carlos Sánchez down on strikeouts.  Jose Abreu - who, back in the day, was nearly an Astro - climbed into a low fastball down the middle, and hammered it deep to RF.  George Springer has had a good season, especially with regards to non-LED light-bank affected defence - and he made a great play at the wall, pulling a likely home-run ball back from the RF bullpen to keep the score tied.

The second inning was cruising along ok after Todd Frazier singled to shallow RF as the lead-off hitter.  The hit was a slow roller off the end of the bat on a two-strike curve against the shift on a pitch away, and Altuve was unable to get enough on the throw to retire Frazier at first base (after he made a lot of ground, and spun to throw).  McHugh retired the next two (including Jimmy Rollins flailing on a sharp curveball), but Frazier was credited with stealing third base when McHugh bounced a curveball that got away from Gattis.  Anyhow, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, offensive behemoth Jerry Sands singled off the end of the bat on a two-strike curveball down and away, just over the head of a leaping (and short!) Altuve, scoring Frazier.  When I talk about Astros starters getting BABIP-ed into oblivion, this is what I mean - two weak singles on two-strike pitches resulting in a run.

McHugh needs credit for settling down, and retiring the next nine in order, before walking Alex Avila with two outs in the fifth.  Austin Jackson went down swinging at a perfectly-painted fastball away to end that frame.  McHugh then had to work around a leadoff "triple" in the sixth.  He threw three straight balls to Adam Eaton, then came back with a strike.  On a 3-1 count, he threw one of his baby-sliders down in the zone, but in the middle of the plate.  Eaton lined it to CF, Marisnick seemed to misread it, and the ball clanged off his glove and got behind him.  When all the dust had cleared, Eaton was on third base with no outs.  McHugh bounced back by sandwiching a strikeout around two fly-outs to Tony Kemp in LF to maroon Eaton at third.

If McHugh was BABIP-ed to death in the second inning, it happened again in the seventh.  Jimmy Rollins reached on a single with one out - he squibbed a shot down the third base line off the end of the bat for a 90-foot single.  The shift was on, but I am not sure there was a play even if it hadn't have been.  McHugh, for the third time tonight, allowed a critical single on a two-strike curveball down-and-away, and out of the zone.  Rollins stole second when Gattis couldn't glove another curveball in the dirt, with Jerry Sands (him, again!) at the plate.  Sands followed with a single to LF - this one was another baby slider that was thigh-high and down the middle, and Sands hit a hard line drive through the 5.5 hole for a single.  Rollins was only able to advance to third, but standing 90-feet from home is better than 180-feet from home because of the capacity for sac-flies, and woodenchaknowit, Alex Avila got one deep enough to LF on the next pitch to put the game out of reach for the Astros.  And what a pity, because in the top half of the next frame, Gattis mashed a home run to the LF power alley to score the Astros' only run.

Scotty-Feldman-the-reliever got the mop-up duties in the eight, with the Astros trailing 2-1.  He cleaned up without problem, retiring the 1-2-3 hitters on 11 pitches.  Feldman struck out one in one inning in relief of McHugh, who struck out 8 in seven innings, and if three two-strike curveballs were a little lower or a little further away, the Astros could have beaten Chris Sale and swept the series.


At the Plate:
Chris Sale has had a good year thus far.  He is eight-and-zero in eight (!) starts and has thrown nearly 60 innings in that time (nearly 7.5IP per start).  He leads the league in complete games (2), shutouts (1), WHIP (0.758), and K/BB (5.30).  He sits second in fWAR to fellow Sock Jose Quintana (who carries an ERA of 1.54), 2.1 to 1.9.  So Sale seems to be putting it all together, as we have always suspected he can.

Sale set the side down in order in the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh frames.  Elsewhere, he scattered 4 hits and no walks.  Exactly one of the hits was for extra-bases, and that was a home run.  He struck out nine.  A tall lefty with power stuff, coming from a low arm slot must be murder on lefty hitters, and the Astros were forced to field two of them today (Luis Valbuena (0-3, 2K) and Tony Kemp (0-3)).

The Astros never had more than one runner per inning, and only Evan Gattis managed to get past first base during a leisurely trot around the bases.  That occurred in the top of the eighth - after Gattis earlier singled off Sale - on the first pitch of the frame.  The pitch was a well-placed fastball down-and-away, and Gattis must have guessed right, because he mashed it into the LF power alley for a no doubt home run.  Normally Gattis (2-3, HR) grounds low fastballs to the left side, but he managed to elevate this one, and turned into a deep enough fly-ball to get out.

