April’s fools in Houston
Blink and you’ll miss it: seems like Opening Day was just yesterday yet we are at the end of April, already more than 10 games into the odissey known as Regular Season.
That’s not much, not even 10% of the whole calendar and far too small a sample size to give any predictive judgement nor call for either doom nor boom, still more than 100 innings per team have gone by, with interesting, unforeseeable results.
What about the 10-5 Rockies? And how to explain Oakland and its winning record? Are the White Sox really that bad?
What about the Houston Astros??
In what should be one if not the weakest division in all of baseball, considering the rebuilding A’s and whatever the Rangers are even with 2 elite shortstops, with small steps forward for Seattle and the same old pitching-impaired Angels, Houston had a nightmare start, a losing record that puts the Astros behind all but Texas albeit only 2.5 games trailing the leading Mariners.
To a running, 4-1 opening week followed a streak of badly played games, four losses interrupted only by a walkoff homer in extras, more on that later.
There are a lot of things to be considered regarding Houston’s abysmal performance as of late, and it all comes back to an old, home-made adagio that seems to follow the Astros since the past few years: “What it was is not what should have been”.
You think you know why the Astros have been bad, and instead it should have been the opposite! How? Let’s find out.
- It is, it should, and it’s better than expected: Jeremy Peña
For all the fanfare about Correa’s departure, his odd signing with the Twins and a 7 WAR hole left to fill in the Astros roster, fans of Houston have yet again been spoiled by a home-grown talent who’s been arguably the best rookie in the AL, if not MLB, so far: what an introduction, Jeremy Peña!
The best percentiles were to be expected: tearing up through the Minors Jeremy had his calling card in his sterling defense and blazing speed, and so far so good. Savant has already a love affair with his SS fielding prowess, grading him among if not THE best defensive shortstop in the league per OAA: he may not have Correa’s military weapon as an arm but his range and smooth hands have been a delight since day 1 and the man can outright fly the bases too.
The bat though…way to prove yourself in the biggest of stages! While he indeed has a tough time on pitches away, primarly those pesky sliders low and outside he can’t help but swing and miss at, he’s absolutely mashing the heat and everything middle-in: his swing is designed for line drives yet he has 3 HR to his name and no cheapies, the latter a walkoff to beat the Blue Jays in the 10th, a majestic 425 ft bomb dead central.
What stood out to me in the few ABs I saw is his ability to adapt to the pitcher and his arsenal: Ohtani made a mockery of him three times on a deluge of sliders sweeping away but on his 4th AB Peña waited, laying off tough pitches to get a walk. Before his iconic HR he was on a 2-20 skid but he’s shown a penchant for walks, 8-9 BB%, and whenever he hits a ball, it’s hard and at the right angle.
His 93rd percentile Barrel% is an Astros best, battling with the sole Seiya Suzuki, also on a not surprising great start of the season, for the MLB rookie lead: a potent bat, superb fielding and baserunning have already brought home 1 WAR, again tied with the mighty Seiya atop and well ahead of more hyped prospects such as Julio Rodriguez, Bobby Witt Jr and Spencer Torkelson.
Will he keep up this pace, which would mean a season close to that of 2021 Correa in 600 PA, or will the league catch up to him and exploit his glaring hole, namely all things away from his bath path? With his athleticism and adaptability I’m positive he might be much, much better than what everyone predicted, easing, maybe not replacing, the Correa days gone by.
- It isn’t but it should: an elite lineup
What started out on a bad note in this first almost-month has been an offense that is far from the juggernaut fans were accustomed to: with few new faces and a lot of well known quantities the Astros 1-9 was poised to be a top 5, even top 3 lineup in all of baseball and…well scratch that!
With a .200 BA and sub .300 wOBA Houston is one of the worst offenses in MLB, along with the injury-riddled White Sox, young but upcoming Royals and still rebuilding Orioles, the company you don’t keep.
Wait a second though: that table is actually not bad! That’s because it shows the best hitting teams as per xwOBA, expected and not “real” weighted on base average: in that regard Houston grades 10th, not that far from arguably the “true” best lineups in MLB in Dodgers and Toronto.
That’s what it has been, a lie in April as to recall quite a tear-jerker: the Astros lineup is actually doing fine!
Houston batters are among the best in Contact rates and their Whiff% and Chase% as a whole are better than league average: they are hitting balls in the zone, walking quite a bit, chasing and whiffing less…so where is the issue?
When I delved into the numbers I thought another well known Astros trademark came back to bite them: Houston has long been the king of GIDP, deleting baserunners due to the unfortunate combination of having a man on base and hitting the ball a ton, hard and straight at someone.
