Houston’s problems finally surface
On Wednesday, the Astros found themselves on the wrong end of history, as they fell victim to Matt Cain on a night when the Giants’ righty pitched one of the most dominant games in major league history, a 14-strikeout perfect game. It was just the latest humiliation in a 4-13 skid by hapless (but not Happ-less) Houston entering Thursday’s game in San Francisco.
That the Astros are bad is no great shock in and of itself. The club went a major-league-worst 56-106 last year, which gave them the first pick in last week’s amateur draft, and they haven’t had a winning season since 2008. When Jim Crane purchased the club from Drayton McLane over the winter, it was clear that he recognized the need not only to rebuild the roster and the farm system but the front office as well. Out went general manager Ed Wade, who forestalled the overhaul by trading usable prospects and young big leaguers in an effort to wring one last playoff run out of a core built around decreasingly effective (and available) superstars Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. In came Jeff Luhnow, hired from the world champion Cardinals, where he had served as vice president of scouting and player development and showed aptitude at integrating statistical analysis and with more traditional scouting methods.
No one expected this year’s Astros to be particularly competitive, but they were 22-23 as recently as May 25, with a run differential of +14 (184 to 170). Since then, they’ve been taken down several pegs thanks to a stretch in which they’ve played 14 out of 18 games against clubs with records of .500 or better, namely the Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, White Sox and Giants, with the Rockies as the only respite. Houston has been outscored by 55 runs in that span (134-79), an average of 3.06 per game. Overall, the Astros’ .419 winning percentage (on a 28-34 record) is the fourth-worst in the league, ahead of the Rockies, Cubs and Padres, with their −41 run differential besting the latter two. They’re an abysmal 8-22 away from Houston, and with 21 out of their next 34 games on the road, they’re likely to sink lower sooner rather than later.
The big problem, as you might guess from that lopsided tally, is the pitching. Fueled by a hitter-friendly ballpark, the team’s 4.92 runs per game allowed is worse than any other NL club besides the Rockies, and it’s a product of lousy work by both the rotation and the bullpen. Both units rank 14th in the league in Fair Run Average (runs per nine, adjusted for defense, sequencing and bullpen support), with the starters at 4.94 and the relievers at 4.82. The staff’s main problem has been keeping the ball in the yard; it has surrendered a league-worst 1.3 homers per nine, while their walk rate (3.1 per nine) has been average and their strikeout rate (7.4 per nine) just slightly below average. Not helping matters is a lineup whose defensive efficiency ranks is 13th in the league, 10 points below the league average of .689.
Among the starters, Wandy Rodriguez is the only one with an ERA below 4.81; he’s at 3.27, with his falling strikeout rate (6.0 per nine, down from 7.6 last year) offset by a corresponding drop in walk rate (2.0, down from 3.3 last year). Bud Norris (4.81 ERA) and J.A. Happ (5.33 ERA) are both missing plenty of bats (10.0 and 9.4 strikeouts per nine, respectively), but both have suffered at the hands of their defenses, with batting averages on balls in play of .332 and .358, respectively; Happ’s 1.6 homers and 3.7 walks per nine haven’t helped matters, either. Lucas Harrell (4.83 ERA) has avoided the longball (0.8 HR/9), but he’s striking out just 4.5 per nine. Twenty-one-year-old Jordan Lyles, who wasn’t recalled until April 29, has high homer and walk rates (1.6 and 3.8) and a low strikeout rate (5.7) as well.
As for the bullpen, closer Brett Myers has a 2.08 ERA and is 15-for-16 in save opportunities, and top setup man Wilton Lopez has been strong as well, thanks in large part to pinpoint control (1.1 walks per nine), but the other high-leverage relievers, Fernando Rodriguez and David Carpenter, have struggled, and the less said about the mop-and-bucket crew, the better. The one exception there is Brandon Lyon, the former closer who missed most of last season due to labrum and rotator cuff tears that required surgery; his 9.5 strikeouts per nine, far above his career mark of 6.0.
On the other side of the ball, the offense’s 4.26 runs per game is slightly ahead of the league average of 4.18 despite a batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.250/.314/.384) that are all below league averages, the last by a sizable 14 points. Once you adjust for park, the team’s .249 True Average (their runs created per plate appearance, adjusted for park and league scoring levels and expressed on a batting average scale, with .260 being average) is the league’s third-worst mark. Pint-sized 22-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve is hitting a searing .321/.361/.472, and shortstop Jed Lowrie (.279/.354/.515) leads the team in home runs with 12, but aside from catcher Jason Castro (.258/.333/.375), the Astros are getting below-average production at every other position. First baseman Carlos Lee is hitting .297/.348/.411 with only four home runs, while the no-name outfield of J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer, Brian Bogusevic, Justin Maxwell and others is hitting a combined .214/.298/.320, by far the worst production in the league.
The Astros do at least have youth on their side; aside from Lee, every regular is 28 or younger, and the fact that the team’s best players are up-the-middle ones gives them a core foundation to build upon. Luhnow has to hope that Lee, Myers and Lyons can maintain solid enough performances to remain desirable trade commodities come the deadline; with the additional Wild Card likely to fuel misguided dreams of contention among a larger pool of teams, the Astros’ position as clear sellers should help them generate solid returns. Beyond that, the team will have to wait for a minor league system that has only begun to turn around; even with last summer’s trades of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, and those of Berkman and Oswalt the summer before, Baseball Prospectus ranked their organization 26th coming into the year, while Baseball America ranked them 17th.
Headed by Luhnow, the Astros are banking on a progressive brain trust to lead that turnaround. Their recent draft, in which they surprised most observers by taking 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa instead of college hurler Mark Appel, is a manifestation of that progressive attitude, as research by Baseball Prospectus’ Rany Jazayerli has shown much greater returns generated by drafting talented players significantly younger than the rest of their draft class; it’s that kind of thinking that netted the Angels Mike Trout in 2009. Additionally, the bonus money the Astros saved by signing Correa for $4.8 million instead of Appel, who would have pushed for at least the recommended slot value of $7.2 million, should allow them to sign supplemental pick Lance McCullers, a righty with the best velocity of any prep arm in the draft. The results of such bold moves won’t be apparent overnight, but they should lessen the blow of the big club’s descent back to the lower reaches of the standings.