In the ninth, with the Sox nursing a one-run lead, George Springer (1-4, K) hit a line drive over the shortstop and into LF for a one-out single.  Carlos Correa (0-4, K) followed with a fly out, and that brought Tyler White to the plate with the game-tying run on first.  White saw four pitches - all strikes - fouling off one.  The last "strike" was an attempt at a back door breaking ball that crossed the front of home plate in the lefty-hitters' batting box, missing the zone by (according to Brooks) about eight inches.  Home plate ump Adam Hamari must have had dinner reservations, because he punched Tyler White out, then immediately turned around and scuttled off to the umpires' room for a shower.  Cruel way to end a tough night for Tyler (0-4, 3K), who understandably scuffled.

Jose Altuve (1-4, K) had the other hit.

Turning Point:
Pick a two-strike curveball that resulted in a single in either the second or the seventh.

Man of the Match:
I guess Evan Gattis needs some kudos.  He returned to catching tonight to stack the lineup with righties, and he had a good night.  Perhaps a couple of missed blocks in the dirt, but overall, he did fine whilst wearing the Tools of Ignorance, and he did better at the plate.  How about them hot hitting Astros catchers, huh?

Goat of the Game:
Sometimes, you just get beat.  This was such a night.  No Goat.

On the Morrow:
Ramgers come to town, fresh off a losing sweep at the hands of the A's.  A couple of bullpen meltdowns in there, too.  Rougned Odor may have to sit a couple of games this series, too.  Anyhow...

Colby Lewis (2-0, 3.12) versus Lance McCullers Jr (0-0, 9.64)

8 Eastern, followed by fireworks.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Jeff Luhnow: A Retrospective (Part 2)

This is the second part of an ongoing series where I do my best to recap and grade each of Jeff Luhnow's major decisions since taking over the Astros in December 2011. (part 1)

August 27, 2012
Sold Steve Pearce to the New York Yankees.

Pearce was selected off waivers in July of 2012 and played in just 21 games with the Astros. The utility player wore pinstripes for 12 games before being picked up off waivers by the Orioles. After a decent 2013, Pearce broke out in 2014, hitting .293/.373/.556 while playing excellent defense on route to a 5.9 WAR in just 102 games. He battled injuries throughout 2015 and now plays for the Rays after signing as a free agent before the 2016 season.

Grade: D

Novermber 3, 2012
Granted J.B. Shuck Free Agency.

In 2011, Shuck hit .272/.359/.321 in 37 games with the Astros. As a 25-year-old in 2012, he hit .298/.374/.352 in Triple-A. And then he was released. This move didn’t make a lot of sense at the time and it made even less sense when he finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting the next season with the Angles.

That being said, Shuck has done next to nothing in the years since and even in his breakout campaign he was only worth 0.9 WAR.

Grade: C

December 4, 2012
Traded Wilton Lopez and Jose Monzon to the Colorado Rockies. Received Alex Gillingham and Alex White.

From 2010-2012, Lopez was arguably the Astros best reliever. When he was traded he was coming off a season with a 2.17 ERA, 10 saves and a 187 ERA+. His production dropped off drastically in the thin air of Coors Field and played just one more season.

Mozon played in 13 games for the Rockies Low-A affiliate before being released.
Gillingham appeared in just 3 games for the Astros High-A squad, giving up 10 runs in 8 innings before being released.

The gem of the deal was supposed to be Alex White. The 15th overall pick in 2009 dominated the minors after a shining career at the University of North Carolina. A consensus top 100 prospect, White did not throw a pitch in 2013. When he came back, he was never the same and was released in 2015, never reaching the majors with Houston.

Injuries make it tough to grade this deal. You can’t really fault anyone for what happened to White. What you can look at is the fact the Astros got a top 100 prospect for a reliever who had just 80 major league innings left in his arm after he left the organization.

Grade: B

December 6, 2012
Drafted Josh Fields from the Boston Red Sox in the 2012 rule 5 draft.

The former first round pick spent two unremarkable years in the Astros bullpen before being used as a high-leverage guy in 2015, posting a 2.19 FIP along the way. He has struggled to open the 2016 campaign and was recently optioned to Triple-A.

Grade: B+

February 4, 2013
Traded Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez to the Oakland Athletics. Received Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi.

Lowrie, as we’ve previously discussed, had one really good year and one decent year with the A’s.
Rodriguez missed the entire 2013 season but has established himself in the Oakland bullpen after 58.2 innings with a 3.84 ERA in 2015.

Chris Carter, as you may remember, struck out a lot in 2013. 212 times to be exact. But he hit 29 home runs and didn’t embarrass himself at first base so the Astros kept trotting him back out there. In 2014, Carter blasted a team-leading 37 home runs, good for a 123 OPS+. Hope was high as the 2015 season rolled around, but Carter was boom-or-bust. He hit 24 home runs, but hit just .199 in 129 games.

Peacock started 47 games for the Astros over three years but never really put it together at the major league level – he sports a career 4.69 ERA. The former 41st round pick is currently at Triple-A Fresno.

