Friday, May 12, 2017

Astros County Roundtable - the first 35 games

So the Astros sit with a ML-leading 24 wins against and ML equal-low 11 losses.  That adds up to a nice round 35 games, so Astros County, Masked Marvel and (Not Hank) Aaron took the opportunity to sit around their comically large boardroom roundtable which sits on the 48th floor of an awesome looking skyscraper overlooking downtown Houston, to discuss the season to this point.

Aside from "Wooo!!", what are your thoughts on the season so far, in a sentence or less...

MM:  The Astros have done what they needed to do to this point - pound on division rivals with a 17-6 record.

AC: The Astros have been able to make up for their own shortcomings, either through offense when the pitching is bad or pitching when the offense is bad.

NH: Season is playing out as planned, explosive offense and solid bullpen making up for league average starting pitching.

What do you think has been the most important ingredient in the Astros' fast start??

MM:  The 2017 Astros were drawn up to be a team with no holes, unlike every other Astros team since the early naughties.  Their stars, perhaps aside from Altuve, all have room to grow and get better (sorry about the Altuve height reference), and what the Front Office did this year was to add some solid lefty bats to augment those guys.  As a result, and as often referenced, the Astros bat solidly from 1 through 9.

Looking at the fWAR rankings for the position players illustrates this point nicely.  Through approximately the first month of the season, there have been some outstanding performances from non-Astros: Bryce Harper leads baseball with a 2.4 fWAR already.  Miguel Sano, Freddy Freeman, Mike Trout, Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman (!) all sit slightly back just over 2.0 fWAR - those are the six position players over 2 for the season so far.

The leading Astro in terms of fWAR??  The recently-hit Carlos Correa (1.2), followed by... no other Astros above 1.0 fWAR.  But, of the other seven major position players only Carlos Beltr├ín sits in negative territory (-0.4).  Springer, Altuve and McCann have all contributed (just under 1 fWAR), as have part-timers MarGo (1.0) and El Oso Blanco (0.5).

Similar story with the pitchers: the leading pitcher via fWAR is Chris Sale with 2.4.  The leading Astro is AL Pitcher of the Month, Dallas Keuchel (1.1); closely followed by starters Charles Morton and Lance McCullers (0.8) and reliever Chris Devenski (1.0).  Mike Fiers sits at -1.0 fWAR for the season, so he is the worst-performed Astro this season.  And no one expects a >40% HR/FB rate to continue.

So no outstanding, season-long performances as yet for the Astros, just solid contributions from almost everyone.

AC: They've gotten production from everywhere. Like MM said, there hasn't been one person you look to and think, "they're carrying this team." (Maybe Marwin?)  But it still doesn't feel like the whole team has clicked together yet. Gregerson and Giles are a little concerning. Mike Fiers is a lot concerning. Bregman hasn't found his power yet. And still they're leading the division. This is fun.

NH: The depth of the lineup has paid dividends in the late innings. I'm not sure if this is a real factor, or something I've made up, but it really seems like running out 9 above average hitters consistently has worn pitching staffs down, allowing for the late inning explosions. The team is putting up a .343 OBP, and a 121 wRC+ overall.  In the last 30 days, excluding that odd opening, it's .351 and 127. Keep that up, and this team will cruise.

The Astros' Pythagoran record is 22-13 (168 runs for, 127 against).  Anything worrying y'all about the Astros moving forward??

AC: No, it's about time this franchise caught some breaks.

NH: That's hardly extreme. Nothing about their performance this far screams regression. Team BABIP is pretty normal. They are outperforming their FIP but matching their xFIP. This is a team who was expected to be good and has been good

Who are you watching in the minors who can help the 2017 Astros from on the Farm???

MM:  Tony Sipp (4.05 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 5.62 xFIP) has been better of late, but he has only been used in a mop-up role recently.  I don't think that he is the (touches wood) postseason lefty for the Astros.  So I am interested in the lefties on the farm, and they don't have to be good against righties.

In Fresno, Ashur Tolliver (9.0 IP, 2.00 ERA, 1.333 WHIP) and Sean Stutzman (8.2 IP, 3.12 ERA, 1.731 WHIP) have been used in short relief only (six and three games respectively).  Reymin Guduan has been used more (13 games, 15.2IP) but hasn't been good (8.62 ERA, 1.787 WHIP).

I mentioned Michael Freeman in the last roundtable, and he has been used a lot (13 games, 19 IP), recording good results in Corpus (3.32) without good peripherals (19 H, 16 BB, 14K, 1.842 WHIP).  Stutzman was the standout lefty here in a small sample prior to his promotion (5 IP, 1.80 ERA, 0.800 WHIP, 8K).

Further down the farm in Buies Creek, Framber Valdez has thrown 25.2 innings in 6 games (4 starts). He has a 1.247 WHIP, with 31 strikeouts against 15 walks.  Cionel Perez has to be added to the 40-man at the end of the year (thanks to the Astros rescinding their initial offer because of his physical exam), and he has appeared in 3 games for the River Bandits (all starts), through 10 innings, with a 11.70 ERA.

So, yeah, interest, but no one standing out.  The next Astros LOOGY will come from outside the organisation, it seems.

AC: I would have said Brady Rodgers, because he was the one bright spot in the rotation, so I guess I default to Frankie Tuesday after Rodgers' Tommy John surgery last week. The Astros do need another arm, and Martes would be the one guy to do it that wouldn't cost any prospects. I don't see anyone making an Altuve/McCullersesque jump and coming straight from Double-A. So Fresno is what you get.

NH: Gurriel has been really weird, and we still have no idea who he is. .095/.095/.095 first 8 games, .451/.472./.686 next 14, .152/.243/.182 next 9. Reed has been good in AAA, but not great (.282/.406/.455, 27% K rate). I'm really curious to see which of those two winds up the Astros 1st baseman in the second half.

MarGo: breakout year or just a blip of awesomeness??

AC: Blip of awesomeness, unless it just took him six years to figure out Major-League pitching.

NH: Will he wind up with a 190 wRC+? No. Can he be an above average hitter the rest of the year? I'm not seeing any reason why not.  

MM:  MarGo had a .298 OBP coming into the season.  Blummer talks a lot about him chasing the back foot slider until this point in his career.  If he can continue his strong walk rate (12.2% this season, against a career 5.1%), I guess he has a chance at a late-career breakout.

What will the next 30 games hold?

AC: So, here are the opponents until G60 (or 64, at which point the Astros will have played 40%-ish of the season): 2 vs Atlanta, 4 at New York, 3 at Miami, 3 vs Cleveland, 4 vs Detroit, 3 vs Baltimore, 3 at Minnesota, 3 at Texas, 4 at Kansas City, and 3 vs Anaheim. That's 17 games on the road. The Astros also play 10 games against the Yankees, Orioles, and Indians, who are all shaping up to be good teams. The four-game set against the Yankees later this week will be another measuring-stick series, to see if the Astros are this good, or the rest of the AL West is that bad.

NH: I really think this team can hang with every team on their schedule, and being on the road should not bother the offense too much. I'm not expecting another 20-10 record, but, if they post a winning record over the next 30 days it will bode very well. This is the toughest stretch they'll face this season, and it's not particularly close.

MM: I think that the Astros may return to earth a little in the next 30 games, but should maintain their lead in the AL-West.  The huge comebacks will dry up a little.  They need to avoid injuries to the starting rotation, and get some innings allocated to the back end of the bullpen.  If they can keep playing solidly, they should build on this start, but obviously not at a .686 clip.  I think they will maintain their division lead at or above five games, which is probably the most important thing.