Recapping 2018: Houston Astros Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Houston Astros Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason. Here’s the final results:

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC SEA ATL NYM TBR COL PHI

10 – 1: MIL TOR STL WAS OAK CLE NYY HOU

Most fans remember the truly awful stretch the Houston Astros endured around the turn of the decade. As bad as the Baltimore Orioles were last year, that is how bad the Astros were for three straight years. Focusing solely on that stretch ignores how incredibly good the team was throughout the early-aughts. A perennial contender that never quite got all the way bled into mediocrity that could not be avoided despite ramping up payroll. Putting those past figures into 2018 dollars show that they were willing to push as high as current median, but after years of floating in the middle they felt a change of course was necessary. The ugly bottom-out ensued, but it is difficult to argue with the payoff. The past few years show a team getting continually better, while being more and more eager to ramp up costs to leverage their placement on the win curve. That culminated in a World Series win in 2017, though this past season saw the team fall a round short of their hoped repeat.

Ranking fourth overall in their championship year they were led very much by an unheralded pitching collective where no one saw more than the 670 batters by Mike Fiers. This past saw four guys make that claim as the team saved their matchup plays for the bullpen that followed their four horsemen that helped this unit be the best collection of pitching in the game. The results were often great suppression of offense, though they were not without poorer runs, as well. However, even the short-lived weaker stretches saw the team around the average. Strong production was driven by a massive team-wide strikeout rate that paired nicely with better than average production allowed on balls in play. Additionally, Houston showed a preternatural ability to cut the cord on guys that weren’t proving up to snuff. The weaker link, Ken Giles, was traded at the deadline for alleged wife-beater Roberto Osuna in a move that generated plenty of controversy. The new addition filled the role fine in his short stint, but the real strength were in the innings before the finale. There the team threw a plethora of above average arms on the rare occasion the good starter needed some help.

Far and away the best pitcher on the staff, indeed, the best in the American League, Justin Verlander had an otherworldly start before a return to mortality at points later in the season. By the expectations his “worst” was being an average pitcher, though from one peak to another he showed a good deal of underperformance in his actual results. The gap closed later in the year with everything falling in line and driving back down to as good as it gets for a pitcher. With so many balls in the air it only takes a few going out that might not typically do so for actual results to look worse in a hurry, and that is likely the cause for the relatively poorer stretch. Escalating exit velocity didn’t help, but as things closed with more dangerous waters Verlander was able to calm things down again. The better than average contact yielded is somewhat of a surprise considering how wide the chasm was between his extremely good walk and strikeout rates, but with all three components running very well, to go with an enormous workload, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Verlander was award-worthy.

Justin Verlander

Playing second fiddle, though closer to the next guy to come than the uber-ace, Gerrit Cole broke plenty of hearts in his first tour with the Houston Astros. Those of his former fans in Pittsburgh, but also those that were immediately rewarded with his new club. A very strong start through the first two hundred batters had those groups crying either tears of pain or joy, but it wasn’t long before the new league was making adjustments. As his production closed with the average he started to make his own adjustments back with expectations lagging behind rapidly improving actual results. Both sides met back up at the better level and stayed in better than average land from there. The hot start was keyed by a ridiculous strikeout rate sitting firmly at 40% or even higher. It fell off to the more great than extraordinary 30% level and stuck around there for a while with his very good walk rate also climbing throughout this time even going into a pretty scary place approaching 15%. He sorted it out rather well by getting back to throwing strikes without seeing any major issues crop up in his contact. The exit velocity stayed pretty consistently at a fine level with early fly-ball proneness turning into more balls on a line. Some overperformance had his ball in play looking a bit shinier than it should have, but striking out more than a third of batters covers a lot of sins.

Gerrit Cole

For the first time in his eleven year career Charlie Morton made 30 starts. It was his second straight outstanding year with Houston after a hint at what he could become in four starts with Philadelphia in 2016 before his hamstring blew out running out a bunt. Like his peers already mentioned he got off to a monster start before a rough patch that saw him firmly on the wrong side of average. Incredibly high walk rates that would peak around 20% were the big cause, though he was able to put that baby to bed to get back to being more of a little worse than average than awful guy. The strikeouts stayed above or around 30% a little longer, but those, too, eventually fell off toward the average. A late season shoulder flare up is a likely cause here and something for fans of his new club, the Tampa Bay Rays, to keep an eye on going forward. The walks look a bit troublesome, but the majority came against lefties where he does seem to show a fairly wide split owed to absolutely brutalizing righties and struggling with lefties. His new team will need to work with him as much as the last did on avoiding getting beat by lefties even if it means working around them, while not being afraid to pull the chute, and bring in the bullpen early if the situation dictates that course of action.

