On the Astros: Power, strikeouts and perfect games part of the plan?

Bob Levey

Yu Darvish highlighted a couple truths about the 2013 Astros. What other teams hit for power and also make very, very little contact?

Two games does not a season make, but the Astros have run the gamut in the first two games of the season. After using timely pitching, big hits and good baserunning to win on Opening Night, the Astros ran into a buzzsaw named Yu Darvish on Tuesday.

Heading into the season, we knew one thing about the Astros offense. We knew they'd hit home runs, at least thanks to the projection systems.

Add two more truths to that list. The Darvish game showed that Houston will strike out a ton and not make a lot of contact. Expect the Astros to be no-hit at least once this season. Expect them to give opposing starters multiple 10-plus strikeout games.

Guys like Carlos Pena and Chris Carter are the first two big additions to this offense by Jeff Luhnow's front office. They join Justin Maxwell, another Luhnow addition, in the low-average, high-strikeout, high-powered club. It's part of that plan to add power to the lineup with flawed players who are readily available. Consider the lack of contact the opportunity cost to add much-needed power.

Much smarter people than me have debated whether strikeouts are rising in the past few years or whether strikeouts are all that bad. What we are going to look at briefly is how bad that lack of contact coupled with a high strikeout rate might be for a team. Did some of the worst teams in MLB history share those traits with Houston or have Luhnow and Co. hit on a plan for secret success.

Over at FanGraphs, I created a custom filter on teams from 1950 through 2012, looking for team that had a cumulative batting average of .240 or lower with a strikeout rate of 20 percent or higher. Seven teams matched the profile and all of them came from the past two seasons.

Those seven teams?

Season Team
2012 Rays
2012 Athletics
2011 Padres
2012 Mariners
2012 Cubs
2012 Astros
2011 Mariners

It's an interesting list, no? The two names at the top stand out, because they're both very good at playing baseball and they're run by the Baseball Illuminati. Add in the Cubs and Astros and that's a potent group of outside-the-box thinkers showing up on one list.

Here's another fact about this list. Throw out the 2011 M's and Padres and the entire list (all from 2012) hit at least 135 home runs. So, we have a group of smart teams all doing the same thing, at least for one year.

That's a pretty narrow study, though. What if we moved the strikeout bar down to 18 percent? That brings in 10 more teams, including the 2010 Mariners. That means three straight M's teams have finished with batting averages under .240 and with at least 18 percent strikeout rates. No wonder Seattle has lost so much over the past three seasons. No wonder Phillip Humber tossed his perfect game against them, too.

The other teams on the list are all from the pitcher-dominated 1960's, which doesn't tell us a whole lot about whether this is a trend or just an abberation. Are teams being built to not make contact, but hit the ball a ton when they do?

The hidden component here is also on-base percentage. Of those 17 teams in the expanded group, only five had walk rates higher than eight percent. The only two teams from 2012 that fit that bill were the A's and the Rays (or the only two teams with winning records on the list). The '64/'65 Washington Senators also joined that club, along with the Jed Hoyer-helmed 2011 Padres.

The Rays and the A's clocked in closer to a nine percent walk rate while each hitting at least 170 home runs with a sub-.240 batting average. We know the Astros are projected to hit at least 170 home runs and we can surmise from their recent performance against Yu Darvish that a sub-.240 batting average is a distinct possibility.

That just leaves the walk rate. If Houston can get on base at a clip about 1.3 percent better than it did last year? They have a good chance to win more games than most people expect.

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