The experiment was a smashing success. The Houston Astros embodied as many sabermetric concepts as they could and put together a team. The end result was a team that was four outs away from advancing to the American League Championship Series. Some savvy Trade Deadline acquisitions had an impact, but it was a young core of talented, toolsy players and the development of a Cy Young Award winner that put the Astros into the postseason for the first time since 2005.

Most of the core remains in tact for a team that went 86-76, but had a Pythagorean win-loss record of 93-69 (nice). By BaseRuns, only the Oakland Athletics were more unlucky, in a sense, than the Astros. Houston, by expected runs scored and expected runs allowed projected out to a 97-65 team. Only the Toronto Blue Jays would have eclipsed that record. A 21-29 record in one-run games certainly didn’t help the Astros, though they did go 16-4 in interleague play and outscored the opposition by 61 runs.

As impressive as Houston’s season truly was, we did see the marks of a young ballclub. They got off to a 15-7 start and only played .507 ball the rest of the way, and that included the time with rookie phenom Carlos Correa in the lineup on a regular basis. They were just 11-16 in September while trying to nail down a spot in the postseason during the crowded AL Wild Card chase. They spent 139 days in first place, but could never get back to the top of the mountain after September 14.

It makes you wonder about sustainability. Was Houston simply a team that capitalized on doing something so extreme from an analytics standpoint that it was a one year, flash in the pan anomaly? Or, is this team built for the long haul? How will this ballclub manage expectations? Only the Chicago Cubs struck out more than Houston and pitchers bat in that league. On the other hand, only Toronto hit more home runs. Only three teams had a wRC+ higher than Houston’s 105 (Blue Jays, Giants, Dodgers).

The Astros cracked the top 10 in FIP and xFIP, but who is Dallas Keuchel? What do the Astros have in Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers? Can Houston’s defense, which ranked fourth in defensive runs saved, put together another spectacular season? Furthermore, can a team that ranked 19th in UZR have that type of defensive success? Will the quiet offseason serve as a vote of confidence for the roster? Or, is Jeff Luhnow a fool for not supplementing this roster more when the team is a clear contender?

There are so many questions surrounding the Astros, a team that flew over last season’s win total. In this write-up, I’ll attempt to answer some of them.

Season win total odds:

BetOnline: 88.5 (-110/-120)

5Dimes: 88.5 (125/-155)

Bovada: 87.5 (-115/-115)

 

Key additions: Ken Giles, Doug Fister

Key losses: Scott Kazmir, Oliver Perez, Joe Thatcher, Chad Qualls, Robbie Grossman, Jed Lowrie, Brett Oberholtzer, Vincent Velasquez, Chris Carter

See, on the surface, it appears that the Houston Astros had a quiet offseason. Personally, I don’t think they needed much. They got a relief ace in Ken Giles to shore things up at the back end of the bullpen and picked up an excellent bounce back candidate in Doug Fister. It’s also worth pointing out that the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade with Milwaukee last July was not your usual “rental” deal at the Trade Deadline. Houston paid a big price, but they got assets with control for this season (Gomez) and the future (Fiers).

The Astros were 19th in win probability added among bullpens. Giles is going to significantly help in that area. You have to understand that when it comes to building a team around sabermetrics, the Astros are at the forefront. Only the Yankees and Dodgers had a higher K% among reliever groups. Giles will help in that regard. He’s not your average acquisition for this team. Only the Dodgers had a higher SIERA among relievers (skill interactive ERA – ERA-type metric that heavily weights strikeouts and batted ball types). For Jeff Luhnow, a guy like Giles is the missing piece.

In terms of what the Astros lost, they mostly lost supplemental pieces. Kazmir was a couple-month rental that didn’t really work out. Oliver Perez was also an impending free agent when he was acquired. Joe Thatcher was replaceable and the Astros gave Tony Sipp 3/$18M to be the primary lefty. Robbie Grossman and Jed Lowrie were utility pieces. Vincent Velasquez’s high-upside arm was the cost of doing business to get Giles. The luxury of having an incredible core of young, controlled position players is that you don’t have to keep these guys at the margins.

 

Why bet the over?

As mentioned, this is basically the same 86-win team from last season, but with full seasons of Carlos Gomez, Carlos Correa, Mike Fiers, and Ken Giles. George Springer also missed 60 games for the Astros this past season and still managed to rack up 3.7 fWAR in his 451 plate appearances with above average defense in the outfield. The strikeout rate came down for Springer, while the walk rate stayed the same as it was during his 345 plate appearances in 2014. He also swiped 16 bases. He’s a guy with a legitimate shot at a 25/25 season if he stays healthy.

Carlos Correa is a special player. It’s fair to wonder if he should have been the American League Rookie of the Year over Francisco Lindor, who had a higher fWAR but didn’t have Correa’s power numbers, but there’s no doubt that Correa is a tremendous offensive talent. He hit at every level of the minors and Houston’s aggressive development path pushed him to the bigs at just 21 years of age. He showed a lot of maturity in his rookie year, with an above average walk rate, a good strikeout rate, and 22 home runs in just 432 plate appearances. His defense wasn’t great, but scouts believe he’s an above average defender and the whirlwind of his first season in the Majors is in the past. It would be shocking if he didn’t show more signs of development this season.

