Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Diagnosing the Astros Offense

We've all been seeing a lot of weeping and gnashing of the teeth after this weekend saw the Astros lose 1-0 twice and score in only 2 of the 31 innings during the three game set against the Rangers. A lot has been made of the teams' abysmal .189 batting average. That's really bad. So bad, its actually impressive the Astros have managed to score a hair under 3 runs a game on the young season.

So what's the culprit for the putrid offense? Its easy to blame the strikeouts. The Astros struck out in 24.5% of their AB's. That's a high number, but not the leagues worst. (Just for fun, if you take out Kris Karter, its a much more reasonable 23%, which would be middle of the pack.) The walk rate is roughly league average as well, and much better than last year. The batted ball numbers, such as line drive rate, groundball rate and flyball rate all seem fairly normal, though they could be hitting a few more line drives. Nothing there that would explain the incredibly low batting average, worst in the majors by 30 percentage points.

The real culprit is the .218 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). That number excludes all strikeouts and homeruns, and calculates the remaining batting average on everything put in play. .218 is ridiculously low, trailing the second to last place Blue Jays by over 30 percentage points. It would be the lowest in baseball history, besting the 1968 Yankees by over 20 percentage points. Its even rare for an individual player to have a BABIP this low, let alone an entire team. In fact, the .218 team BABIP would place the Astros in the bottom 30 for an individual player, since 1920.

Believe it or not, this is actually really good news. The .218 BABIP does not represent some fatal flaw in the Astros approach or roster construction. It is nothing more than bad luck, stemming from small sample size, and nothing more. BABIP hovers between .280 and .320, and anything different than that, especially to the extreme found here, is due for a regression. The 2013 Marlins had one of the worst offenses of all time last year and had a .280 BABIP. The Astros' BABIP last year was a healthy .304. On an individual player level, every player struggling right now is battling an absurdly low BABIP. Dominguez, Villar, Castro, Krauss and Grossman are all sporting BABIPs below .200. The exception is Carter, who is doing fine on the balls put in play, but is just not doing that very often.

A century plus of baseball history tells us these numbers will regress back to the normal range. Base hits will start to fall. Balls will find the gaps for doubles and triples. The solo homeruns the Astros have been hitting will start to be two and three runs shots. This will all happen without the help of Springer and Singelton, who will hopefully help the offense even more, when those moves are made.

None of that is to say the offense will be good. That remains to be seen. But right now the offense is being weighed down by a ridiculously low BABIP. Once that weight is, inevitably, lifted, we will get a sense of what this offense can really accomplish. In fact, we can expect that regression to start to happen tonight.