Charlie Morton

Former Cy Young winner, albeit four years ago at this point, Dallas Keuchel got his groove back last year after a couple of injury-plagued seasons in between. He got back to over 200 innings pitched, while being more average or better than some of the outstanding performance his teammates showed over lesser or longer stints. The second half was mostly pretty good outside of his worst run of the season to break up the two best. He won’t fill up the strikeout box like the others, but he still gets enough considering his extremely low walk rates. His real strength was in his ability to nullify hard contact with low exit velocities allowed throughout the year, and much of that on lower trajectories where damage can be contained. Keuchel did an excellent job of keeping his hardest contact out of the most productive, higher launch angles leading to a fairly barren nitro zone. Like Morton, he became a free agent after the season, but unlike his former teammate Keuchel has yet to latch onto a new team despite a solid mid-rotation profile that multiple teams could absolutely use.

Dallas Keuchel

If that wasn’t enough legit starterdom the team also leaned upon Lance McCullers Jr. in a heavily managed role that the team hoped would allow the pitcher to make meaningful appearances when it mattered most despite having a shredded ulnar collateral ligament that would ultimately require offseason Tommy John surgery. This wasn’t just a guy gutting it out, but one who was a fine mid-rotation starter who rode some overperformance to look more like a frontline starter. The walks have been and likely will always be an issue, but they’re offset by strong strikeout rates when he’s running well. Avoiding the worst contact might be a little fluky as he had tons of balls on the fringes of the nitro zone, but somewhat hard contact was mostly on lower angles that might tighten the noose, but rarely kicks out the stool. He won’t see action in 2019, but should see most of, if not all, of 2020.

Lance McCullers Jr.

Coming out of the bullpen were several options, most of whom could work more than an inning if need be. In his first season of relief Collin McHugh provided a lot of that longer work with over a third of his appearances seeing more than three outs. He filled this coveted role with aplomb even if he outperformed expectations a good deal early on before things coalesced at the higher, more averagey level. The walk rate steadily picked up, but when the strikeouts fell off it was much more suddenly and static from there. He gave up a cluster of absolute pokes, and tons of other liners proliferating the swoosh, but another example that striking out a third or more can cover for hard contact. The next best was Hector Rondon who was use much more traditionally, but with fairly similar, outstanding results that were fully justified by the data. Rondon avoided the Infirmary List, but showed an eyebrow-raising linear fall off in strikeouts that saw him finish up below the average. The contact stayed weak even with that downturn with the worst manifesting as hard, low liners and groundballs. With little chatter about an injury until a comebacker caught hand instead of face to start September it’s a bit mystifying why the strikeouts fell off, though lesser usage of his very good slider does mirror the punchout decline.

Collin McHugh

Hector Rondon

A year after seeing split work as both a starter and a reliever, Brad Peacock some nearly exclusive use in the latter role. There were matchup days and longer versions so he filled a lot of different roles for the team whenever then needed to dial up a strikeout. The incredible rate drove his average to good performance, though there was some underperformance later on when batters started generate harder contact. Chris Devenski was used fairly similarly after seeing more extensive work the couple of years prior. Early strong performance was followed by a fairly dramatic worsening as his strikeouts slowly dwindled back to the average. The team has made more of an effort to avoid burning out this good arm, but that finish is scary enough that they might need to ratchet that down even further. The team also received solid contributions from Will Harris and Joe Smith, but that didn’t stop the club from adding Ryan Pressly and the aforementioned Osuna down the stretch with both proving to be worthwhile additions to both close out that year, but to stick around a bit longer into the future.

Brad Peacock

Chris Devenski

While the team improved their pitching the offense took a step back from good to only a little better than average. You can see above that a big reason was the enormous volatility over the course of the season. They oscillated around the average, and we saw above that things aggregated on the better side, but this was an offense that showed very little consistency. A big reason for the up-and-down nature was the reliance on a handful of very good hitters, while the rest of the lineup showed several players coming in at a below average rate. Carlos Correa’s injury issues buried one of their bauers in the kitty, but several other contributors merely a year prior failed to provide the kind of contributions the team desperately could have used. Catcher was an especially weaker part of the lineup, though Max Stassi showed a good stick for a catcher in part-time play.