Carlos Gomez is coming off of a down season. Injury concerns and a rebuild in Milwaukee made him available and his underwhelming season is the kind that usually leads to a bounce back the following year. The one thing about Gomez that won’t sag is his defense, which was above average once again. Trade rumors and injuries likely fueled the down year that included a big drop in batted ball distance and power. He’s too gifted and too talented to have a similar season this year. Even in a down campaign, Gomez was a 2.6-win player. It’s not the 5.7 or the 7.4 of the previous two seasons, but it’s above average.

Baseball’s version of The Little Engine That Could is Jose Altuve. It is incredibly hard to believe that the short-statured second baseman is only going to be 26 in May, but he skipped Triple-A and only spent 35 games at Double-A back in 2011. Few hitters have the contact skills of Altuve and he added power to his game last season with 15 homers. A BABIP drop hurt his overall offensive value because he doesn’t walk, but he’s been a reliable four-win player in each of the last two seasons and he’s not that far into his prime.

Only 12 players hit more solo home runs than Luis Valbuena last season. Valbuena hit 25 home runs overall and only drove in 56 runs because 19 round-trippers were solo shots. But, as an average defender with a good walk rate and some power, he’s the type of player that can net some positive value. It was a down year for him, with a .235 BABIP following a .294 BABIP in 2014, but he had a .193 first half BABIP because he hit 19 of his 25 home runs. He’s an inconsistent offensive player, but he has some upside.

Postseason almost-hero Colby Rasmus is a really fun player. He gambled on himself by agreeing to take Houston’s qualifying offer coming off of a season in which he hit 25 home runs in just 485 plate appearances. Rasmus swings and misses a lot, but also walks a good amount and has good home run power. Per Fangraphs, 46.5 percent of Rasmus’s trips to the plate ended in a K, a BB, or a HR.

The complementary cast of characters is rather interesting. A guy like Jake Marisnick has a lot of value at the bottom of the order as a guy with some speed, some power, and some nice defensive skills. Jason Castro is a quality defensive catcher. Jon Singleton fits the Astros mold as a very high BB guy with a very high K rate and some good power. Evan Gattis will get a late start to the year, but he also has good power.

The boom rate is very high for Houston. They manufacture runs by drawing walks and hitting dingers. They also led the American League in stolen bases last season. In some respects, it is a more sustainable offensive gameplan than putting balls in play and hoping that they find holes.

Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel won 20 games, worked 232 innings, posted 6.1 fWAR, and had spectacular K/BB rates. He’s also one of the game’s most extreme ground ball pitchers. Guys that get a lot of strikeouts and induce a lot of ground balls are like gold. Keuchel became one of those guys after ditching his curveball for a slider and developing a better two-seamer. He’s proof of how arsenal changes can take an average pitcher and turn him into a very good arm. Look at what the cutter did for Jake Arrieta and Corey Kluber, who, ironically, are both past Cy Young Award winners.

There are some really good pieces behind Keuchel, beginning with Lance McCullers. Again, that aggressive Houston Astros development model pushed a young player to the big leagues and he had success while there. McCullers has a wicked arsenal with a live mid-90s express, a nasty knuckle-curve, and a developing changeup. He’s going to pitch this entire season at 22 years old and GM Jeff Luhnow told MLB Network Radio last month that McCullers would be on an innings limit to “keep him ready for the playoffs”. The Astros don’t lack confidence and neither does this kid. His walk rate isn’t great, but his swing-and-miss stuff and above average command profile are really valuable.

One of the things I’ve tried to stress is how valuable durable starters are. Collin McHugh worked 203.2 innings last season with a 3.89/3.58/3.91 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) pitcher slash and was worth nearly four wins per Fangraphs. That’s really good. McHugh’s K rate tumbled, but he’s got enough stuff and command to get by. He’s a lot like Mike Fiers, in that neither guy has good velocity, but both guys manage to have success. The difference is that Fiers doesn’t have the same command profile because he throws high fastballs to change eye level more often than McHugh does, but there’s value in both of them and Doug Fister is the lottery ticket that rounds out the rotation.

The bullpen will be very strong this season and clearly the best in the AL West. Really, it should only trail the Yankees, Royals, and maaaaaaybe the Red Sox this season. With Ken Giles holding down the closer role with his elite velocity and plus velocity, everything will fall into place. Luke Gregerson can go back to his familiar setup role and should be in line for some positive regression after an ugly strand rate of 67.9 percent last season. Tony Sipp has morphed into one of the better left-handed relievers in the AL. Josh Fields is a fun reliever with velocity that misses bats. The key late in games is to miss bats. Houston’s bullpen will do that a lot.

 

Why bet the under?

