Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The State of the Astros, All-Star Break Edition: Part 1

If you had told me on April 1 that, at the All-Star Break, the Astros would be a half-game out of 1st place in the division with a 5.5-game lead on the Rangers and in the 2nd Wild Card spot by 3.0 games, I would immediately think that you were playing an April Fool's joke and then I would want to spit on you.

Yet that's where the Astros are. And while the preceding paragraph is astounding given the last four years, I can't help but feel like the Astros haven't screwed something up over the course of the last month.

After the games played on May 1 the Astros had a 5.0-game lead; on June 1 the lead was 4.0 games; on July 1 their lead was 5.0 games. From July 4 to the Break, a span of nine games, the Astros lost 5.5 games to the Angels.

Since May 1 the Astros have the 10th-best record in the American League while the Angels sit a half-game back of the Twins for the best AL record since May 1. Since June 1, the Astros - at 17-22 (.436) - are ever so slightly better than the Rangers (.432) for the worst record in the AL. Now, given that we're talking about five weeks of baseball from June 1 - ASG, that's a fairly small sample size and we can even find a silver lining in that the Astros endured two significant losing streaks in that span.

But the fact is, the Astros' incredible April is propping up this season, and it's going to take more than just Johnny Cueto (allegedly) to get this team post-season ready, because another month of what we've seen in the last month, and we can put those October dreams to bed...at least until next spring.

Some of the Astros' problems cannot be avoided. Edinson F***ing Volquez breaking George Springer's hand and the resulting 1-6 record, for instance. Volquez should be suspended by Rob Manfred for conduct detrimental to the game of baseball. I'm mostly joking there. Jed Lowrie's injury, is another example, though Jed Lowrie getting injured on a freak play isn't exactly a freak occurrence for Jed Lowrie.

But there are some places where the Astros can and should improve.

Astros hitting, by month:
April: .238/.316/.411 - .727 OPS
May: .236/.296/.421 - .717 OPS
June: .246/.313/.442 - .755 OPS
July: .236/.295/.353 - .648 OPS

The batting average has remained consistent, the OBP relatively consistent (though on-again/off-again from month-to-month), but the power evaporated in July. The last time the Astros won - July 6 at Cleveland - they had five extra-base hits: three doubles and two home runs. In the six games that followed heading into the Break, the Astros had seven extra-base hits: three doubles and four home runs. For an offense built on power, when the power goes out, the offense stops, and it doesn't matter what the pitching staff does if the offense is averaging 1.0 runs per game.

Granted, you can read that and say, "Yesssss but every team is going to go through slumps. The Astros have proven this season that they can hit," and you would be correct. And when you use calendar months as end points, the numbers tend to get arbitrary. So if we zoom out to include the 40 games from June 1 - July 12, the offense is hitting .243/.308/.417. Interestingly enough, American League batters are hitting .255/.314/.407 in the same time span, meaning that the Astros have been perfectly average in their last 40 games and their record reflects it.

Let's try to do this a little bit better, shall we? I think you can divide the 2015 season into three distinct eras: Opening Day - May 3, May 4 - June 7, and June 8 - July 12. Why?

The Opening Day - May 3 Astros went 18-7, and included the 10-game winning streak. This also marks the first Era of Astros baseball in many moons where people started to take the Astros seriously, if not spitefully. This 1st Era team hit .247/.324/.446 whereas the AL as a whole (and yes, this includes the Astros) hit .251/.319/.397 - the Astros outslugging the rest of the AL by over 50 points.

The May 4 - June 7 (2nd Era) Astros weathered the Marwin/Villar storm, starting the home sweep at the hands of the Rangers until the promotion of Carlos Correa and his subsequent debut on June 8. These 2nd Era Astros went 16-17 and hit .226/.287/.388 while the AL as a whole hit .250/.310/.396.

The June 8 - Present (3rd Era) Astros saw the promotions of Correa, McCullers, and Velasquez and have just been a mixed bag/all-or-nothing team. They're 15-18 with a .246/.311/.422 slash line as an offense. Four times in this Era did the Astros put up 10+ runs - twice in three days against Seattle. But they also lost five 1-run games - two of those in the same series against the Angels, the team whom the Astros sit a half-game behind. In their last nine games (1-8) the Astros have been outscored 34-21. Thirteen runs over nine games is not a wide margin.

It is no secret that Chris Carter is not hitting well. Nor is Jon Singleton. At 1B this season, the Astros rank 13th in the AL in WAR, only getting more production than two teams - the Rays and Red Sox, against whom the Astros just went 1-5 in the last ten days. At DH, the Astros rank 14th in the AL in WAR, only better than the A's. That's not a lot of designated hits for the guys designated to only hit.

There are 135 players in Major League Baseball with at least 300 PAs in 2015. At .185, Chris Carter's batting average ranks 135th. Incidentally, Luis Valbuena's .199 ranks 133rd. Interestingly enough, FanGraphs still gives Chris Carter a 0.1 WAR, and Valbuena a 0.6 WAR...better than Evan Gattis' -0.3 WAR. Just for argument's sake of giving Chris Carter more time:

2014 Pre-All Star Break Chris Carter: .205/.281/.465, .237 BABIP, 18 HR, 99K:24BB
2015 Pre-All Star Break Chris Carter: .185/.300/.380, .236 BABIP, 15 HR, 115K:44BB

And then Carter blew up for an .860 OPS in the 2nd Half of 2014.

Jon Singleton has only taken 29 plate appearances this season, but has more walks (4) than hits (3). And it's probably worth noting that in 391 career PAs (which is still only a shade over a half-season's worth), Singleton has put up a career .164/.281/.322 slash line with 146 strikeouts.

There are holes in the offense, but I don't know how you resolve all of them. Call me crazy, but I do not see Jed Lowrie resuming his .999 OPS when he returns from his thumb injury...at some point in the next month. But I'm guessing Lowrie will get some time at 1B while Singleton goes back to Fresno to...do what, exactly? Kill Triple-A pitching - like he always does - and not look terrible at the plate in the Majors - like he has done for almost 400 PAs.

The only rumors we have heard (and by this I mean, "what we see on Twitter and various media outlets") have to do with starting pitching, and that's a conversation to be had tomorrow. So guess what? The Astros are a weird, complicated, nerve-wracking team, and this is shaping up to be a weird, complicated, nerve-wracking season.