Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Four Hidden Reasons the Astros are Winning Big

With their victory Sunday, the Astros not only swept the Rangers, celebrated Corbin Martin Day, and honored mothers everywhere by hitting multiple home runs, but they also played their 41st game. That means they are one-quarter of the way through the season.

So far, so good. The Astros enter play on Tuesday with a record of 27-15, the best in baseball. They have an excellent offense (1st in all three triple slash categories and second in runs scored).  They have an excellent pitching staff (second in runs allowed and ERA; 1st in strikeouts and walks).

Put is all together, and the Astros entered yesterday leading baseball in run differential at +69.  It's been a nice season so far.

The story of the season so far are these big number and big stories.  But the Astros are an all-around excellent baseball team.  In this article, I highlight four areas of their excellence that have, at least to me, gotten less attention from the baseball media and Astros Twitter. These are four areas that have helped them to win ballgames.

1. They are Healthy

The Astros have only put one player on the injured list since Opening Day. That's the lowest in the majors.  And that injury to Jose Altuve does not sound too serious; the team expects Jose to be activated on the first day he is eligible to return.

Health was a big story in last year's ALCS.  Correa's back injury clearly limited him, and Altuve's guttiness in playing with an avulsion fracture in his knee was admirable. But these two were limited, while the Red Sox looked like a team in the middle of Spring Training.  Hopefully the injury luck continues through the year.

2. Defensive Wizards

In his gamer last night for the Houston Chronicle, Chandler Rome highlighted the team's excellent defense. He quoted AJ Hinch as saying "We can play really good defense."  Advanced metrics back up this observation.

Fielding Runs Above Average has the Astros at the top of the majors, having saved 21 runs.  The Defensive Runs Saved metric from Baseball Info Solutions has the Astros saving 22 runs, 4th best in the majors. The Defensive Runs Saved measure from Fangraphs has the Astros saving 38 runs, second best in the majors. The defensive efficiency and park-adjusted defensive efficiency ratings from Baseball Prospectus rate the Astros as tops in the majors. Ultimate Zone Rating is more pessimistic, ranking the Astros at 3.5, which is 12th best in the majors.

That is a lot of measures and a lot of numbers. So here's the TL;DR version of that paragraph--the Astros are one of the top handful of defensive clubs in baseball.

What is notable to me about the Astros defense is that they do not have a player or two who are considered one of their positon's star defenders. Yet the team in strong on defense in large part because there is no weak defender on the team, at least by the advanced numbers. By being average or above average at each position, they sum together into a very good defense.

3. Chirinos on Defense

The Rangers decided to decline an option on Robinson Chirinos for this season in large part because of his defensive deficiencies. They signed glove-only Jeff Mathis to replace Chirinos. Well, the joke's on the Rangers (again).  They could have kept Chirinos and improved his defense. Instead, the Astros did so, and are reaping the benefits.

The chart below shows some advanced defensive metrics for catchers from Baseball Prospectus for Robinson Chirinos in 2018 and 2019. Chirinos has improved both his framing and his throwing. As a result, he has gone from a defensive liability to a neutral. He is neither helping you or hurting you on defense.

Being neutral on defense is helpful for Chirinos because his offense is his strong suit. He has a 104 OPS+ in his career, and he has exploded offensively for the Astros, slashing .273/.400/.534 for a 152 OPS+.  Credit to the Astros coaches and player development staff.

4. Late Inning Excellence

The key to the excellent run prevention numbers for the Astros this season has been the back-end of their bullpen. The top four guys at the back of the bullpen have each been excellent. The chart below shows some of the key number for each.  Both Will Harris and Hector Rondon have done a very good job in middle relief.  But at the back end of the game, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna have been dang near otherworldly.  They have combined to allow 1 run in 37 innings on the bump.

There has been little to write home about below these four in our bullpen. But these four spots are stable. The Astros can rely on these four, and now can focus on who will occupy the three to four other spots in the bullpen, whether by finding players on the major league roster, the minor leagues, the injured list (hi Joe Smith), or another team's roster. 

In short, we cheer for an excellent, and well-rounded baseball team...the best in baseball one might say.