Remember that part about Colby Rasmus as a three true outcomes guy – walks, strikeouts, and home runs. As a team, Houston fell into one of those three outcomes in 34.7 percent of its plate appearances. There’s some volatility in that. Houston hit 144 solo home runs. They hit 59 two-run homers. They hit 23 three-run homers and four grand slams. That means that 347 of their 729 runs were tied to home runs. Not that there’s anything wrong with this type of offensive attack, but it’s a big reason why the Astros were so inconsistent. They hit 170 home runs in their 86 wins. They hit 60 home runs in their 76 losses. You’re going to deal with these slumps and bouts of inconsistency again this season. With a high season win total, that could be worrisome.

Carlos Gomez is a good player, but Houston got a player in an early decline. Lower BABIPs over the last two seasons would suggest that the contact quality has gone downhill for Gomez. His power dropped off last season and save for an obscenely good 2013 defensively, he’s been a big better than league average, but hardly one of the league’s best defenders. Because of his tools, he has a high floor, but the ceiling isn’t as high as everybody expects it to be. He’s always been a free-swinger and his walk rate should probably drop off in the American League. Also worth considering, he’s playing road games in Seattle, Oakland, and Anaheim. His home park is pretty comparable to Miller Park, but for a guy hitting a lot of weak contact of late, those parks aren’t going to help. Gomez may be adequate for the Astros, but his days of being a five-win player are in the past.

Carlos Correa’s upside is somewhere between the Moon and Mars, but there’s the old “sophomore slump” to contend with. Some think that this is just coincidence, but it’s often the league adjusting to a player. Correa will have to adjust as pitchers adjust to him. There are no concerns about his makeup and there’s a very real chance that he’s better than he was last season. However, it has to be mentioned, since being this good at 21 is very rare.

George Springer is another rare talent, but he’s 26 and is on the verge of getting saddled with that “injury prone” label. Springer played 94 games in 2014 and 107 games in 2015. He’s a very valuable piece when he’s out there, but he needs to find a way to stay on the field. If he doesn’t again this season, the Astros will cobble together a right field situation with some combination of Marisnick/Rasmus/Gattis/Tucker. It’s a fine group, though none of them can match Springer’s ceiling.

Regression could happen in a couple different areas for Jose Altuve. For the first time in a full season, he was a plus defender in both defensive runs saved and UZR. He also saw that big power spike. Regression in both of those areas would negatively impact his value. It wouldn’t be a huge deal, as he’ll still be one of the top players at his position, but win totals are about aggregate production. If Altuve tails off along with other offensive players, the sum of the parts is when things start to get dicey.

Realistically, I’m less worried about the position group and more worried about the starting pitchers. Regression is coming for Dallas Keuchel. Now, regression may simply be back to the 3.8 fWAR he picked up in 2014. Still, that’s significant. He’s not going to hang a .269 BABIP against with a 79.4 percent strange rate. It just won’t happen. The Astros are good, but not that great defensively on the infield. Expect Keuchel to have a low 3s ERA with a FIP and an xFIP in the same range. Again, it’s still really good, but it’s not Cy Young caliber.

Collin McHugh saw some regression in his strikeout and walk rates last season and hitters made more hard contact last season. His chase rate went up, so he mixed his pitches better, but he also saw hitters make more contact in the zone. A high strand rate in the second half (78.4 percent) kept him from posting an ERA north of 4.00 for the season. I’m not selling all of my stock in Keuchel, McHugh, and McCullers for this season, but I’m adjusting the price of it.

It’s the depth that worries me. Mike Fiers now faces an extra hitter every trip through the lineup and it should come as no surprise that his command tailed off over his 62.1 innings with the Astros. It’s also worth pointing out that he had a 3.32 ERA, a 4.39 FIP, a 4.08 xFIP with the Astros and threw a no-hitter with 10 punchouts in one of those starts. The pitcher hitting and a league that likes small ball more than the AL may have kept Fiers from getting torched at Miller Park, another hitter-friendly yard. He may not enjoy the same fortunes at the Juice Box. He’s a guy that I’m selling and selling in a hurry.

Doug Fister worked just 103 innings last season and wasn’t particularly effective. His ground ball has dropped in each of the last two seasons and his peripherals have tailed off as well. The Astros may be putting too many eggs in this basket. Considering that there is an overall lack of depth, with a replacement-level starter in Scott Feldman in the #6 spot, depth is a big worry here. The Astros don’t have a lot of it and, as we know, starting pitching depth is very big. Teams, on average, need about nine starters per season. With the recent trades, the Astros have moved some big league SP depth and some of the organizational depth that they had.

I firmly believe that the Phillies sold high on Ken Giles. As Jeff Zimmerman pointed out in his player capsule at Fangraphs, Giles lost fastball velocity throughout the 2015 season. That coincided with an increase in walks. Two of the biggest signs of injury are declining control/command and declining velocity. It can be tough to properly evaluate ERA/xFIP discrepancies for relievers because of sample size bias and other variables, but Giles did show a 3.05 xFIP with his 1.80 ERA. He’ll still be an above average reliever, but, again, we’re talking about small regressions that are starting to add up in a big way.

 

Pick: Houston Astros Under 88.5 (-120 – BetOnline)

As a student of sabermetrics, I cannot express how I excited I was to see the Astros have success last season. They were my adopted playoff team with the Indians out of the hunt and they were four outs away from disposing of the Kansas City Royals. I still think this is a team with a very high ceiling and they could easily be the class of this division and win over 90 games. However, I’m really worried about consistency and it takes a lot of consistency to win 89+ games.

