Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How are the Astros doing this...?

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Astros are 12-7 and currently have the largest division lead in the AL, at 3.0 games. Is the entire division down? Or is it that the Astros are 10-5 against the rest of the AL West? We’ll figure that out as the season goes on, but it’s worth noting that the 2013 Astros had lost 19 division games before winning their 10th. Still, I feel like I follow the Astros closer than a lot of people and last night, while watching pixels move on MLB Gameday (thanks, Time Warner Cable!) I was looking at the box score thinking, “How are the Astros doing this?”

Starting pitchers are allowing a .244/.296/.390 line.
Bullpen allowing .180/.249/.266 with a 4.27 K:BB ratio.

The entire pitching staff has been effective. Led by Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, the Astros – as a staff – are walking 2.4 batters per 9 innings, third-best in the Majors behind the Mets (1.85 BB/9) and the Cubs (1.98 BB/9). The Astros also have the 5th-lowest BABIP in the Majors, at .261. The balls being hit are being hit mainly on the ground – their 51.8% GB rate is 2nd-highest in MLB – and they’re being hit to the defense. Dallas Keuchel, once again, has the highest groundball rate in the Majors at 69.2%. So while Keuchel is walking 3.41 batters/9 through four starts (1.25 batters/9 higher than his 2014), the groundball rate is stranding 91.7% of the batters

The team ERA is 3.22, which is right in line with a 3.33 FIP and a 3.45 xFIP, so it’s not like the Astros – to this point – have been tremendously lucky as a staff. The upgrades to the bullpen – long the bane of the team’s (and the fans’) existence – has worked. The bullpen’s 2.88 FIP is 5th-best in the Majors, 2nd-best in the AL. They’ve only blown one save opportunity, which is the biggest improvement over the last four years.

      Walks are making up for hits 
The Astros are not hitting all that well. We know this. They have five starters currently hitting under .200: Castro (.196), Carter (.154), Valbuena (.194), Springer (.183), and Gattis (.154). That’s unbelievable. Somehow there are three AL teams with a lower batting average than the Astros, who currently sit at .230. But as we all know, batting average doesn’t paint the whole picture. The Astros are drawing walks at an impressive rate. How impressive? As a team they have a 10.1% walk rate – third in the Majors, behind the Red Sox and Yankees, and tied with the Dodgers.

Think of it this way: the Astros have 149 hits…and 74 walks, which works out to be 2.01 hits per walk. In 2014 that number was 2.66 hits per walk. So the Astros are picking up for the five guys can’t currently hit water if they fell out of a boat by getting on base, anyway.

Home runs
The Astros are 5th in home runs in 2015 with 25. Ten of those homers put the Astros put the Astros ahead, including Conger's homer that put the Astros ahead in extra innings against the Rangers. And 21 of those home runs have come from players not named Carter, Gattis, or Springer. 

And there’s reason to believe, nay, expect it to get better. League Average BABIP is currently .289. The Astros have a .275 BABIP, and that’s with striking out in 124% of their plate appearances*. Chris Carter has a career .281 BABIP – he’s not going to stay at .237 all year. Evan Gattis’ career BABIP? .271. His current .214 BABIP is dumb. Luis Valbuena’s .160 BABIP is the 8th-worst in baseball. These are unsustainable numbers. The Astros have been getting help from other places in the lineup. Jake Marisnick has been unbelievable, but in the same way, his .395 BABIP is as unsustainable as Valbuena’s (and I know the “BABIP is not the be-all/end-all” argument). So you have other spots in the lineup picking up the hitters that were supposed to produce all along and ideally, when Marisnick comes back to earth, Gattis, Carter, and Springer are back to where they’re supposed to be.

The wild card here is the injury to Jed Lowrie. As of the time of writing, we don’t know how severe his thumb injury is, but you can guess just from him getting sent back to Houston that it’s not good. When Jonathan Villar replaces him (it’s not going to be Correa), there is going to be a drop-off in production. This can be easily fixed if any of the aforementioned “hitters” start “hitting.

It looks to me like the Astros are playing extremely well, and the only thing that doesn’t make any sense, or is statistically invalid, is that the Astros aren’t hitting as well as they should be. Will the Astros win at a .632 clip all season? No. But they just might be a lot better than I expected them to be.