Monday, April 25, 2016

What's wrong with the Astros?

Let's face it. So far this team has been frustrating to watch. It's becoming heartbreaking to hope for a clutch hit or shut down pitching performance, only to see another called third strike or 30+ pitch inning. And I'm not here to say things haven't been as bad as we think. These games have been played, and lost, and no amount of silver lining puts wins back on the board. But I think it can be helpful to look at how things have gone wrong and if they're the kinds of things that we can expect to continue. I've tried for several days now to find the magic pill of stats that we can point to that tells us a turnaround is just imminent, but this isn't like previous years when we could just point at an absurdly low BABIP and give a blanket, everything-will-get-better statement and call it a day. That said, there are a couple main themes that we can look at.

One of those themes is something we already touched on a few days ago. The hitters' struggles with RISP have been unbelievable. To update things to include the last few games, as of the completion of the Red Sox series, the Astros are hitting just .180/.255/.371 with a strikeout rate over 28%. To take it a step further, FanGraphs has a rating simply called "Clutch" which measures “…how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” In other words, how much better or worse a player hits in key situations compared to his overall hitting. In this rating, most players fall somewhere between +1 and -1. Anything above +2 is considered Excellent and anything below -2 is considered Awful. The Astros are worst in the AL at -3.23. Next worst is the Twins at -1.43. Now, I should point out that extreme ratings are more common early in the season, as one or two key at bats can obviously move the needle more when you're looking at a few dozen data points versus an entire season with potentially hundreds of opportunities. That said, the Astros were also the worst team by Clutch last year, too. But if you look at the individual player ratings, you can see the unpredictability of clutch hitting. Last year's worst clutch hitter, Luis Valbuena, is this year's best (although his rating this year, 0.11, isn't anything to get excited about) and last year's best, Preston Tucker, is 12th this year.

But regardless of sample size or individual player performance, this really illustrates the importance of sequencing. The concept of sequencing simply says that if you take two teams and give them both, say, 8 singles in a game, the team that bunches those hits together will score more than the team that has one hit per inning. Both teams will have identical batting averages, but much different outcomes. Simply put, the Astros have horrible sequencing right now. They're currently third in the AL in overall wRC+, so we know they can hit. I'm not sure that means we can count on them to trend closer to average, though. But all that said, they're still 5th in the league in runs scored, so I don't think offense is the really culprit in this slow start.

The real issue so far has been pitching. The starters and relievers both have the 3rd worst AL ERA. Combined, the Astros currently have the worst ERA in the AL. But why? And should we expect them to continue being this bad? Well, let's break things down. Two areas stand out to me. The first is BABIP. In 2016, Astros starters are tied with the Yankees for the highest BABIP in the AL. While some pitchers have proven an ability to deflate BABIP consistently due to soft contact, an entire pitching staff tends to hover around .300. I think it's safe to say the team's current .344 mark will come down. They're not going to get hard at a historic level. As for the relievers, their BABIP is decidedly middle of the pack. So we can't expect much regression there.

But the problems with the bullpen can be highlighted in one other area, HR/FB. This is another stat that is more influenced by things outside a pitcher's control as opposed to being indicative of their talent level. Ballpark seems to be the biggest influence here, but MMP no longer plays like the bandbox it used to be. And if you look at the staff's batted ball data, neither the starters or relievers are giving up rockets on a regular basis. Both are decidedly in the middle of the pack, 8th in the AL, in hard hit percentage. But for some reason the team is giving up a much higher than average rate of homers per fly ball. Especially the relievers, who are second worst in the AL. Sipp, Neshek, Giles, and Feliz in particular have been victimized to the tune of greater than 20%. Average is about 9-10%.

Giles in particular is an interesting case. He had allowed just 3 home runs in nearly 116 innings. He's equaled that in 2016 in less than 9 innings. He's actually dropped his FB% by about 5 points, but his HR/FB is nearly TWELVE (!!) times what it was coming into the season. His average velocity is just 0.1 mph below where it was last year, so he's not hurt. While it's not impossible, I find it hard to believe he suddenly became one of the worst HR-allowing pitchers in history. He's obviously struggling with something, but the safe money is on him, and the rest of the bullpen, to keep more balls in the stadium over the course of the remainder of the season.

Now, I'm not saying Hinch, Luhnow, and the rest of the staff should just sit back, throw up their hands, and shout "REGRESSION TO THE MEAN" while hoping for a 10 game win streak, but I think we should maybe step back from that ledge (my friend). The fact is that these losses actually happened and will remain on the right-hand side of our ledger for the rest of the season. And while what I've outlined here should indicate that things shouldn't remain this bad all season, this squad has dug themselves into a deep hole already and it's going to take more than normalization to get this team back at the top of the pack.