The Astros were 15-7 in April, so they were two games over .500 the rest of the season. They were 53-28 at home and 33-48 on the road, despite a positive run differential of +25. I’m not quite sure how to explain that, but they went 16-4 in interleague play against the NL West. This year, Houston gets the NL Central, with three bona fide teams.

I still have high hopes for this team, but I see some starting pitching regression and I see a feast or famine offense that is hard to back over 162 games.

 

-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-

 

The Houston Astros are a fascinating team. The construction of the roster is a testament to why taking chances in baseball to find inefficiencies is a good strategy for teams locked in tough situations. The Astros will not win the AL West this season. They are stuck in a division with three teams that have the potential to be really good and a big market team that is expected to bounce back in a big way. The Astros are young, mistake-prone, and, yet, one of the most compelling teams in Major League Baseball.

No team has more boom or bust potential on a game-to-game basis than the Astros. Oddsmakers are going to have an impossibly hard time lining their games and totals this season because they are a feast or famine offense. There is a tremendous amount of power on the Astros, but they are also a no doubt about it lock to strike out the most times in the league. Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish have the opportunity to be the first pitchers to throw a 20-strikeout game since Randy Johnson in 2001. However, the Astros have probably six guys capable of hitting 20 or more home runs. That’s a very optimistic number, but it illustrates the power potential of this team.

While the Astros wait around on prospects like Mark Appel and Carlos Correa to have an impact at the big league level, they have made some bullpen improvements and have added power that will play up at hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. It’s an interesting collection of talent that is clearly a couple notches below everybody else in the division, but the Astros are a team that has the potential to be a huge surprise. Some great individual development in the pitching staff last season has created a decent starting rotation and some savvy offseason acquisitions represent big upgrades.

The Astros snagged one of the top managerial candidates in A.J. Hinch, which should create a better clubhouse atmosphere this season. Bo Porter was fired after 138 games and a 59-79 record and Tom Lawless took over on an interim basis to post an 11-13 record over the final 24 games. With 70 wins, the Astros flew over their win total as one of my biggest misses from last season’s 19-11 record, but the expectations are even higher this season.

Oddsmakers at the Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno posted a 73 for the Astros and the Westgate Superbook responded on Sunday with a number of 75.5. Offshore markets are now open. BetOnline has the Astros at 76.5. 5Dimes is less optimistic at 75. Bovada is even lower at 74.5.

Key additions: Jed Lowrie, Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Hank Conger, Dan Straily, Luis Valbuena, Joe Thatcher, Roberto Hernandez

Key losses: Matt Albers, Marc Krauss, Dexter Fowler, Mike Foltynewicz

The obvious thing to notice is that a lot more talent has come in than has gone out for the Astros this winter. There are some very intriguing names on the list of guys that the Astros have added. Let’s start with the bullpen, where the Astros added two of the best right-handed relievers in the market in Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Considering the Astros posted a 4.80 ERA, 4.11 FIP, and a 3.90 xFIP as a bullpen last season, they needed help and they’ve gotten it. Joe Thatcher has a great shot to make the team as the second lefty behind Tony Sipp, so there’s great depth in this bullpen now.

The left side of the infield has been completely overhauled with Luis Valbuena and Jed Lowrie in place of Marwin Gonzalez and Matt Dominguez. Dominguez was one of the league’s worst everyday players last season and the Astros can also leave Jonathan Villar on the bench. There will be more on Lowrie and Valbuena in a bit, but they represent a clear upgrade.

Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus certainly fit the mold of what the Astros are trying to do. One of the things that teams can do is build around the park that they play in. The consensus thought is that teams should play around .600 at home and split on the road and that’s the way to be in contention. Given Minute Maid Park’s dimensions and the way that the park plays, the Astros will certainly improve offensively.

There’s better depth all around, including the rotation with the additions of Dan Straily and Roberto Hernandez. Hank Conger is a very nice backup with Jason Castro. The guys that played full-time roles for the Astros are now the depth guys, so there’s a lot of experience on Houston’s bench.

Why bet the over?

The ceiling is very high for the Astros. With a park factor of 105 for home runs, Minute Maid Park is about five percent higher on average than most parks. I won’t confuse you with the way that park factors are calculated, but keep in mind that the Astros hit 163 home runs last season, which ranked fourth in baseball, and 90 home runs at home. Those numbers are going to go up, so Minute Maid’s park factor may be even higher than what is suggested because it’s based off of performance. It could be a better hitter’s park than we think and the influx of power into the lineup could bear some serious fruit for the offense.

There’s something that you have to understand about the new way that lineups are evaluated. In sabermetrics, the chief goal for any hitter is not to make an out. Walks are a guaranteed baserunner. Balls in play go for hits between 29 and 31 percent of the time on average. Reaching base on a walk is a 100 percent outcome. The Astros, for all their strikeouts, also walked 8.2 percent of the time. That ranked in the top 10 in baseball. That should be something that benefits the offense and, by extension, the pitching staff as well. Instead of a “bloop and a blast”, the Astros could be more of a “walk and a blast” type of team. Of Houston’s 163 home runs, 91 were solo and 50 were with one runner on base. Home runs really start to hurt when they score more than one run, especially in today’s run environment.

