Earlier in the year I said that I would hold off my judgment of this team until the team either loses sixty games or wins sixty games. With the Astros loss Wednesday, they not only snapped their seven game winning streak and the popular Winsday streak, they also joined eight other teams as a sixty plus loss team. It is amazing however what a seven game winning streak will do for you as four of those sixty lose teams passed Houston while they were sitting at fifty nine losses.
Why sixty loses might you ask? With the exception of a few cases most teams will win sixty games and lose sixty games. Now that the Astros have crossed that mark I feel we have a large enough sample size to make some determinations about this Astros team as a whole in offense, pitching, defense and the coaching staff.
It’s pretty clear that the offense is the weakness of this team. They rank third to last in the league with a .245 team average. They’re tied with Pittsburgh for 28th in on base percentage (OBP) with a .304 percentage, and have an on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .667 good enough for 29th in the league. They rank 14th in stolen bases with 65 and 13th in caught stealing with 24 which is a 73% success rate. They rank 27th in home runs and runs batted in with 74 and 390 respectively. As for the advanced statistics the Astros are second to last in both weighted on base average (wOBA) and isolated power (ISO) with a .297 wOBA and a .118 ISO. Their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) sits at .280 which is tied with the White Sox for second to last in the league.
There is good news however, with the turnover of the lineup, in the last 30 days the Astros have ranked top 10 in average (.274), OBP (.341), and wOBA (.341). In OPS they are ranked 11th with a .769 percentage, 12th in BABIP at .304, and 15th in ISO with .155. They’ve also improved their stolen base success rate which sits at 86% in 21 chances. There is some debate as to whether these improvements are the result of Jeff Bagwell taking over for Sean Berry or simply some due regression towards the mean statistically. I like to think it's a combination of both.
Once spring training began many of us believed the strength of this team was going to be pitching and defense. Miguel Tejada was allowed to leave via free agency making Tommy Manzella a defensive shortstop the heir apparent to the position. Pedro Feliz was supposedly signed to be a run producer, but we saw his true value was more on the defensive side. Kaz Matsui while lacking in offense at least provided plus defense at the second base position. The numbers thus far however do not paint a pretty picture. The Astros are tied for 15th in the league with the Diamondbacks, with 71 errors. They have a fielding percentage of .982, which is tied with eight other teams for 14th in the league.
The Advanced statistics don’t get any better with 282 out of zone plays (OOZ) good for 21st, -13 defensive runs saved (DRS) good for 25th, and -6.5 in ultimate zone rating/150 (UZR/150) good for 27th. The real strength of this team however has been the ability to control the running game. The Astros rank 10th in both stolen bases allowed, 110, and runners caught stealing, 29. I’d like to provide some hope for the defense overall but I don’t think I can. Castro looks to be an upgrade over Towles and Cash, Chris Johnson looks to be about average at best, Brett Wallace has had a hard time finding a position, Angel Sanchez doesn’t have the range of Manzella, and Jeff Keppinger is below average at second base. That’s the sacrifice this team has had to make to put a more offensive team on the field.
Considered to be the strength of this team, the traditional stats say this team is in the bottom half of the league when it comes to pitching. The Astros rank 22nd with a 4.36 earned run average (ERA), 25th in opponent average with a .274 average, and 24th in walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) at 1.43. One of the more positive pitching stats to look at is HR/9 which ranks 8th in the league at .84 and home runs allowed, 88 home runs have left the ballpark all season.
As far as the advanced statistics go the Astros rank 10th in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) with 4.15. They’ve also been the second unluckiest team in baseball behind the Brewers with a BABIP of .327. In the last 30 days the Astros have a .384 xFIP, second only behind the Padres, and a .315 BABIP ranking 22nd. I find the fact that they pitched so well in the last 30 days interesting considering Bud Norris and Wesley Wright are in the rotation and Oswalt was just traded for J.A. Happ. In truth though Wesley Wright has come up and done an outstanding job, in the three games he’s started he has a 3.78 ERA and a SO/BB of 3.75. Bud Norris has pitched a little better than he has been, and has a 4.76 ERA in the second half. Combine that with Wandy’s reemergence, Myers continuing awesomeness, and J.A. Happ’s debut and you can see why the Astros have pitched so well to begin the second half.
