Astros spring training: Robbie Grossman to bat second, Jose Altuve in cleanup spot

Rob Foldy

Houston is trying some interesting things with their second and fourth lineup spots this season. How unique are those decisions?

Update: Here's the quote from Evan Drellich's article on Wednesday announcing the change. Apologies for omitting it the first time through.

Fowler is still at the top, followed by Grossman, on typical days. Then the Nos. 3-4 hitters will be Castro and Altuve - potentially flip-flopped if a lefthander's on the mound.

On Wednesday, we learned plenty about the Astros lineup construction that we didn't previously know. Like the fact that Bob Grossman will be selling insurance in the No. 2 spot in the lineup this season, with Jose Altuve batting cleanup. We're going to deal with these surprising statements one at a time.

First, Grossman batting second is huge. It gets another batter with tons of on-base potential at the top of the lineup. He and Fowler should be on base all the time, or at least more so than the Fowler/Altuve combo would be. If Grossman can improve over last season, this is a no-brainer. Plus, it gives the Astros another speedy threat at the top of the lineup.

Houston had four players get at least 10 games and 30 plate appearances batting second in the lineup last season. Only one of them posted an on-base percentage above .300 and that was Jose Altuve at .312. Grossman is projected right now to have anywhere between a .321 and a .325 OBP next season. If he beats his projections and gets to a .330 OBP, it'll be the highest for a two-hole hitter since Altuve's .353 in 2012.

If he gets to his minor league career OBP average of .381, it'll be the highest by a Houston second hitter since Miguel Tejada hit .393 in 2009 over 69 games and 303 plate appearances.

It's the inclusion of Altuve in the fourth spot that could be puzzling. Altuve is no one's idea of a masher and that cleanup spot usually goes to the best power hitter on the team. Except, it could also be used just to drive in runs. With Fowler, Grossman and Castro in the first three spots, Houston should have its best three on-base guys at the top of the order. That should leave plenty of men on base for Altuve to smack home with his contact-happy swing.

He also won't be the first Houston cleanup hitter to lack punch. Nine different guys have batted fourth at least 50 times in a season for the Astros despite posting slugging percentages under .400, including Phil Garner's 124 games batting cleanup in 1983. Then, Scrap Iron had a .353 slugging percentage, which is less than Altuve's .363 SLG posted last season.

Of course. slugging percentage isn't the best way to judge power production. If we rate all of Houston's cleanup hitters who appeared at least 50 times in the spot, Altuve would rank dead-last in isolated power average. Ken Caminiti's 0.089 ISO in 68 games in 1991 is the closest we've seen, but Altuve's .080 is still much lower than that.

Those guys, though, were batting in the 'Dome. The lowest cleanup hitter ISO in MMP history in at least 50 games is Carlos Lee's .115 in 2012. If we lower the bar to 10 games in the cleanup spot, Altuve looks a little better. In that case, his ISO is better than J.D. Martinez in 2012 (.076) and Carlos Pena last season (.056).

Let's parse it one more way. If we judge just by OPS+, which factors in for the 'Dome and compares players to the rest of their league, Altuve would rank fairly highly on the list of cleanup hitters in Houston history. We're looking at guys who played at least 10 games there and got at least 30 plate appearances, which means we have a pool of 141 players. Altuve's 89 OPS+ from last year would tie him for 75th on that list. His career 92 OPS+ would rank him tied for 65th.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Altuve will not be the worst cleanup hitter Houston has seen. In fact, he might be the best one they've had in three seasons.

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