Bill James has long believed that power and speed are two areas in which teams can get an edge. The power has already been discussed, but the Astros also stole 122 bases last season. The Astros were effective in stealing bases 76.7 percent of the time and the break-even point for stealing bases is around 72 or 73 percent. In that regard, the Astros adding some baserunning value with that.

That’s part of what made Jose Altuve so special. Altuve won the AL batting title and also stole 56 bases. On a team that doesn’t hit for high average, Altuve’s worth is inflated that much more. Altuve reached base over 260 times and exceeded five WAR. Altuve finished 30th in runs scored even though he was one of two players with 200 hits and trailed only Dee Gordon in stolen bases. With another year of experience from the key hitters in the lineup and better offensive players like Lowrie and Valbuena, Altuve could see a spike in his counting numbers.

With a team like the Astros, it’s important to look at what they replaced and how it will impact them. As mentioned, Matt Dominguez was one of the worst players in the league at -1.7 fWAR. He hit 16 home runs, but he only reached base 25.6 percent of the time. Enter Luis Valbuena, who also hit 16 home runs and only batted .241. However, Valbuena walked 12 percent of the time and posted a .341 on-base percentage. He was worth 2.7 fWAR. That’s a difference of 4.4 wins. That’s a very significant difference and one that will greatly improve the lineup.

George Springer was limited to 345 plate appearances and he still hit 20 home runs. He posted a .352 wOBA despite the high strikeout rate because he also walked a good portion of the time. Walks and power can hide strikeouts, as much as traditionalists hate that notion. Springer has been viewed as a very good prospect throughout his minor league career and his strikeout rate wasn’t nearly that high in the minor leagues. He’s a guy very capable of a .250/.350/.480 slash with 30 home runs if he makes more contact this season. That’s an extremely productive player in the middle of this lineup.

Jason Castro took a huge step back offensively last season, going from .276/.350/.485 to .222/.286/.366 with a spike in strikeouts, a big drop in walks, and a 70-point drop in wOBA. His .351 BABIP in 2013 was going to regress, but the drop in plate discipline was surprising because he had never had problems like that in the minor leagues. The batting average will probably not be in the .270s again, but he should get on pace more and get back to being around league average offensively. He has also improved defensively, so he should be worth an extra win or so on last year’s 1.2 fWAR total.

If not for Phil Hughes, everybody would be talking about Dallas Keuchel’s breakout season. Keuchel rode a 63.5 percent ground ball rate and good control to a 2.93 ERA with a 3.21 FIP and a 3.20 xFIP. He was worth nearly four wins and he came out of nowhere to do that. There could be some regression with Keuchel, but it would take a significant amount of regression to zap his value and that doesn’t look like the case. He added a slider in the second half of 2013 that became a pretty good pitch for inducing ground balls and that’s a big reason why he had so much success.

Collin McHugh also had a breakout season for the Astros. He ended up with 3.3 fWAR and a 2.73 ERA with a 3.11 FIP and xFIP. McHugh also developed into a high strikeout pitcher with a 9.14 K/9. McHugh was limited to 154.2 innings of work, so the Astros monitored his workload nicely. His reliance on the curve ball does paint a shaky picture of his long-term health, but there shouldn’t be a lot of worry for this season.

The back of the rotation has league average upside and that’s more than enough for Houston to meet a low 70s win total. Brett Oberholtzer is a pitch-to-contact lefty capable of eating innings and minimizing damage. Scott Feldman is the right-handed complement with a better ground ball rate and the ability to be around average. Dan Straily and Roberto Hernandez are the contenders for the fifth spot and Straily is a guy that still holds a lot of promise, even though it never showed up in Chicago or Oakland.

The Astros bullpen, which was atrocious in 2014, should be significantly better in 2015. Flame-throwing righty Josh Fields led the bullpen in WAR thanks to a terrific K/BB ratio, but he’ll have some help this season with Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.

Why bet the under?

Power is great, but how effective are solo home runs? The Astros hit 90 home runs at home, which ranked fourth, but they totaled 300 RBI, which ranked 20th. Overall, the Astros were fourth in home runs and 22nd in runs scored. That’s what makes their offense so interesting, yet so maddeningly inconsistent this season. It’s hard to bet on sustained production with the way that the lineup has been constructed. That’s why Felix Hernandez or Yu Darvish may strike out 20 and then the Astros might hit six home runs the next day and win 8-5. With a long-term investment that required a certain level of production over 162 games, betting on the Astros is really hard to do.

