Monday, May 23, 2016

Let's check out Brian T. Smith's latest offering

Brian T. Smith has a gem following the Rangers' 9-2 shellacking of the Astros yesterday. With an assist from our good buddy KevinBassStache (who planted the seed of the idea in my angry little head), let's pick it apart for fun.

We'd give you (the Astros) a tombstone on May 23. But you get what you pay for. And the 2016 Astros have barely been worth a thing.

I'm on board so far.

Considering the most disappointing team in the sport has scored five runs in its last 36 innings, it's no wonder the Astros' frazzled fans are wondering such crazy things as why Crane still hasn't spent any real money on his club...

I don't know that payroll is the first thing on Astros fans' collective minds. Payroll criticism is the Olney Gambit - more concern in the media than with fans. Because I can look objectively and see that they're paying Rasmus almost $16 million (which, I still believe the front office didn't think he would accept the qualifying offer. No other potential free agent had done so before.) 

I can look objectively and see that George Springer, Carlos Correa, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, Ken Giles, Mike Fiers, Will Harris are all pre-arbitration players and are making approximately league-minimum. I can look objectively and see that, combined, the Astros are paying Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa slightly over $4 million. That's not indicative of an unwillingness to spend, that's indicative of taking advantage of baseball's economics. 

In the last 18 months the Astros have spent about $50 million on Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Tony Sipp. Doug Fister looks like a steal at $7 million. They've been willing to spend payroll on players to fit their needs at the time. It's debatable how effective that money has been spent, but the construct of the team hasn't called for throwing $100 million at a free agent in the last two offseasons.  And remember, if Cole Hamels wasn't such an ass-clown pony boy (I don't even know what that means), the Astros would be paying him $23.5 million for each of the next three seasons to pitch in Houston. 

...or when general manager Jeff Luhnow is going to construct an everyday lineup that backs the year-plus hype.

I think A.J. Hinch makes out the lineup. Yeah, I'd prefer it if Luhnow sent Marisnick back to Triple-A, but it's Hinch who sits Tony Kemp on the bench while Marisnick tries to hit the weight of an Olympic gymnast. 

"The year-plus hype" was created by the Astros - the same players who currently make up the team now - starting out the 2015 season with an 18-7 record. That's where the hype comes from, the fact that these same guys came out so hot to begin last season.

But as a backward year has unfolded, it hasn't been the team's arms that have dragged this ballclub down...

Yes it has. Astros starters have combined for a -2.5 WAR - 29th in MLB. Relievers have a -1.3 WAR- 25th in MLB. In only twelve of the Astros' 45 games has a starting pitcher thrown a start with a Game Score of 60 or better. They've had seven starts with a Game Score under 30. This team isn't the mid-90s Braves with a 2012 Astros offense. The pitching deserves as much of the blame as the hitting, because - when the starting pitching does its job, you can often count on the bullpen to struggle. The Astros lost five of those 12 starts with a GS over 60. 

The 2016 Stros can't hit. And they don't have the lineup to realistically try.

Jason Castro's OPS is currently 110 points higher than it was in 2015. Colby Rasmus's OPS is 17 points higher than his 8-year career average. George Springer's batting average in 2016: .254. His career batting average: .256. His .802 OPS is currently only 12 points lower than his career OPS. Evan Gattis' .735 OPS in slightly lower than his .770 career OPS, and is 13 points lower than is 2015 OPS. Carlos Correa has struggled more this season than he did in his rookie campaign...but he's a 21-year old making adjustments after a ROY season.

Luis Valbuena's OPS is 144 points lower than it was in 2015, and is 90 points lower than his career OPS. Tyler White's OBP dipped below .300 yesterday and he has cooled off considerably after the heroics of his first week in the Majors. Carlos Gomez is hurt and terrible and his replacement, Jake Marisnick, is healthy and terrible. Super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez's .227 batting average is 52 points lower than his 2015 average, and his .683 OPS is 76 points lower than his 2015, but is exactly in line with his career OPS.

The 2016 Astros' struggles to hit are well-documented, and saying that they're a good-hitting team would be an overstatement. But to say that they "don't have the lineup to realistically try" is misguided. All except White has a track record of at least marginal success, and even he was a logical choice to make the Opening Day roster based on minor-league track record and the Spring Training he enjoyed. The Astros are trying to squeeze whatever value Valbuena has left out of this season, but it's clear he's running out of time - even if Hinch won't play Colin Moran. 

