|Sportsbook||Win AL West||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 94.5 (BetOnline)|
The Houston Astros won the AL West and won another AL Pennant. They also won a Charmin-soft punishment from Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball. By now you know the story. The Astros enlisted the help of John T. Garbagecan to let hitters know which pitches were coming by stealing signs.
This stunning revelation came shortly after the season when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers stated on the record that the Astros were using video technology to steal signs and then relayed them to the batter by banging on a garbage can. Astros personnel did not really dispute the allegations and Major League Baseball followed up with some weak disciplinary action. Rob Arthur found a ton of damning evidence and posted it on Baseball Prospectus($). Basically, Houston’s offense got way better, particularly in key situations, after the sign stealing began. For a free look, Jake Mailhot wrote about it for FanGraphs.
For the cliff notes version, Houston’s chase rate went down and Zone-Contact rate (Z-Contact%) went way up. Contact made with pitches outside of the hitting zone leads to much weaker contact and less favorable results. Obviously the inverse is true, if you are swinging at and making contact with more pitches in the hitting zone.
Astros fan Tony Adams even started a website to display all of his findings from the 2017 season. From the fallout, manager AJ Hinch was fired. The Astros replaced him with Dusty Baker just before the end of January. GM Jeff Luhnow was also fired.
As far as the impact on the field, well, the Astros can’t do that anymore, at least until they find another way to do it. It happens in baseball. Using technology to do it is the illegal part. Hand signals from baserunners and whatnot have always been part of the game. Using 21st century technology like ballpark cameras is verboten. Banging a stick like a caveman seems creative, anyway.
In any event, the Astros could not be punished from a player personnel standpoint, but the team did get slapped with some heavy penalties, including suspensions, fines, and forfeiture of draft picks. The forfeiture of draft picks is somewhat significant because the Astros could very well be heading towards something of a rebuild. At a minimum, let’s call it a retooling. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander are signed through 2021. Jose Altuve went up to $29.2M this year for a contract that runs through 2024. Alex Bregman is also signed through 2024, but his cost is $30.5M annually in the last two seasons. George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Yuli Gurriel are free agents at season’s end. Carlos Correa has one arbitration year left.
The Astros have a very healthy minor league system, but the core of the team is getting more expensive or reaching free agency. That won’t have a dramatic impact on 2020 in all likelihood, but it is something to watch for on the horizon.
It is amazing to me that the 2020 version of the Astros literally lost just 50 of their final 155 games. Imagine going 105-50 over 155 games. That’s nuts. The Astros did it. That’s a .677 clip. Yes, Houston actually started the season 2-5. Actually, the Astros had 12.7% of their losses for the season during a seven-game losing streak in June. They also had a five-game losing streak in August. Between two losing streaks and the first week of the season, the Astros had 17 of their 55 losses.
Embroiled in controversy, and fresh off of a World Series loss, the “us against the world” mentality is strong here with a team expected to have another excellent season, even with the loss of one of its two aces.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+300 (5.90/4.05)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||116.5-45.5|
|Record in One-Run Games||24-19|
|Additions: Jared Hughes, Austin Pruitt, Blake Taylor, Kenedy Corona|
|Losses: Garbage Can, CODEBREAKER, Gerrit Cole, Aaron Sanchez, Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon, Robinson Chirinos, Wade Miley, Will Harris, Peyton Battenfield, Cal Stevenson, Jake Marisnick|
The Astros are worse than last season, especially on the pitching side. Not listed here is Lance McCullers Jr., who does come back from Tommy John and the subsequent recovery. He is basically like a free agent signing in that regard, but the loss of Gerrit Cole is huge. Wade Miley was also pretty valuable for the Astros. Will Harris, Collin McHugh, and Hector Rondon are quality arms.
The Astros appear poised to replace those guys internally, with the exception of Austin Pruitt, who came over from the Rays in a January trade. Francis Martes is essentially a loss for this season after popping a second positive PED test.
If we’re being honest, though, this team didn’t need much and this organization is loaded with talent. They’re worse on paper and may be a few wins worse, but they’re still among the league’s elites.
Seems good, right? First in BA, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, K%, and BB%. It’s almost like they knew what was coming!
All kidding aside, the second saddest part about all of this is that a team this talented felt the need to cheat. The saddest part is that this whole unfair advantage cost other players around the league money and in some cases jobs.
The Astros offense will be great again. You don’t lead in all of those categories and suddenly become a bad team, particularly with just about the same lineup on offense. The bench pieces are a little bit different, but just about the entire starting lineup returns in tact from last year’s second half.