Why did the Astros score the number of runs that they did? They struck out 23.8 percent of the time. The only other team that struck out more frequently was the Cubs. The Astros are going to strike out more than 24 percent this season. Colby Rasmus has struck out in 25.2 percent of his plate appearances and struck out 33 percent of the time last season. George Springer struck out 33 percent of the time once he took over full-time duties. Jon Singleton struck out 37 percent of the time. Evan Gattis went down on strikes over 24 percent of the time. Chris Carter struck out 32 percent of the time. Jake Marisnick was a strikeout victim over 25 percent of the time. Even Jason Castro struck out almost 30 percent of the time and Luis Valbuena was north of 20 percent. We’re talking about some extraordinarily high strikeout rates and for a large portion of the lineup. Basically Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve are the only guys that won’t strike out a staggering amount of the time. That makes it hard to string hits together and score runs. This is a high-risk, medium-reward lineup. It could be high-reward if the young hitters keep walking at a good clip, but at some point, somebody needs to get singles and doubles to keep the train moving.

Playing in the AL West is difficult for a team like the Astros because they are guaranteed to play 38 road games within the division and that means trips to Anaheim, Oakland, and Seattle, where their power is not going to play as well. The Astros posted OPS numbers of .636, .592, and .691 in those three parks. Another problem with being a home run team is that fly balls generally don’t go for hits. The Astros put 1,257 balls in play in the air and batted .173 on those balls in play. Ground balls have a much better chance at becoming hits, and the Astros hit .257 on those balls in play. The Astros were eighth in IFFB%, or pop up percentage, and that effectively added 10 percent to their already high strikeout total. Between strike outs and pop ups, nearly 34 percent of their plate appearances ended in innocuous outcomes.

What, exactly, is the Astros rotation? Let’s say that Keuchel and McHugh are for real. Brett Oberholtzer’s only value is in not walking people. He’s a fly ball pitcher in a good hitter’s park and he posted a 4.57 xFIP against right-handed hitters last season. His 4.7 percent HR/FB% against right-handers is going up and it could go up in a big way. If that happens, Oberholtzer is not only going to see an explosion in his ERA, but also his FIP. He is one of the exceptions to the rule about ERA positively regressing towards a lower FIP because there are some big red flags in his statistical profile that suggest that his FIP will go up and cause his ERA to go up even more.

Scott Feldman and Brad Peacock, who will probably make up the rest of the Astros rotation, are replacement-level guys. Feldman is going to regress based on his 4.11 FIP and his 3.74 ERA. Feldman had one of the worst strikeout rates in baseball last season and his HR/FB% dropped a little bit after coming from Texas. Feldman’s BABIP jumped from .258 to .291 and his ERA actually dropped by 14 points. His SIERA went up 30 points, which would really suggest regression coming, unless he can somehow strike out more hitters. That looks unlikely and this rotation is very shaky behind Keuchel and McHugh.

Pick: Under 76.5

The Astros are entirely too flawed to improve by six wins this season. The bullpen has taken some major steps forward and the offense has a lot of intriguing players, but consistency over 162 games is huge for MLB season win totals and the Astros have next to no consistency. Their offense is going to be completely unreliable and the back end of the starting rotation is going to regress. If Keuchel and McHugh regress, this rotation has a chance to flirt with being one of the worst in the American League.

The Astros made improvements on paper, so that’s why the number is this high. They also have a lot of power, which is really exciting to people. The difference here is that the Astros are locked into a division with three teams that are clearly better than them and a Rangers team that looks a lot different with a healthy collection of players. The Astros will not hit as well on the road as they will at home.

Carlos Correa is an exciting prospect, but with Jed Lowrie at SS and Jose Altuve at 2B, he might show up when rosters expand in September, but he won’t provide any tangible impact for the club. I like the direction of the team and I want to see how this all-or-nothing offensive approach works out because nobody has tried it before. Until I see that it works, I have to be skeptical and I have to take the under.

 

-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-

 

As expected, the move to the American League wasn’t kind to the Houston Astros. The 111 losses were the most in franchise history, making it the third consecutive season that the Astros hit a new record for futility. For the second straight season, the Astros went through 25 position players and 26 pitchers. Houston was the youngest team in the American League by over one full year of age and it showed. The Astros had the league’s lowest OBP, most strikeouts by more than 100, and managed to win just 51 games.

It doesn’t seem like it would get any easier for the Astros this season, as the Mariners and Angels look improved and the Astros are still behind the curve because of the transition from the National League to the American League. The leagues are a lot different than they seem. National League teams tend to have more depth because of the need to bat for the pitcher and have positional replacements. As a result, there seem to be more below average players taking up roster spots. Of course, there’s also the obvious point of the pitcher hitting, so a team like the Astros would have had no previous need for a designated hitter. It showed, as the Astros’ DHs posted a .214/.308/.408/.716 slash line. League average was .256/.338/.428/.766.

The 2013 Astros were in a really difficult spot. Not only did they lack the necessary talent to compete in the National League, but the move to the American League made them a lock for the worst team in the league. They gave up 60 more runs than any other AL pitching staff, outscored only the White Sox, and were 43-99 against league competition. The Astros had losing records against every American League team except for the White Sox and Angels. Oakland and Texas combined for a 32-6 record against the hapless Astros.

Bovada.lv opened up their win totals on Wednesday, posting a 62.5 with the over juiced at -125. BetOnline.ag opened last week and has a 62.5 (u-105) currently posted. LVH Superbook in Las Vegas opened at 63.5, while William Hill (59.5) and Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV (57.5) were less optimistic.

