A change in Approach

The life of the Houston Astros fan is a life built on the process. For most of the first 50 years of the franchise there wasn’t much of a process. The teams always seemed to be built around pitching, defense, and speed because that is what succeeded in the Astrodome. However, there was never a singular focus on anything in particular and the results showed it. Mind you, the Astros were never terrible either. Through the end of the Drayton McLane ownership, they had never lost more than 97 games in a season.

That by itself is remarkable for a franchise that had been in existence for that long. They came in at the same time as the New York Mets and everyone knows how they did in their first several seasons. The Astros avoided that kind of pain, but in avoiding the pain they never quite felt the euphoria of winning either. That changed with Jim Crane bought the club and Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager. Austerity was the order of the day and that meant some heavy losing.

All that being said, there was one holdover from previous regimes. Listen to the Astros talk and watch them spend money and you would think they lived in Coors Field. It didn’t matter what happened the season before. The talk in the offseason always seemed to surround bringing in more pitching. Starting pitching. Relief pitching. Young pitching. Experienced pitching. It didn’t particularly matter as long as it was pitching. They were like a bad shopping cart that pulled to the right no matter which way it was facing. Like most things, these kinds of observations usually look better in table form. Here are their respective league rankings in runs scored and runs allowed since going to the World Series in 2005.

Runs Allow Runs Scored Difference
2006 2 12 +10
2007 12 13 +1
2008 8 11 +3
2009 13 14 +1
2010 11 15 +4
2011 16 13 -3
2012 15 16 +1
2013 15 14 -1
2014 12 14 +2
2015 1 5 +4
2016 4 8 +4
AVG 9.9 12.3 +2.4

 

Obviously there were some lean years in there where they were universally terrible across the board. So, let’s consider the seasons where they were not universally terrible. They came close to getting to the playoffs in 2006 and 2008. They obviously made the playoffs in 2015 and narrowly missed last season as well. Notice that the difference was even starker in those seasons. The average ranking differential in those four seasons was more than five.

Every fan probably gets frustrated watching his or her team go down meekly in run scoring situations, but the Astros have been particularly inefficient offensively. The blue period of the late 2000s and early 2010s was fraught with strikeouts and double plays. Look in the Guiness book of World Records and you will see a team portrait of the Astros. Turn it on Youtube and you can find an endless loop of horrible Chris Carter and Carlos Gomez at bats. The 2017 Astros needed a facelift and they needed one badly.

Beyond the sabermetrics and minutia there comes the basic understanding that the lineup needed help. This would seem to be simple given the relative ranks in runs scored and allowed, but that hadn’t stopped any of the general managers before with focusing on pitching. Granted, 8th is middle of the pack in the American League exactly. They were the median offense in the league. The likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer were enough to build around.

After deciding to focus on offense, the second question is whether to address through one or two major additions or several secondary moves. Each has their advantages. Alex Bregman gave the Astros a fourth solid bad in the lineup, so simply adding one more all-star level performer would have been enough to kick start the offense. That could have been Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista. The Astros kicked the tires on them, but went the secondary route.

In particular, the big difference was in the understanding in how teams should get built. It’s easy to tell the team to make more contact and work the counts. If it were that easy every team would do it. If you want to walk more and strikeout less then you acquire players that walk more and strike out less. So, here is a listing of the players brought in with the guy they were replacing.

                                SO% BB%

Old-Jason Castro 27.4  9.6

New-Brian McCann 15.2  9.4

 

Old-Chris Carter 33.1 11.5

New-Yulieski Gurriel 10.9  3.1

 

Old-Colby Rasmus 26.4  9.0

New- Nori Aoki  8.1  7.7

 

Old- Carlos Gomez 23.5  6.1

New- Josh Reddick 17.0  8.1

 

Additionally, the club added future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran to DH and play a little bit of outfield. None of these players are currently all-star level performers. You could make compelling arguments for Beltran and McCann for the Hall of Fame someday, but none of these guys are there right now. What they are is incrementally better. Officially, Carter left following 2015, but his replacements were equally bad if not worse in many respects last season.

 

When you have nine hitters in your lineup that can consistently make contact and also draw walks then your lineup won’t slump as often. As of this writing, the Astros lead the American League with a 24-11, but they are also near the top of the league in runs scored. They lead the league in batting average with runners in scoring position. More importantly, they have gone from being the worst team in the league in making contact to being one of the best in one short season. It remains to be seen if this trend continues, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t be at least better than they were in past seasons.
It’s not magic really. We could throw a huge sabermetric bent on it all and I’m sure they have, but it’s old-fashioned baseball. If you want to hit better you go out and get better hitters. If you want to strike out less you go out and get guys that don’t strike out. If you want to score more runs then you have to make the investment and the Astros did this offseason.

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