Thursday, July 16, 2015

State of the Astros, All-Star Break Edition: Part II

Tuesday we started Part I of a look at the Astros at the All-Star Break, examining the three eras of the 2015 Astros season so far, and the trouble at 1B/DH. Let's continue by looking at the rest of the offense.

We knew this was how the offense was going to go. Back when the Astros were 18-7, we made the comparison of the 2015 Astros to the 2014 Brewers, whose offense was built on unsustainable power. Even if that power *is* sustainable, there will be stretches where the power blinks. So let's zoom in on the offense and try to figure out what has happened through the first 91 games of the season.

Jason Castro (237 PAs): .212/.283/.363, 66K:20BB
Hank Conger (116 PAs): .232/.339/.434, 30K:16BB

Castro has come a long way since 2013 when he was the lone All-Star and didn't even get to play in the game, but it's not in a good way. In 2013 Castro broke out, hitting .276/.350/.485 with 18 home runs. That was a fun year. Since then, however, Castro has struggled. His stats stretching back to the beginning of the 2014 season show that he's hitting .219/.285/.365 with 21 homers in 677 plate appearances. This is...not great. In May 2015, he hit .250/.289/.444, which was nice, but he's hitting .185/.261/.309 since. Part of Castro's issues over the last season and a half come from him not using the entire field. In 2013, Castro pulled the ball 34% of the time, meaning that he either went back up the middle or to the opposite field in 66% of the balls he put in play. In 2015, that Pull% is a career-high 45%. He's trying to pull the ball, isn't hitting the ball as hard, and is impatient. Put it this way: in 491 PAs in 2013, Castro drew 50 walks. In 749 PAs in 2014-15, he's drawn 54 walks. Part of it could be that the 2013 Astros lineup wasn't even Petty Thieves' Row, much less Murderer's Row, but Castro has to improve. Where Castro has improved is his defense, throwing out 38% of the runners who try to steal on him, and it's his defense which is largely responsible for FanGraphs giving him a 1.0 WAR. Castro arbitration-eligible for the last time in 2016, but the Astros not locking him up following 2013 seems to be the right call.

Conger has been exactly what the Astros likely hoped for: a solid backup catcher, who maybe should be getting more playing time. Hell, he hit a game-winning homer in the 14th inning against the Rangers in his second game in an Astros jersey, so right there he is first in our hearts. Neither Conger (.577 OPS) nor Castro (.591 OPS) can hit lefty pitching, but Conger is hitting .311/.426/.578 in 54 PAs against righties. Conger can't throw anybody out - opposing baserunners are 15x16 in successfully reaching base, but at least he provides a little pop. Since June 1, Conger is hitting .296/.387/.537 in 62 PAs.

First Base

We've covered this, and I don't wanna do it again.

Second Base

Jose Altuve (363 PAs): .293/.335/.412, 34K:20BB

Jose Altuve has pretty much established himself as one of the premier second basemen in the game. Finally, and I can't believe it's taken this long, he's not just the short little guy who might be able to hit because he has the strike zone the size of a Kraft Single. At this point, Altuve is a career .301/.339/.402 hitter, for a 106 OPS+. And that includes the 2013 season where Altuve "struggled," hitting .283/.316/.363 and the Astros pounced to sign him to an unbelievably friendly 6yr deal with team options for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Dating back to the beginning of last season, Altuve is hitting .325/.363/.439 with 87K:56BB in 1070 PAs. No, he doesn't walk a lot, but he does make contact. Altuve's .304 average is a fraction of a percentage point behind Robinson Cano for the best BA among 2B from 2012-15 and is 10th in all of baseball. His 667 hits from 2012-15 are 2nd in baseball, behind Miguel Cabrera. He is first among all 2Bs with 149 stolen bases - ten more than Dee Gordon.

Whatever, we all know how good Altuve is. He did hit a rough patch from May 2 - June 24, coinciding with his hamstring issues, hitting .229/.274/.313 where he had almost as many GIDPs (6) as he did extra-base hits (8). But starting with the Yankees series on June 25, he's hitting .324/.370/.515.

Basically, Altuve is the cornerstone of the infield, and God willing he and Correa will anchor the middle of the diamond for the next 150 years (because the Astros will eventually use Ground Control to cheat death.)


Jed Lowrie (74 PAs): .300/.432/.567
Marwin Gonzalez (203 PAs): .253/.279/.412
Jonathan Villar (105 PAs): .263/.317/.368
Carlos Correa (141 PAs): .276/.312/.507

Ahh shortstop. Jed Lowrie started the season entrenched at short with Carlos Correa starting in Corpus. Both were destined for other, more obvious things: Lowrie hurt his thumb and Correa hurt the Texas League. The Astros struggles at shortstop in the intermediate period between Lowrie going down and Correa coming up were well-documented and there's a chance that you're like me and you've quadruple-checked Villar's batting average because you can't remember Villar ever getting a hit, much less hitting .263.

Correa is staying in Houston when Lowrie returns. What happens to Lowrie remains to be seen, but he's not going to be at shortstop unless Correa needs a break. So I think (and I'm not exactly breaking news here) that you'll see Lowrie spend some time at 1B, 3B, and DH, with most of his time at 3B. Lowrie has logged 83 games at 3B in his career, but none since 2011.

But Correa has been everything you could have asked for in his first 32 games. Consider it this way: Correa in 32 games has seven homers, which is 9th-best among shortstops for the entire year. His 128 wRC+ is 2nd among ML shortstops, and his 1.5 WAR is already tied for 9th in MLB. Will there come a time for pitchers to adjust to Carlos Correa? Sure there will. Maybe so, and Correa's numbers are going to dip, but then they're going to come back up, because Correa is a supastar.