Key additions: Dexter Fowler, Scott Feldman, Peter Moylan, Matt Albers, Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, Jerome Williams, Anthony Bass, Cesar Izturis

Key losses: Brandon Barnes, Jordan Lyles, Erik Bedard

Some of the “key” additions may not be names of consequence, but when you lose 111 games, everybody becomes a key addition because they have a great chance at being better than what you had. Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference both set the mark of a replacement-level team at 48-114. That means that the Astros, essentially, were three wins above a team of scrubs. As a result, adding Major Leagues with a track record can’t really be a wrong strategy.

As you can see, pitching was the area of need that the Astros felt was the most pressing. Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams will add Major League caliber starters to a rotation that posted the third-worst ERA and fourth-worst FIP in all of baseball last season. Astros starters also led the league in walks per nine innings, which is where Feldman and Williams will help.

As bad as the starting rotation was, the bullpen somehow managed to be worse. Astros relievers posted a 4.92 ERA and a 5.09 FIP. They gave up the most home runs in baseball, 21 more than any other team. In the situation that they’re in, the Astros certainly didn’t want to commit big money to any bullpen arms, so guys like Moylan and Crain come with injury baggage. Moylan has only made 35 appearances over the last three seasons, after 172 appearances in 2010-11 with the Braves. Crain only made 38 appearances last season with a shoulder injury. Albers and Qualls are experienced guys who have over 1,000 combined Major League appearances.

Dexter Fowler is unquestionably the biggest name on the additions list. He was acquired from the Rockies for Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles. Fowler is one of the game’s most athletic players, but staying on the field has been a serious problem for him. He showed some extra base hit ability in Colorado and the Astros have nothing but time to let him develop and see what happens.

Why bet the over?

Simply by virtue of being one year older, the Astros should show some signs of progress. Years of being awful have given the Astros the chance to stock their minor league system with some of the game’s most talented prospects and a lot of those guys are going to make an appearance in 2014. Players like Carlos Correa, the top shortstop on most prospect lists, Mark Appel, a very low-risk pitcher with a high ceiling, and George Springer, a 6’4” 200-pound outfielder with power potential, highlight the system and could shoot some much-needed life into the fan base and the team. Since the Astros will likely spend most of 2014 in the cellar, they could be a very fun team to watch in August and September as these guys come up. They could give an over bet life, especially if the team can bob and weave through the first few months.

The shining diamond in the rough for the Astros last season was catcher Jason Castro. With little help around him, Castro was spectacular offensively, especially for a catcher. He posted a .276/.350/.485 slash with a .361 wOBA. Among catchers with 450 or more plate appearances, Castro ranked fourth in wOBA, fourth in fWAR, second in slugging percentage, and fifth in walk rate. Like most of his pitching staff, Castro was still learning the hitters, especially with the move to the American League. He’s a bona fide star at the catcher position and a great asset for the Astros to build around.

First baseman/outfielder Jesus Guzman will leave the suffocating environment of Petco Park for the more hitter-friendly conditions of Minute Maid Park. Guzman performed well offensively in the minors with an .853 OPS, so there is hitting talent there. He’ll get a chance to play a lot with the Astros, in an environment conducive to the power he showed in the minor leagues. He’ll turn 30 in June, so there aren’t many more chances to prove himself, but a fresh start in a more favorable ballpark can only help. Astros first basemen posted a -0.2 fWAR last season, so this should be an upgrade.

Joining Guzman in the mix for plate appearances at first base, in the outfield, and at DH is Chris Carter. Carter hit 29 home runs for the Astros last season, but the trade-off was that he struck out 212 times in just 585 plate appearances. Carter has been a below average defender throughout his Major League career, so the Astros may opt to keep him out of the field. Between Carter and Guzman, there’s some power potential here for the Astros that should help the offense.

Matt Dominguez may be a player to watch for the Astros this season at third base. Dominguez flashed plus defensive potential and a little bit of power last season with 21 home runs. There’s reason for optimism, as Dominguez’s BABIP was very low at .254. League average is between .290-.310, so a repeat of his .241 average seems unlikely. His plate discipline numbers could improve in his second full season in the Majors, though they were hardly consistent on his path to the bigs. Either way, Dominguez shows signs of improvement and it’s clear that any improvement will help the Astros.

The Astros rotation hopes fall on two young starters as Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer will have the opportunity to prove themselves this season. Cosart made 10 starts for the Astros last season and only factored in two decisions with a 1-1 record and a 1.95 ERA. If you need any more proof that ERA can be a misleading stat, note that Cosart walked more batters in his 60 innings than he struck out and his BABIP was just .246. His left on base percentage was over 85 percent, which is unsustainable to begin with, especially for a guy may not have an above average strikeout rate in the Majors. His FIP was 4.35. But, Cosart flashes a lot of potential with great stuff, including a fastball that sits at 95 mph, and a big curveball with a lot of movement. Command is the issue for Cosart, but over 54 percent of balls in play were on the ground. If Cosart can even marginally improve his command, 95 mph and offspeed stuff with big movement can give him a decent margin for error if he’s remotely close to the plate.