After a rocket-like ascent, and steady play to date, Alex Bregman showed he still had another gear or two left to climb as his marvelous season not only paced the club, but saw him earn legitimate MVP consideration. A more pedestrian start was quickly left in the rearview with mostly well above average production from there on out. There was a troubling spell towards the end that saw him dive below the average briefly, but both before and after show enough overproduction that fans likely hardly noticed. That might mean his very good performance was a good bit outsized, but things mostly came out in the wash with some other less lucky periods early on. Bregman pairs one of the best rates of strikeout avoidance in the league with a well above average walk rate. His exit velocity was not eye-popping, but his swing is tailor made for the short Crawford Boxes that he can plunk balls off of with regularity. There was a thick density of balls in that 95 – 105 MPH band with so many falling either in the nitro zone or right around it. This is one of the best hitters in the game, though an offseason elbow scrape might set him back a touch to start the upcoming season.

Alex Bregman

While Bregman might be bursting onto the scene, it is Jose Altuve that has been here for years. He was off to a typically excellent season last year until tweaking his knee sliding into second base that ultimately led to corrective surgery after the season. The impact was fairly obvious with declining exit velocity and an uptick in strikeouts toward the average that would otherwise be hard to believe from such an accomplished hitter. With plenty of time to get back from the injury fans should be expecting more of the good than the excusable bad that followed, though all eyes will be on him if he struggles out of the gates. George Springer is another old hand at that point as a fully actualized once highly thought of prospect. His enormous shortfall from lower, but still around the average expectations stick out like a sore thumb, and came at the tail of a muted exit velocity period. This can likely be chalked up to a multitude of injuries to his shoulder, elbow, thumb and quad issues that plagued him over the course of the year. The continued strong walk rates, while keeping the strikeouts mostly better than average, give the batter a high floor, but when paired with the higher exit velocities he showed early he can be a game changer in any lineup.

Jose Altuve

George Springer

Super sub Marwin Gonzalez yet again played all over the place racking up plenty of plate appearances in the process. He mostly showed subpar production, though a very strong stretch over the last month-plus helped push him to better than average on the year. A lot of that uptick was due to gradually increasing exit velocity that’s more on a line than down when things are going well. The strikeout rate was a bit scary for much of the season considering the middling power and underwhelming walk rates that can often justify worse than average whiffs. Making up for the lesser performance early was the solid contributions provided by Tyler White. Performance fell off, and showed a good deal of overperformance throughout the year, but even the lesser expectations showed him as a good hitter for much of the season, and an average one at his worst later on. Walks and strikeouts were pretty average, but he showed a solid ability to hit hard liners that often carried up to the more productive, higher angles.

Marwin Gonzalez

Tyler White

Paths to the Show don’t get much more different than how Evan Gattis and Carlos Correa got to where they are. The powerful Gattis entered free agency after the season only to find the market as lukewarm as he had found it the rest of his career. A shame as the hot month he showed could re-emerge at any time to help a lineup, though the likelihood of the offsetting downtimes is equally high. His offense is completely predicated on his ability to lift the ball as strikeouts and walks were basically average. The exit velocity wasn’t outrageous showing consistency more than a spike, though you can see the shelf in his launch angle with the lower levels corresponding with his poor finish.

The journeyed man has one tale to tell, but Carlos Correa has a complete other after being drafted highly and flying through the minors. This past season must feel like a letdown due to endless back issues that should be mostly behind him after an offseason to rest and recuperate. He never got close to approaching his strong start spending most of the season in the below average land that seemed impossible so recently. Credit to the player for trying to contribute to the team, but it was plainly obvious he wasn’t right, and means most of the data here might corroborate the issues, but tells us little about what to expect going forward with a return to health.

Evan Gattis

Carlos Correa

The last two players that saw substantial playing time were Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel. Reddick never really got going showing out as an average hitter at his best, and often a notch below that level. He played around with getting more aggressive leading to more balls in play, and that seemed to work pretty well for awhile before getting back to a more patient approach and worse results. He will likely keep the seat warm for fellow lefty Kyle Tucker, and will get as much line as he can pull out. Gurriel was even worse while not being able to play anywhere other than first base. His aggressive approach puts the ball in play a ton, and when it’s falling in he can look pretty good. That was the case in the middle of the season when he massively outstripped his average expectations, but when the exit velocity plummeted shortly after he went through a horrendous stretch. The close to the season was a little better, but considering the lack of a position this should be a player the team seeks to upgrade upon.

Josh Reddick

Yuli Gurriel

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

Max Stassi

 

Brian McCann

 

Jake Marisnick

Tony Kemp

Will Harris

Joe Smith