Sunday, April 27, 2014

What's Going On With: The Houston Astros

At some point in May, I'll start up my Sunday "Trailing 30" feature, which lists the hottest and coldest teams and players over the past 30 days. For now, though, I'm going to look at the three teams with the best and worst records in the majors up to this point. It's still April, and trends can and will change. But let's see what we've got so far. 

Let's start with the third-worst team, the Houston Astros.

How Bad Have They Been? The Astros are 8-17, a .320 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 52-110.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Nobody expected Houston, which had the worst record in baseball in 2013 (51-111), 2012 (55-107), AND 2011 (56-106) to be good. But they expected an improvement. Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and ESPN projected 63-67 wins. They were supposed to be bad, but not this bad.

What's Been Wrong? They're last in the league at scoring, with 3.20 runs per game, more than a run below the league average of 4.44. They're fourth in the league in home runs, with 28, but that's the only time they get hits, it seems--they're last in batting (.210) and on base percentage (.282). Their pitching hasn't been anything to write home about--third-worst in ERA, third in walks and home runs allowed--but the offense has been more of the problem. Their All-Star second baseman, Jose Altuve, is the only player batting above .238. 

Has Luck Been Involved? To answer this, I'm going to look at four measures.
  • First, a team's record in one-run games is generally not replicable. Prior success in one-run games is not an indicator of future success, generally. Case in point: The Orioles were 29-9 in one-run games in 2012. Indicator of special skills in late games? If so, they acquired the skill suddenly, having gone 22-22 in one-run games in 2011, and lost it immediately, going 20-31 in 2013.
  • Second, major league hitters, on average, hit .300 on balls in play (i.e., excluding strikeouts and home runs). A figure way off that mark can indicate that some batted balls just aren't (or are) dropping in.
  • Third, about 10% of fly balls leave the park. A homer rate way at odds with that might be skill (Matt Cain of the Giants somewhat famously had a very low rate of home runs per fly ball through 2012, but he's regressed since) but it may be chance.
  • Finally, batting average with runners in scoring position, while a skill, usually indicates chance if it's way different from a team's overall batting average. Good example: The Cardinals set a record with their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position last year, leading to hosannas over the team's ability to bear down in the clutch. This year, they're hitting a decidedly un-clutch .223.

So let's check it out. The Astros are 2-3 in one-run games. Nothing unusual there. Their pitchers have allowed home runs on 12.4% of fly balls and their hitters have gone deep on 13.8% of fly balls. Those are both the second-highest figures in the American League, possibly a Minute Maid Park issue, but in any case not suggestive of luck one way or the other. But two factors may indicate they've been unlucky at the plate: They've hit just .251 on balls in play (their pitchers have allowed a more normal .304) and they've hit only .171 with runners in scoring position (compared to .206 given up by their pitchers). Both of those batting averages are the worst in the league.

What's The Outlook? The Astros have a very highly-regarded farm club, so the future is bright. The present is less so, though the numbers seem to say that their offense won't remain this terrible all season. 

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