Oberholtzer was so good, relatively speaking, in his 10 starts and 13 appearances that he led the Astros in fWAR at 1.3. He’s a standard-issue southpaw that mixes three pitches, induces weak fly ball contact, and doesn’t walk batters. His minor league strikeout numbers didn’t translate to the Majors, but his control did, and that should give the Astros hope. Fly balls pitchers are dangerous in Minute Maid Park, with very short dimensions down the line and a big gap in right center, but other depth additions in the rotation plus extended looks for Oberholtzer and Cosart are favorable developments.

Scott Feldman will be the de facto ace of the Astros staff. He’s a serviceable pitcher, generally posting FIPs at or slightly above league average, so, in that regard, he’s an upgrade to the pitching staff. He posts reasonable strikeout-to-walk rates and gets ground balls at an above average rate. Considering how desperately the Astros needed pitching help, he will be an asset.

Jerome Williams will likely get a rotation spot with Lucas Harrell and Dallas Keuchel fighting for the last one. Harrell turned in a pretty decent 2012 campaign, but his control fell apart last season and his minor league track record indicates that it’s a problem he can expect to keep having. Keuchel will probably be in the rotation, if for no other reason than he was decent last season. Keuchel’s 5.15 ERA last season was enhanced by a .340 BABIP and 20 home runs allowed in 153.2 innings. His 4.25 FIP is a little bit below league average, but not so much that he should be written off. He gets a lot of ground balls, which hurt him last season because of the Astros infield defense, but he could be a serviceable part of the rotation.

Nobody in the Astros bullpen would be considered dominant, but an influx of veteran arms should improve the league’s worst bullpen in 2013. Between Qualls, Albers, Crain, and Moylan, if he’s healthy, the Astros will have competent middle relief, something they sorely lacked last season. There are some guys that miss bats and it’s hard to see this bullpen being as terrible as it was last season.

Why bet the under?

The Astros are stuck in a division that looks much stronger top to bottom than it did a year ago. The Mariners added Robinson Cano and have some young talent coming up in the rotation. The Angels were extremely bad in spite of an inflated payroll and most people, oddsmakers included, expect them to improve. The Athletics look stronger or at least about the same and the Rangers have some pitching concerns, but they can still hit. With 76 games against these four teams, or almost 47 percent of the season, it’s difficult to see where the Astros will accumulate wins.

With the exception of Castro, no other Astros player had an fWAR above 1.8, pitchers included. The 1.8 fWAR was property of Bud Norris, who is no longer with the team. Neither is Erik Bedard, who was third at 1.4. The Astros remain a young team that has a lot of offensive challenges. They strike out a ton and don’t walk. They have decent power, but stringing hits together to score runs is like pulling teeth. Unless the collection of Guzman and Carter can put together decent production, the Astros project to be below average at first base, second base, shortstop, left field, and right field.

The absolute best-case scenario for the starting rotation is to be somewhere around average, so in the 4.10 range in ERA and FIP. Considering how far away from that they were last season, even full seasons of Cosart, Oberholtzer, and Feldman may not be enough to help. Unless Cosart starts pitching in the zone, the Astros project to have five below average strikeout pitchers in the five-man rotation. Even with the Astros poor offense, Minute Maid Park ranked ninth in run scoring and sixth in home runs in ESPN’s Park Factor metrics. A large reason for that is because of their pitchers’ performance at home with a 4.99 ERA and a 4.72 FIP.

The bullpen has no dominant force, so even in the event that the Astros have a lead late, it’s far from a guaranteed victory. The Astros won 63.2 percent of games that they led going into the seventh inning, leading the league in blown saves. The Astros converted just 52 percent of their save opportunities. Just because there are more experienced arms doesn’t necessarily mean that those numbers will improve, especially without a guy that has a closer-type profile at the back-end of the bullpen.

The Astros do have young talent in the minors, but the biggest impact player, Carlos Correa, played in Single-A last season. He’ll likely start the season in Double-A and may make the jump, but it probably won’t be until September, if at all. With the exception of the Mets to end the season, the Astros draw a very tough schedule playing all four division opponents and the Cleveland Indians, who should be fighting for a playoff spot. When the prospects do come up, they won’t have it easy.

Pick: Under 62.5 (-105) (BetOnline)

Simple bet: Will the Astros lose 100 games? This team is unquestionably better than the 2013 version, in part because it’s difficult to be worse than losing 111 games, but because the young players are a year older and more experienced. But, this team is still operating with deficiencies all over the field and the overall improvement of their division will not do them any favors.

The under could get dicey if the Astros plan for 2014 and let Mark Appel, George Springer, and maybe even Carlos Correa learn on the job earlier than expected. Immediate success is no guarantee, but from a talent and potential perspective, those guys are upgrades and have much higher ceilings for 2014 performance.

Ultimately, the rotation has a lot of question marks and there are too many lineup holes. If guys like Dominguez, Castro, Fowler, Cosart, and Oberholtzer all take another step forward, the Astros could be in line for a much bigger improvement in 2015, but there are still too many concerns for 2014 to expect this teams to be 12 games better.