Combined batting average at third base entering Sunday: a lifeless .176. Center field: .184; Catcher: .193. First base: a whopping .232. I know BA is a little outdated in the new millennium, but if you can't hit, you can't hit. 

We've addressed Valbuena. We've addressed Gomez and Marisnick. None of those three have shown that they are worthy of being everyday options for the Astros. But let's try to have a little bit more focus here:

For all the crap I've given Jason Castro over the last three seasons, I'm perfectly happy to point out that his 115 wRC+ is 6th among catchers with 120 PAs this season and is 2nd in the American League behind Wellington Castillo. His .360 OBP is 4th among catchers in the Majors. Since he simplified his swing he is hitting .300/.447/.533. On a team with a lot of problems, Jason Castro is not one of them.

Yes, Brian Smith, batting average is a little outdated because it only tells a portion of an offensive story. The Astros' .312 OBP is 21st in the Majors - 10th in the AL. It's not great, but it's hardly an indictment of an organization. Their 10.1% BB% is 4th in the Majors. Their .173 ISO is 8th in the Majors. Their .402 SLG is precisely middle-of-the-pack in the Majors and 8th in the AL. Yes, the Astros' batting average is stupidly low - 29th in MLB, last in the AL - but that is simply one very limited and narrow way to measure an offense.

And a team that still refuses to spend cash like it plays in the fourth-largest city in the country...

Oh, we're back to this, okay.

...the Astros are about $145 million off the Dodgers' MLB-leading pace...

We're comparing the Astros' payroll to the Dodgers' payroll? The Dodgers have one of the most expensive teams in baseball history, and if we want to go down this rabbit-hole you can say that the Yankees are $17 million of the Dodgers' MLB-leading pace, the Red Sox are $45 million off the Dodgers' MLB-leading pace, the Tigers are about $50 million off the Dodgers' MLB leading pace.

At 27.1 years of age, the Astros have the 2nd-youngest offensive roster in baseball. Castro, Rasmus, and Gattis are in their Age 29 season. Valbuena and Gomez are 30. And you know what the Dodgers' MLB-leading payroll pace has gotten them? 22-23, 3rd in the NL West, 4.5 GB of the Giants. The Astros will pay Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve a smidge over $4m in 2016. The Dodgers are paying Carl Crawford over $21m to put up a .501 OPS in a part-time role. Young players do not cost as much as older players, and payroll is not indicative of on-field success.

Jake Marisnick's a better overall option than MIA Carlos Gomez as is.

Trying to determine if Gomez is better than Marisnick is like trying to determine if you would rather have someone rub their choad or the actual hole of their ass across your top lip.

But Marisnick's sweet running outfield catches against the Rangers were erased by the fact he's batting a measly .116 and has no business being written into a major league lineup right now.

I cannot agree with this more whole-heartedly.

The same can be said of most of the Astros' "hitters," who are pretty much the same guys who either swung big or missed hard throughout 2015. 

Hey hold up. Putting "hit" in quotation marks is my bit. While it is true that "these are pretty much the same guys," Houston is scoring 4.0 runs/game, 20th in the Majors and 11th in the AL. They are allowing 4.8 runs/game, 25th in the Majors and 13th in the AL. Last year the Astros scored 4.5 runs/game, but allowed 3.8 runs/game. While Valbuena/Gomez/Marisnick have been a disaster, and Tyler White looks very much like a rookie, the Astros brought the same guys back while theoretically improving the bullpen and rotation and hoping that some of the statistical anomalies of 1-run games and "clutch hitting" would regress back to the mean. The Astros may be guilty of misreading the stats, but a lot of people can be found guilty of the same crime.

Take away Jose Altuve and what does this team really have at the plate? Potential Springer and Correa, who are batting below .255 with a combined 99 Ks in 347 at-bats.

Okay, first of all, you can't just "take away Jose Altuve." Altuve has been unbelievable. A five-game swing in the standings and Altuve gets mentioned for MVP talk. But to call Springer and Correa "potential unfulfilled" is borderline irresponsible. Correa is 21 years old and has played in 143 games - not even a full season of Major League Baseball. Springer has played in 225 career games and has 999 career Plate Appearances. He has 45 home runs and a career .814 OPS. Are they struggling as much as it seems? Correa's power is down from last year (.512 SLG in 2015 to .418 SLG in 2016), but he still has a 114 OPS+ and HE'S 21 YEARS OLD.

Prior to Sunday, the franchise was tied for sixth in MLB in home runs (26) this month while ranking second in walks (86) and ninth in RBIs (86). But when they fail to make contact - which is quite often since 2013 - they don't do anything at all.

