Let's put the bat on the ball and kick start this season preview mess.
All this week, we'll be breaking down the upcoming season for Houston in different ways. To kick things off, we'll look at the offensive outlook of this year's squad.
For the second straight season, Houston scored under 700 runs. The Astros hadn't done that since 1991-92, when it actually happened for seven straight seasons. Yeah, that's right, the Astros scored less than 700 runs in the 1986 season when they went to the National League Championship Series.
If there's a silver lining to the lack of run-scoring Houston has done in the past two seasons, it's that the 2011 version actually increased the number of runs scored over the previous season. Oh, and the 615 runs they did score was less than 30 runs less than the 2009 team.
You've probably known Houston's offense has been bad for quite some time. The biggest difference this season is that there will be a ton of new faces back in the lineup. Will that help?
The major league average for runs scored last season was 694. So, Houston has a loong way to go before they even get back to "league average." Only four teams scored less runs than Houston in 2011 (San Diego, San Fran, Seattle, Pittsburgh).
How, you ask? Let's run through some of the projected run totals for the 10 likeliest players this season:
Carlos Lee (600 PA) - approximately 65 runs
Brian Bogusevic (500 PA) - 57 runs
J.D. Martinez (600 PA) - 69 runs
Jose Altuve (600 PA) - 70 runs
Jordan Schafer (425 PA) - 50 runs
Jason Castro (450 PA) - 40 runs
Chris Johnson (400 PA) - 40 runs
Chris Snyder (250 PA) - 25 runs
Jed Lowrie (400 PA) - 47 runs
Travis Buck (300 PA) - 30 runs
These weren't just random run predictions, though it wasn't a scientific prediction either. Basically, I looked at all the FanGraphs projections listed for a player and tried to come up with a reasonable middle ground between all the different systems. The only player that proved troublesome was Brian Bogusevic (which I seem to remember clack had already noticed this spring). I ended up giving him the benefit of more plate appearances, which meant he ended up on the high side of his predicted runs.
Everyone else, though? Pretty close to a middle ground. That all added up to 493 runs from Houston's core players. Why add the plate appearances for each player?
Well, just because the top 10 players produce almost 500 runs doesn't mean that's all the runs Houston will score this season. There's a big chunk of bench scoring going on too. How do we predict that?
Again, this is in no way scientific. All I did was look at how many runs Houston scored outside its top eight players in 2011 (courtesy of Baseball Reference) and how many runs the "bench" scored (272). Then, I broke down how many plate appearances the "bench" had (2807), dividing the two to get how many runs per plate appearance the Astros scored.
Since the major league average for PAs last season was 6,175, I simply added up the top 10 PAs from the Houston projections above, subtracted from that league average and got 1,650 PAs from the Houston "bench" next season. Multiply that by the runs per plate appearance from 2011, and you get another 160 runs for the 2012 Astros.
That means Houston could be predicted to score about 653 runs next season, or 38 more runs than last season.
I made a lot of assumptions to get to that number, and not every one will hold up. But, it roughly shows that we're right to be more optimistic about the offense this season. Here are some reasons for optimism:
- The catching position - Last season, FanGraphs had Houston's four catchers combining for -0.3 WAR and a grand total of 52 runs scored. By our average prediction above, Jason Castro and Chris Snyder would score almost 15 more runs than that and could go as high as 20 more if things break right. More runs means more production, which isn't out of the realm of possibility for a high on-base guy like Castro and a power hitter like Snyder. Houston could easily have a vastly improved offensive skill set behind the plate in 2012.
- The tantalizing Jed Lowrie - While Clint Barmes was obviously a very good fielder and will be hard to replace there, the Astros may have found a very capable replacement at the plate in Jed Lowrie. This spring, the Boston import has shown power and a little patience at the plate. Both should serve him well in 2012. I'd also expect Lowrie to be one of the safer breakout candidates from the everyday guys.
- The rookies grow up - J.D. Martinez and Jose Altuve were thrown into the fire last season, but acquitted themselves well. Neither had stellar rookie campaigns, but both show signs that continued growth at the plate is possible.
The big concern with Altuve is his patience. In the minors, he walked at a good clip, but seemed to try for too much contact last season at all three levels he played at. If he shows more of the patience he's displayed at times this spring, Altuve's bat could prove much more valuable than Bill Hall's did last season.
For Martinez, the concern is his power. He's never been a huge power hitter in the minors, but if he can get up to the 20-home run plateau, he'd be one of the best hitters in Houston's lineup. Fifteen homers a year might be more his speed, though, combined with a good average and a decent eye. Martinez is my bet for the Best Offensive Player of the Year award.
- Consistency - Don't be fooled. Baseball teams need some sort of chemistry over the long haul if they want to produce runs and be...productive...Last season, there was a ton of turnover to the roster, with players shuffling in and out via trades or demotions/promotions from the minors. In short, it was hard for anyone to really get in a rhythm.
That includes the young guys who were given jobs from the get-go after the July trade deadline. While Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace flopped, J.D., Altuve and Jimmy Paredes weren't given many chances to string together production, because they were rested so much. I'm sure Brad Mills knew what he was doing there,* but I think being penciled in as more permanent starters without concerns over tiredness may do wonders for this team.
*I in no way am sure he knew what he was doing with his rest patterns late in the season. In no way.
Expect at least one player in this offense to break out and have a monster season. Maybe not "Jose Bautista" monster, but a surprising season nonetheless. Expect Carlos Lee to hit about .260 with few walks and about 15-20 home runs. Expect Houston to be better at second base, shortstop and catcher this season offensively.
In short, expect Houston to improve, however slightly, at the plate over what you've seen for the past two seasons.