Once billed as the Catcher of the Future, Stassi was called up as a 22-year-old much to the delight of the Double-A Texas League where he was hitting .277 with 17 home runs. Stassi saw action in three games before he was hit in the face with a pitch and missed the rest of the season. Still just 25, Stassi has a long way to go before being labeled a bust, though the diminishing batting averages at Triple-A over the past two years are less than encouraging.

So this one pretty much hinges on whether or not Stassi can succeed as a major league regular. Fun fact: In 2013, Lowrie and Carter were both worth exactly 2.0 WAR.

Grade: B

April 23, 2013
Xaiver Cedeno selected by the Washington Nationals off waivers.

Working mainly as a left-handed specialist, Cedeno posted a 3.77 ERA in 2012 for the Astros. He got off to a rough start in 2013, giving up 8 runs in 6.1 innings and was promptly designated for assignment. He didn’t do much for the Nationals at the major league level over the course of two seasons, but was very effective for the Rays in 2015, striking out a batter per inning on his way to a 2.09 ERA. Cedeno is still making the league minimum and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2020.

Grade: D

June 6, 2013

Drafted Mark Appel No. 1 overall. Kris Bryant went No. 2. It’s still early, but that is a decision that could haunt the Astros for a long time. Some positives – Tony Kemp (5th round), Jacob Nottingham (6th round) and Tyler White (33rd round). Other than that, this draft has largely been a letdown.

Grade: D

July 29, 2013
Traded Jose Veras to the Detroit Tigers. Received Danry Vasquez and David Paulino.

Veras signed with the Astros for 1 yr/$1.85MM for the chance to close any and all of the wins the 2013 Astros accidently got. By the trade deadline, the Astros had miraculously won enough games for Veras to save 19 of them with a 2.93 ERA. The Tigers, who were on their way to a first place finish but needed some bullpen help, sent two young international free agent signees to the Astros.
Vasquez, 19 at the time, was hitting .283 in A-ball. After breezing through High-A at 20, the outfielder struggled at Double-A in 2015. He is repeating at Corpus Christi in 2016 but is still just 22 – almost two years younger than the average player at that level.

Paulino missed all of the 2014 season with injuries. The 6’7” righty had a 2.81 ERA across three levels in 2015. He joined Vasquez at Double-A in 2016 where he currently has a 1.74 ERA.
This trade is still way too early to grade accurately, but it is definitely one to keep an eye on. If either of these players turn out to be even average at the major league level this is a steal for Luhnow, who gave up just 19.2 Jose Veras innings to the Tigers for this pair.

Grade: A

July 31, 2013
Traded Justin Maxwell to the Kansas City Royals. Received Kyle Smith.

Maxwell, who as you will remember was selected off waivers in 2012, was hitting .241 with just 2 home runs in 40 games when the Astros traded him. He played 35 games for the Royals in 2013 and appeared in just 20 for them in 2014. Last season, he hit .209 for the Giants and is currently in Triple-A with the Red Sox.

Smith, meanwhile, had a 2.85 ERA as a 20-year-old in High-A. He missed the 2015 season with injuries and is currently at Double-A. He is 23 years old and a long way from the majors, but he seems like more than a fair price for Maxwell.

Grade: B

July 31, 2013
Traded Bud Norris to the Baltimore Orioles. Received Josh Hader, L.J. Hoes and a 2014 competitive balance round A pick.

By virtue of being alive and having an arm that could throw pitches in the direction of home plate, Bud Norris was the defacto ace of the 2013 Astros. Norris had a 3.93 ERA with a career-worst 6.4 K/9 when he was traded. He had a 4.80 ERA in 11 games with the Orioles who were desperately trying to reach the playoffs but wound up 12 games behind the AL-best Red Sox.

Norris had a career year in 2014, winning 15 games with a 3.65 ERA for the Orioles but then the wheels fell off. He was released after a disastrous start to 2015 – allowing 52 runs in 66 innings. He is currently with the Braves.

In addition to having The Name That Launched A Thousand Jokes, Hoes hit .287 in 46 games for Houston after being traded. 2014 was a different story, Hoes “hit” .172 in 55 games before being optioned to Triple-A. He was released in 2015. Hoes is now back with the Baltimore organization.

Drafted by Baltimore in 19th round as a soft-tossing southpaw, Hader quickly added velocity to go with an arm slot that left hitters baffled. At the time of the trade, the 19-year-old had a 2.65 ERA against opponents years older than him at A-ball. He continued to impress the Astros in 2014 when he was named their minor league pitcher of the year after a sparkling 9-2 campaign at the hitter’s haven that is Lancaster. In no uncertain terms, Hader has been excellent and has vaulted himself into a legitimate star prospect. More on that at a later date.

And as if Hader wasn’t enough, the Astros also picked up a first round pick that they used to grab outfielder Derek Fisher. Coming into the 2016 season, Fisher was a consensus top 10 prospect in the Astros system. He owns a career .278/.367/.477 slash line in the minors and is currently at Double-A.


Grade: A++