In the bullpen the three L’s, Lindstrom, Lyon and Lopez have combined to post a wins above replacement (WAR) of 3 according to Baseball Reference or 2.4 if you prefer FanGraphs. With the trading of the staff ace, and the injuries sustained to the starting rotation and bullpen, you'd expect the pitching staff to fall off a bit. In truth it appears, the pitching staff has overcome these obstacles and is still the strength of this team.
The coaching staff has had quite a bit of turnover from last season, Dave Clark is currently the only coach who was with the team the entire year last year. Brad Mills was hired on Oct 27th of last year, he previously had served as the Boston Red Sox bench coach. The Astros current record sits at 47 - 61 which is better than their current Pythagorean record of 43-65. It’s nice to see that Brad Mills is having a positive effect on this team both in the clubhouse and on the field.
The biggest issue I’ve had with Mills is his sometimes misuse of the starting pitchers. The most recent event was right before the break when he allowed Bud Norris to go an inning to long right before the break, and then the next night not let Brett Myers go longer. Bud Norris has shown a tendency to fall off after 90-100 pitches, that night Bud Norris was allowed to go 113 and essentially put the game out of reach. The next night with the bullpen needing work before the break Myers was pulled early, which did not sit well with Myers. If the bullpen had needed work it would make more sense to get that work in Norris’s start instead of Myers. I’ve chalked this up to a managing rookie mistake, as Mills hasn’t allowed Norris to go more than a 100 pitches since then. Overall Mills has done a good job and I don’t have nearly as many gripes about his in game moves, as I did with Cooper.
Brad Arnsberg has come on and seems to of had an immediate effect on the pitching staff, we’ve heard about the change he's made to the way Lindstrom grips his slider, and seen Paulino’s improvement before his injury as examples. Jeff Bagwell replaced Sean Berry at the All Star break this season and while their was statistical evidence the Astros were due for some improvement on offense I like to think he’s had a positive effect on the hitters. I feel Dave Clark is a bit conservative as the third base coach, and will hold up runners when he needs to be challenging the other team. Al Pedrique bench coach, Bobby Meacham first base coach, and Jamie Quirk bullpen coach have all had their own effect but in a less prolific category. Overall I’m happy with the new coaching staff.
The turn over the Astros have gone through has changed the direction of this club for the better. Realistically this team wasn’t expected be competitive this year, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for how bad this team played at the beginning of the year. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise as the Astros front office finally got the hint and realized a better direction may be to move some of the veteran pieces for prospects and payroll relief.
The offense struggled mightily in the first half of the season but with an infusion of youth has seen a positive turn around in the last 30 days. Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace have been given a chance to show what they can do at the corners, Jeff Keppinger has taken over at second base, and Jason Castro at the catcher position will hopefully be given more of chance than Towles was. Early returns have been good, the offense looks to of taken a step forward, unfortunately it appears the defense has taken a bit of a hit which may have an effect on the pitching.
Speaking of pitching the Astro pitching staff has held up well considering it’s had to deal with injuries in both the starting rotation and bullpen. Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino the two young hurlers have each hit the disable list, while Norris has returned to the rotation Paulino appears to be done for the year. Steady Brian Moehler also looks to be done for the year with a cringe worthy injury. In the bullpen young guys Alberto Arias, and Sammy Gervacio have hit the disabled list and are done for this year. Jeff Fulchino, Tim Byrdak, and Chris Sampson, have also been on the disabled list while also battling ineffectiveness.
This team has gone through a lot of changes since the beginning of the season out are Feliz, Matsui, Towles, Oswalt and Berkman. In are Johnson, Keppinger, Castro, Happ and Wallace, as the last 30 days have shown there is hope for this team.