Wait. "When they fail to make contact - which is quite often since 2013 - they don't do anything at all." That is true. If you don't make contact, you don't do anything.

And at 24.2% the Astros do have the highest K% in baseball since 2013. But the 2013-2014 Astros are a different animal than the 2015-2016 Astros. They were in a different position in their rebuilding process. The 2013 Astros had Carlos Pena at DH, Matt Dominguez at 3B, Brandon Barnes in CF. J.D. Martinez had not yet turned himself into the second coming of Ty Cobb, posting a .650 OPS in 310 PAs. The 2014 Astros were coming out of it, promoting George Springer and seeing Jose Altuve return to form. But Robbie Grossman still played in 103 games. Jon Singleton hit .168 with a .620 OPS. Matt Dominguez played in 157 games with a .586 OPS. You can compare the 2013-2014 Astros to the 2016 Astros, but you might as well stop with the color scheme. Of the main lineup from 2014 only Castro, Altuve and Springer remain. Keuchel and McHugh are still in the rotation, but Feldman has shifted to the bullpen; Fields has been sent down, and Sipp is still working in the bullpen.

But no, Smith is right, not making contact is not ideal. I'll give him that.

These Astros aren't slumping, either. The same trends seen for the majority of 2015 have been painfully evident this year. When they put up nine runs in Boston? That's the real anomaly.

The Astros are scoring half a run per game less than they did in 2015. We've established that. They have played 45 games and have scored 5+ runs in 21 of them.

Nine runs in a game is the anomaly for the Houston Astros? Nine runs in a game is an anomaly for every team. There have been 1308 games played in MLB this year, and teams have scored at least nine runs in just 8.9% of them. And teams are 110-7 in games where 9+ runs are scored. It's even more of an anomaly in the American League. 651 games have been played in the AL and teams have scored nine runs in 54 of them - 7.9% of the total games. Only three games in the American League have been lost when a team has scored at least nine runs. That nine-run game in Boston is one of them because the pitching, which according to Smith isn't the problem, gave up ten runs. That's the real anomaly.

At its heart, this is still a cheap roster with little up-front investment. Calling up Tony Kemp and Colin Moran was fun for a few hours on Twitter. But both received phone calls ahead of the expected schedule and are only in The Show because the big league alternatives have been swinging at air.

Okay, back to Olney's Gambit. But typically the only reasons someone gets called up from the minors is because of injuries or because the "big league alternatives" aren't performing to their ability. The Astros presumably did not call Kemp and Moran to the Majors as a favor, or to give them a vacation. This is where I'll put some blame on Hinch by insisting on playing Valbuena and Marisnick over Moran and Kemp.

Against lefties this season Marisnick is 1x20 with a .050/.136/.100 line. Kemp's minor-league splits don't offer great hope for success against lefties, but it's at least worth a shot, right? Colin Moran, however, has hit .350/.395/.425 against lefties at Triple-A this season, and against lefty Cesar Ramos on Saturday? Moran rode the bench - didn't even get a single plate appearance. Even using Moran as a platoon option is being mishandled. I just don't understand why you're going to go to the trouble of adding someone to the 40-Man roster, call them up, and then not see what they can do in a limited role.

Manager A.J. Hinch is a less-than-average 103-104 since becoming Bo Porter's replacement. But this has nothing to do with the man who moves the pieces around. This is on the actual parts themselves: roster construction, daily lineup, hoping cheapness pays off instead of blending the promise of youth with proven bats. 

While it's true that the sum of the parts of the 2016 Astros are greater than the whole, everyone is to blame for the failings of this season to this point. The daily lineup is absolutely on Hinch. I don't believe the Astros are hoping "cheapness" pays off - this is the next logical step in the rebuilding process, seeing which of these guys is worth the long-term investment. You don't know which of the youth will pan out yet, so you don't know which "proven bats" to bring in. Carlos Gomez was a "proven bat," even if the Astros were hoping the sand pouring out of his career hourglass was moving a little bit more slowly.

The failings of the Astros are many. It's not just the offense. It's not just the pitching. It's not just the payroll. It's not just the lineups. It's not just Hinch. It's not just Marisnick. It's not just Gomez. It's not just Luhnow. It's not just youth. It's a combination of all of these things, and trying to paint a simplified picture ("Offense is offensive! Spend moneys!") is disingenuous and doesn't come anywhere close to being able to solve the probelm.