If we're asking for things, we would ask that Correa improve against righty pitching. In the Majors (88 PAs), he's hitting .238/.273/.405. This is interesting because in 62 ABs at Fresno, Correa hit .242/.319/.339 against righties.

Third Base

Luis Valbuena (323 PAs): .199/.285/.430

Luis Valbuena is having one of the weirdest seasons I've ever seen. His .199 average is held down by a .193 BABIP, which is around 100 points lower than his BABIP for the Cubs in 2014. And he's not hitting the ball softly, either. FanGraphs said that he's hitting balls softly 15.7% of the time (15.0% in in 2014), meaning that he's hitting the ball medium to hard about 84% of the time he puts it in play, it's just not dropping for a hit (or it's leaving the park). Valbuena isn't changing his approach, either. His swing percentages (via FanGraphs) are all in line with his career-to-date. It's just the weirdest thing.

Of the 19 home runs Valbuena has hit in 2015, 14 have been solo shots, which might mean something (it might not, I'm not thinking about that too hard right now). Eight of those home runs have either tied the game or given the Astros the lead.

Still, the thing with Valbuena is the same thing with Chris Carter: how long do you wait for the numbers to rebound? Or is Valbuena's power worth dealing with the low average? His last home run came on June 23 (he hit two against Seattle), and in that time frame he's hitting .222/.364/.239 with a .303 BABIP. Is that the player Valbuena is? It's hard to get a handle on, because this season has been so bizarre.


Colby Rasmus (249 PAs): .237/.305/.460
Jake Marisnick (218 PAs): .239/.274/.373
Preston Tucker (196 PAs): .256/.316/.417
George Springer (324 PAs): .264/.365/.457

More devastating than the Lowrie injury is Springer's injury at Edinson "The Butcher" Volquez, damn his eyes. Springer was leading the team in OBP (.365) and OPS+ (129) when Volquez hit him with a pitch and knocked him out until early September at the earliest. But his stats don't tell the whole story of how Springer was heating up and turning into the player we all kind of expected him to before Volquez cut his season in half. At the end of May, Springer was hitting .222/.347/.414. He displayed a decent amount of patience, but wasn't connecting on the pitches that looked like they were piped down the middle. But from June 1 - July 1 (the date of Volquez's crime against humanity), Springer hit .325/.394/.518 with a .403 BABIP. He was stinging the ball. Replacing that level of production will be almost impossible.

Jake Marisnick started out the season hot, peaking at an 1.100 OPS (.383/.433/.667) at the end of play on May 1. Marisnick's play was a key reason in why the Astros began the season 18-7. But he, too, has fallen back to earth, his numbers settling back in line with his career numbers. From May 2 to the Break (and with him missing some time due to injury), Marisnick is hitting .177/.203/.248 with 48K:4BB in 150 PAs. This is awful.

Colby Rasmus, who is a national treasure, was doing fine until a spider (or some other critter) bite landed him in the hospital for fluids. Rasmus was hitting .247/.321/.485 before the bite - but since returning, he's hitting .167/.194/.300 in 31 PAs. Given that he returned to the lineup on July 4 - after Springer's HBP - that isn't going to cut it.

Preston Tucker's first 20 games in the Majors were fantastic, resulting in him hitting .308/.384/.523 with multi-hit games six times in those 20 games. Since then, he's come back down to earth, hitting .226/.276/.357 with 27K:8BB in 123 PAs. But there are signs of recent life: on the nine-game road trip, Tucker hit .300/.333/.425, albeit with a .344 BABIP.

So what to make of this? There are certainly more questions than answers. Tomorrow we'll take a look at the pitching staff to get a fuller picture of what the Astros' needs are over the next two weeks before the Trade Deadline.


It certainly could be that what the Astros need more than anything is the four-day break that the All-Star Game provides. After all, the Astros have played 91 games - the A's, Phillies, Rays, and Blue Jays have played 91 games, but nobody has played more. They could just be worn out. They have had two days off since June 1, playing 40 games in 42 days - 24 of those games played on the road in Toronto, Chicago, Colorado, Seattle, Anaheim, Boston, Cleveland, and Tampa.

There are 71 games left in the season, 37 of which are at home. Of those 71 games, 38 are against teams that are currently under .500, with the breakdown of remaining games vs teams as follows:

vs AL West:
13 vs. Texas (6 home, 7 away)
10 vs. Oakland (3 home, 7 away)
9 vs. Anaheim (6 home, 3 away)
6 vs. Seattle (3 home, 3 away)

vs. AL Central:
6 vs. Minnesota (3 home, 3 away)
3 vs. Kansas City (3 away)
3 vs. Detroit (3 home)

vs. AL East
4 vs. Tampa Bay (4 home)
3 vs. Boston (3 home)
3 vs. New York (3 away)

6 vs. Arizona (3 home, 3 away)
3 vs. Los Angeles (3 home)
2 vs. San Francisco (2 away)

Against these teams the Astros are cumulatively 31-26, with a 22-16 record against the rest of the AL West to this point in the season and 38 division games remaining. Some of these teams are still figuring themselves out. Certainly six against the Twins and three against the Dodgers doesn't look like a whole lot of fun. But the Astros will be playing fewer games the rest of the way than almost every other team.

The point of this is, infuriatingly, to say who the hell knows what's coming down the pike? When Springer returns in September, will it be just in time to make a late-season push, or will it be too late? The A's gave up Addison Russell for a two months of Jeff Samardzija and one playoff game against the Royals - are you comfortable with that?

Whose time runs out first: Carter? Valbuena? Can Lowrie provide enough of a spark for the offense to not be so damn streaky? Will Edinson Volquez accidentally fall down an open elevator shaft in Kansas City? Why aren't the Cardinals in jail right now?

What I do know is this: I'm pretty happy I'm not Jeff Luhnow right now.