Checking in on the Astros Grand Plan

Ezra Shaw

If we assume that Houston has a plan to build this roster and we assume we know what it is, let's test how that plan has worked in the first two weeks.

At this point, Houston has played 15 games. That's 9.2 percent of the total games this season. That's a tiny, tiny sampling of what this team will do this season.

Yet, it's a start. We've had two weeks of games, five series and a number of scenarios to see how this team is playing.

We also have an idea of what Houston is trying to get out of this roster. We've talked about it in the preseason and we've theorized on what these player moves have meant. Does Houston have a philosophy for building this team?

We assume it's all about power, walks, ground balls and defense. Check that. Let's be honest. This is really all about my assumptions about this team. In an effort to make sure I'm not entirely off-base, let's hold those assumptions up for a bit of testing. Let's look at this small sample and see if Houston has improved on the areas where we expect improvement.

Let's see if they're doing what we think they're doing after all.

Walk rate

It's the earliest premise in Moneyball. The reason Billy Beane was successful is that walking is an undervalued skill. It was cheap to get high OBP guys on the market back then, but not so much any more. Thanks Billy Beane.

Still, it seems the Astros are trying to improve their walk rate as a team. They added guys like Carlos Pena and Chris Carter in the offseason and then drafted guys like Nolan Fontana highly. So, it's easy to assume Houston values improving it's walk rate.

Have they been successful?

In 2012, the Astros walked at a 7.7 percent clip as a team. This season, that rate is down to 6.7 percent. Three Astros have walk rates over 10 percent so far (Pena, Marwin Gonzalez and Brandon Barnes), while Carter just missed out at 9.5 percent. Last season, Houston had five players with walk rates of at least 10 percent or more, but only one of them is still on the team (Jason Castro).

Walk rates even out at around 200 plate appearances, so there is still some volatility there. But, so far, it does not appear this part of Houston's plan is working out.

Home run rate

The other thing Houston seemed to add this offseason is more power. They brought in Pena, Carter and Rick Ankiel in an effort to boost a team's home run production. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow had already done that in 2012 by bringing in the likes of Justin Maxwell and Chris Snyder.

Still, Chris Carter gives Houston its first legitimate power threat since Carlos Lee decomposed. The projection systems before the season pegged Houston at around 170 home runs. Have they been able to keep up that pace? Will they hit more than the 146 homers from 2012?

So far, Houston has hit 15 homers in 15 games. I'm no math genius, but I can figure out that projects out to 162 homers in 162 games based on past performance. We also have updated ZiPS and Steamer projections at FanGraphs.

Looking at those for the 13 hitters on the big league roster right now, Houston is projected to hit 160 home runs, with Chris Carter leading the way with 30 homers and eight different Astros topping 10 homers. Last season, Houston had just three players with at least 10 home runs.

Home run rates don't stabilize until 300 plate appearances, so Houston has to wait until closer to mid-season before drawing an definitive conclusions by this power bump. Still, there are good signs that Houston accomplished its goal of adding more pop in the offseason.

Strikeout rate

As the tradeoff for adding power, Houston had to add strikeouts. We are all too aware of this, as that was a a huge national story for the first week of the season after Yu Darvish almost perfect gamed the Astros. Did people raise that much of an outcry when Tampa Bay almost got no-hit by Clay Buchholtz? But, I digress...

Strikeouts are part of the deal with this team, as all three of the main power additions (plus JMaxx and more) are significant swing-and-missers. How do they compare to 2012?

Well, last year's Astros struck out at a 22.7 percent rate last season. That's up to 26.4 percent this year. In 2012, eight different Astros with 100 or more plate appearances struck out at least 25 percent of time. In 2013, four Astros hold that distinction (less the PA qualifier).

It's impossible to talk about this one, though, without discussing the Brett Wallace Situation. Wally struck out 65 percent of the time. That's 17 Ks in 26 plate appearances. Eliminate those from Houston's performance so far and that K rate drops to 24.5 percent. It's still an increase, but it's not nearly as dramatic as a four percent bump.

For reference, K rate stabilizes around 150 plate appearances, one of the quickest stats to get a read on.

Ground ball percentage

We've come to the pitching/defense portion of the argument. It's the hardest to prove, because there's not much besides anecdotal evidence that Houston is targeting extreme ground ball pitchers. Reillocity has pretty much convinced me that the ground ball emphasis stayed in St. Louis.

The numbers bear that out, too. Houston had a 47 percent ground ball rate last season and that number is down to 42 percent this year. Ground ball rate doesn't normalize until 150 batters faced, so we're a bit off from reaching that. There's still time to get back to the 2012 numbers.

One part that is working? The emphasis on defense. Though this will take MUCH longer to normalize, the defensive numbers have been good. Last season, Houston had a total of -70 Defensive Runs Saved. This year, they're plus-7. That goes for UZR as well, where Houston was -20.1 for 2012 and 2.2 for 2013 so far.

Conclusion

What did we learn? Not much. It's still too early to tell on many of these rates, but it seems that the power gains could be real and the strikeout rate will be higher than 2012. Other than that, it's still too volatile to tell.

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