Well, not this time around: the Astros lineup has the third lowest GB% behind Seattle and the Bomba Squad in Minneapolis, Barrel% and LD% on the norm and maybe a little bit too much Weak contact.
Is it all dumb luck then? Quite frankly it seems so, and tell it, yet again for some strange occurence, to Kyle Tucker!
He may not be hitting the ball hard but he’s above average in almost everything, even cutting 5 points of Chase% from 2021 and whiffing less. A warning for his Sprint Speed: that is a sharp decline although with the few hits he has amounted to he never had to bust it out for a base.
Deep into the abyss, he even resorted to batting gloves, something he never wore before and one of his old-school, lanky Ted Williams traits. Result? Three straight singles, baseball is just like that.
A small problem may be his career high avgLA: Tuck is elevating the ball a lot, too much even as he’s getting under fastballs resulting in pop-ups and warning track shots. With his katana slash of a swing he doesn’t need loft to generate power, so just hit it straight and let it fly!
For Tucker’s customary unfortunate April, another Astro gives him a run for his money:
That is the regular Yordan Alvarez infernal Savant page and yet he’s hitting .158! Behind the scenes he might be better than ever: that’s what a .103 BABIP does, and it hides a K% that is down from over 20% in 2021 to 14%, the usual share of walks, power to spare (.260 ISO) and a team-best .422 xwOBA.
If Tuck is getting the short hand of the stick, Yordan is being left out of the game entirely and it’s only a matter of time before balls start to fall, in and out of the park.
- It is but it shouldn’t: a carrying pitching staff
For a lineup that struggled to put runs on the board, Astros pitching did a damn good job at not allowing opponents to get too far ahead, and that was not that easy of a task considering a rotation full of question marks and an unspectacular bullpen.
How did they do it? For starters, they decided to throw strikes:
Only Baltimore pitching has thrown more offerings in the strike zone, which is not to say a lot of strikes are a good thing! Still, batters whiffed a decent amount and barreled a league average amount of balls while swinging more than usual: those additional strikes are leading to less damage and more favorable counts.
That’s not because Astros pitchers have truly improved though: selection bias of sorts, rarely has the Astros rotation had so many strike throwers, elite ones (Verlander), good to great ones (Urquidy, Garcia), terrible ones too (sorry Jake Odorizzi). Even with Framber Valdez back walking 4-5 guys per 9, and with Lance McCullers Jr on the IL, the Astros are throwing strikes, albeit they should go 0-1 more often.
What’s missing is when pitches are thrown outside the zone: batters are not chasing against those Houston offerings, resulting in deep pitch counts, walks and early hooks:
As a rotation the Astros have the 4th lowest CSW% and one of the lowest O-Swing%: too many pitches in the Waste zone and too few in the Shadow zone is a receipt for future disaster.
The bullpen? More of the same:
While the Astros troops are getting the 3rd best SwStr% they are severely lacking in Chases and Whiffs, and a low CStr% doesn’t help when a lot of pitches are thrown out of the zone and not swung at.
Another red light resounding danger as far as Astros pitching is concerned is the quality of BBE they are allowing, especially considering the nature of those balls:
Astros pitching is allowing the lowest GB% in all of MLB and one of the lowest Pull rates: opposing lineups are playing pepper, spraying balls all over the field on a line and in the air, which doesn’t bode well as GBs are the batted ball group with the lowest amount of damage, therefore middling results, against.
The 2022 MLB season is still young, a lot of pages are yet to be written and history has already been made, Miguel Cabrera’s 3000th hit at the forefront.
That’s a good omen for the Houston Astros: while their start has been disappointing to say the least, few and scattered offensive explosions, ups and downs in the rotation with the bullpen, for once, solid, underlying statistics are pointing up.
A lineup that is hitting the ball harder and better is due to find lightning in a bottle, overcoming the strange nature of small sample size to confirm itself as one of the best 1-9 in baseball even with no Correa, as a rookie is shining in the spotlight he left open.
Pitching may be due to some dash and bash, and a 33 games/34 days stretch with the need for a 6 men rotation won’t be of much help either, as Odorizzi will have to soak subpar innings with Javier finally where he belongs. And pray for a bullpen where newcomer Hector Neris and rookies Parker Mushinski and Bryan Abreu have been close to spotless in the absence of closer Ryan Pressly.
With a division closer than anyone thought every game, even in April, counts: what we are seeing may deceive us, what should shouldn’t and vice versa, still the only thing that matters is the column in which the tally is added when the game ends.
Time to win, Houston.
All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs, data up to April 25th.