J.D. Martinez and Jose Altuve entered this season appearing to be the best hitting products from the Astros' farm system, since Hunter Pence, to become full season major leaguers. Most of us at TCB expected both guys to become core players for the offense in coming years. The patient batting approach shown by both players to start the season seemed to justify our optimism---and it corresponded with better than expected team offense by the Astros early in the season.
As the Astros' offense has gone through a terrible funk--including suffering a perfect game thrown by the opposition--the patient approach at the plate has been on the decline for both players.
Altuve's swing happy approach in his call up last year prevented him from reaching his offensive potential. With successful work during the spring on becoming more patient, Altuve showed that he can be more than a singles machine. J.D. Martinez started the season as a very patient hitter--among the league leaders in walks early on in the season . However, as noted above, both players' plate discipline has taken a nose dive this month---much like most hitters in the Astros' lineup. Look at the walk and strike out rate for both players by month:
April 7.4.% / 14.7%
May 5.0% / 9.9%
June 2.5% / 16.3%
April 17.9% / 18.9%
May 6.9% / 24.1%
June 7.4% / 29.4%
The plate discipline for both young players is showing a significant deteriorating trend in June. And, yes, I know a partial month of June is a small sample---but so was the March/April batting approach that made us so optimistic. Martinez's early season walk rate probably was unsustainable, but his recent spike in strike outs is not something I would have expected based on his minor league K rate. I fear that Altuve's .303 batting average is concealing the return of his low walk batting approach, as well as an uncharacteristic K rate. (I don't want to make it sound like other hitters on the team don't have similar problems this month, but I am focusing on our two young offensive hopes here.)
Fangraphs has a regular article called "arbitrary endpoint leaderboards" which they use to undermine a cognitive bias called the "the primacy effect." In essence, we tend to give greater weight to the early season performance than may be warranted. And I think we have a narrative about the improvement in batting approach by Martinez and Altuve that may be biased by the primacy effect.
Why has their plate discipline declined this month? There could be many reasons. Perhaps it's just normal randomness, like a slump. Maybe June's losses and offensive failures by the team have put pressure on Martinez and Altuve to come through with hits, leading them to become overanxious and less selective at the plate.
Whatever it is, I will feel better when Altuve's and Martinez's walk rate and strike out rate begin moving in the opposite direction. More walks, please.
2. Roger Clemens' Personal Services Contract
After Roger Clemens was found not guilty of perjury in his jury trial, Astros' owner Jim Crane reached out to Clemens to welcome him back to the Astros' organization. Prior to his legal troubles, Clemens had a 10 year personal services contract with the Astros. Clemens said he is looking forward to rejoining the Astros' organization.
Jeff Luhnow said that he would work with Clemens to determine a role:
"There's no question every Minor League affiliate would love to have Roger Clemens come and visit and talk to the pitchers, and the pitchers in the big leagues would love to talk to him," Luhnow said. "We just have to see how much time he has available to dedicate to this and what area he'll be best served. We'll work it out, I'm sure."
Brad Mills also indicated he is enthusiastic about having Clemens help out.
Luhnow's former organization, the Cardinals, utilize Hall of Famer Bob Gibson as a voice with their pitchers. So the notion of using pitching legends to assist with the pitcher development process is not foreign to Luhnow.
Clemens is a controversial figure,and I'm sure that "witchhunters" in the press will criticize the Astros for giving Clemens a role. One of the leading provocateur's of the PEDs debate, Jeff Pearlman, has already launched a salvo against Luhnow because of his intent to use Clemens in player development. (You might remember Pearlman's rather nasty speculation about Bagwell and PED usage.) Pearlman condescendingly says that Luhnow has "good intentions and a big heart...and no remote clue."
Personally, I think it's a great idea to use Clemens' talents in grooming and developing pitchers. This doesn't have anything to do with PEDs. No matter what you believe about Clemens and the PEDs issue, there is no denying that he has an immense amount of knowledge about pitching. He knows mechanics. He knows how to sequence pitches. He knows how to work his way through a batting order. If Clemens watches video of a young Astros' pitcher's game, and offers a critique of his performance, I'm sure that Clemens' observations will carry special weight with the young pitcher.
3. Pitching Depth and the Trading Season
The Wandy Rodriguez trade rumors reappeared this week. Most likely this is just symptomatic of the trading season approaching. But we read all sorts of stories about teams scouting Wandy and asking about Wandy.
Brett Oberholtzer was moved up to AAA, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the Wandy trade rumors. Probably not. But the trading season does that to your thought process. A lefty starter is on the trade block and a young lefty prospect gets moved closer to the big leagues.
With Wieland and Norris on the DL and Paul Clemens and Aneury Rodriguez struggling to get good results in Oklahoma City, the Astros depth could be better for replacing the best pitcher in the rotation. This make me wonder if the Astros may feel compelled to seek a major league ready starting pitcher either as part of a Rodriguez trade return or as part of another trade before the trade deadline.
Finding major league ready young pitchers of the Weiland variety isn't easy, because they probably have already been called up if the team has holes in its rotation. Wieland at age 25 with good stuff, was an ideal "buy low" acquisition in the Melancon deal. Acquiring younger and higher rated prospects out of AAA is even tougher.
Acquiring a 26 - 27 year old AAA starting pitcher, similar to the Henry Sosa trade or Harrell waiver claim last year, is sometimes easier. Sure, you won't get top of the rotation talent, but such acquisitions can provide useful starting pitcher depth for several years. Some examples of this type of starting pitcher includes the following guys who are pitching very well in AAA: John Doyle, 26 (White Sox), John Ely, 26 (Dodgers), Wade Leblanc, 27, (Marlins), Rob Scahill, 25 (Rockies)--forget the ERA, look at his peripherals, he pitches in Colorado Springs. Perhaps a pitcher of this profile can be close to a throw-in on a bigger trade or perhaps part of a lessor trade involving the Astros' outfield depth.