The Astros will have a full season of Yordan Alvarez, whose only position should really be in the batter’s box. Alvarez had 369 plate appearances and posted a team-leading .432 wOBA and 178 wRC+. He is a legitimate MVP candidate.
He wasn’t the only one with elite numbers and plus power. Alex Bregman had a .418 wOBA and a 168 wRC+ to go along with his career-best 41 dingers. Jose Altuve had a .374 wOBA and a 138 wRC+. George Springer missed 40 games, but finished second by a large margin in fWAR with a .400 wOBA, a 156 wRC+, and plus defensive metrics.
Michael Brantley stayed healthy and had a .367 wOBA with a 133 wRC+ and a ton of extra-base hits. Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, Kyle Tucker, Aledmys Diaz, and Myles Straw all posted above average wRC+ marks in their respective plate appearances.
This offense is a well-oiled machine. Martin Maldonado didn’t hit quite as well as Robinson Chirinos, but the Astros certainly seem comfortable with him behind the plate and standing next to it.
What makes Houston so dangerous? A lot of things. Seven holdovers from last season posted walk rates of 10% or higher. The Astros were among the league leaders in average exit velocity and barreled balls. They also struck out the least of any team. In today’s offensive environment, with more strikeouts than ever before, teams that consistently make contact have a leg up on everybody else. If you add in a high level of contact quality, that offense is nearly unstoppable. The Astros were virtually unstoppable last season.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this team is that their BaseRuns run differential suggests that the offense should have been even better than it was. Houston was first in all of those above categories overall, but 10th in batting average with RISP, ninth in OBP, fourth in SLG, and fifth in wOBA. With the second-most plate appearances with a runner in scoring position in baseball, the Astros, amazingly, left some runs out there. Their .287 BABIP with RISP was 24th in baseball.
They’re going to add some more baserunners via beanballs this season. For better or worse, pitchers are going to be coming inside a lot on the Astros. In some respects, it could play to their power if those pitches don’t get in enough or leak back out over the plate.
All I can do is handicap what I know and I know that this offense is loaded with exceptional hitters and all the characteristics of a top-five offense.
Will the Astros have to outscore teams to win games this season? It doesn’t seem like it will be a problem if that is the case, but it certainly looks like a lot of these numbers could take a tumble. It isn’t just the loss of Gerrit Cole, though replacing 212.1 innings of 2.50/2.64/2.48 ball with the league’s highest K% among starting pitchers is not easy.
Somehow, Justin Verlander won the Cy Young over Cole. He was terrific with a 2.58 ERA, a 3.27 FIP, and a 3.18 xFIP, but he rode an 88.4% LOB% to the award and managed to be fortunate enough to allow 28 of his 36 home runs with nobody on base. I guess Verlander won the award because he allowed a .229 wOBA in the second half with a 147/15 K/BB ratio over his last 96.1 innings of work. He also only allowed 10 homers in that span compared to 26 in the first 126.2 innings of work.
Verlander’s 88.4% LOB% was the second-highest in MLB history dating back to 1960. That distinction goes to John Candelaria in 1977. Blake Snell has the third-highest for his 2018 season when he posted a 1.89 ERA with a 2.95 FIP and a 3.16 xFIP. Snell did contend with some injuries and other bad luck last season, but his ERA jumped to 4.29 with a 3.32 FIP and a 3.31 xFIP. Verlander has now had back-to-back career years in his age 35 and 36 seasons. He ran a career-low .218 BABIP against last season. He’ll be great, but maybe fall short of elite.
What I try to do with my individual player focuses in these win total write-ups is see if there are a lot of players in line for positive or negative regression. If the list is imbalanced to one side or the other, it can have an impact in my view for the team’s future. In the case of Verlander, he’s still going to be very, very good, but probably not as good and that could hurt more without somebody like Cole as the 1a to his 1b.
Zack Greinke was solid with a 3.02/3.28/3.72 pitcher slash in his 62.2 innings for the Astros in the regular season. His GB% spiked from 41.8% to 52.4% and his K rate dropped a bit. There was slightly more dependence on sliders and changeups for Greinke with the Astros. I’m a bit curious how a full season goes here. I think Greinke will still be very good, but I think those expecting an ace could be more likely to get a #2 or really good #3.
The rest of the rotation is littered with bigger questions. McCullers Jr. was solid across 44 starts and three relief appearances from 2017-18, but missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. McCullers had some walk troubles before the procedure and those could be a sticking point early in the year. Jose Urquidy finished with a solid 3.95 ERA, 3.68 FIP, and 4.30 xFIP in his 41 innings, but his 140 innings last season were the most of any in his career and he missed all of 2017. How will every fifth day treat him? How will it treat Brad Peacock, who missed the second half last season and had a 4.24 ERA with a 4.32 FIP and a 4.56 xFIP in his 80.2 innings as a starter. Peacock is already dealing with nerve damage in his neck, so his timeline for the season is in question.
Forrest Whitley, Houston’s top pitching prospect, struggled through 59.2 innings in his return from injury and also missed most of 2018. Rogelio Armenteros and Cionel Perez appeared at the MLB level. Cristian Javier pitched well in the minors, but he is a raw 23. Francis Martes is no longer an option after popping a positive PED test in consecutive seasons. He is suspended for the full year. I think the Astros have some mild depth concerns right now.
The Astros were second in bullpen ERA, but also had the second-largest gap between ERA and FIP at 0.50 runs. Their 4.24 FIP ranked 11th because they had some long ball issues. Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly were both terrific, but Will Harris signed for big free agent money elsewhere. Collin McHugh is gone and Chris Devenski has really fallen off the last couple of seasons. The Astros bullpen is still in the upper half of the American League, but I don’t think this group is on par with last season, at least not right now. Josh James needs to make a big leap, but it seems as though he’ll get every chance to be a starter.
It could very well be guys like youngster Bryan Abreu, Framber Valdez, and new addition Austin Pruitt that need to make a leap. The Astros have certainly done well developing arms, so my fears may be a touch overblown here, but I do think that there are at least questions.
Positives & Negatives
That “us against the world” mentality could suit the Astros well. They are coming off of a World Series loss, too, so I would expect them to be invested to “prove all the haters wrong” all season. Of course, the Astros will also get just about every other team’s best effort because there are a lot of pissed off players around the league.
I don’t know how all of this will play out. Players around the league are furious with Major League Baseball’s inaction, but punishing the players would have opened Pandora’s box and the league could have lost that battle in arbitration or court in a really drawn-out process. The players may end up policing the game themselves. What that means for the Astros is anybody’s guess. It could mean more run-scoring chances from beanballs or pitches that don’t quite get in enough. It could also mean more injuries from 96 mph projectiles. I don’t know.
Dusty Baker is a really interesting managerial hire. Baker is not an analytics guy. I think the players will like him and his affable personality, but he is a square peg in a round hole for this organization. I wonder how that translates to the field. AJ Hinch did not believe in sac bunts and intentional walks. Baker, who has his roots in the NL, has done a lot of both. That doesn’t jive with the Astros as they are constructed.
You’ll see some college football teams have a figurehead and a PR voice as the head coach and the coordinators do all of the work. I can’t help but wonder if that’s the structure here and if Baker just wants another crack or two at that elusive World Series ring. If he’s willing to take more of a backseat and just be a friend and confidant for the players, I think this could work out really well. If not, lineup construction could be a problem and there could be a lot of –EV decisions.
As if the Astros weren’t good enough, they also ranked fourth in defensive runs saved last season. That defense had a major impact on some of the LOB% numbers for the pitchers last season. I would expect Houston to be very good in that department again and that will allow the pitchers to keep up some of the metrics that might meet negative regression on another team. Furthermore, a deader baseball will help some of the homer-happy hurlers for the ‘Stros.
Pick: Over 94.5
I’ll just go ahead and say that I’m staying far away from betting this win total. As far as a pick goes, I’ll defer to the over because this is still a remarkably talented team that is definitely not 13 games worse on paper just because Gerrit Cole and Will Harris are gone. This is still a top-five offense in baseball and a pitching staff that will rank in or around the top 10 in all likelihood. That is the recipe for winning a whole lot of games.
I do think that there are questions. I do think that there are concerns. I do think that the loss of Cole compounded with the uncertainty of guys like McCullers, Urquidy, and James could really set this rotation back. I also think injuries are very much possible as players around the league exact their own form of punishment against the Astros.
The AL West is also better. The A’s are still strong and the Angels added Rendon. The Rangers look better, maybe not from a wins and losses standpoint, but as an overall team. The Mariners are bad, but Houston won 18 of 19 over them last season anyway.
You will not see my shocked face if the Astros win the AL West for a fourth straight time and go into the playoffs as the team that everybody is rooting against. There are just enough unknowns to keep me on the sidelines from betting this one, but the over is the only way I would go.