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Is it possible that (some of) the Astros just aren't seeing the ball?

There is a distinct possibility that pitch was out of the zone.
There is a distinct possibility that pitch was out of the zone.

There are few things in life more frustrating than a bad offense. Blown saves and bad outings are easier to digest—to me at least. A really bad closer will still convert on a super majority of his saves, and bad pitchers have good outings and good pitchers have bad ones. Pitching follies just do not concern me as much as offensive ones because pitching involves so much more mystery. Maybe I have had to much BABIP brainwashing, but whatever the case may be, the Astros offense has me down. I am down because I expected the Astros' offense to be bad—not appalling.

In times of distress I look for the light at the end of the tunnel, and in baseball, more often than not, that means looking to the numbers. Clack already took a look at the extreme groundball rates the Astros, as a team, are posting and its detriment to the Astros' Runs Scored tally. The only hopeful conclusion that clack drew from the investigation is that regression to the mean is the one thing that we can really hope for, since ground ball rates are fairly consistent for players year-to-year.

On Sunday, after reaching my breaking point—just about—with the offensive ineptitude on display, I started wracking my brain for numbers to comb through to find an answer as to why it is that the Astros' offense is totally dismal. Somehow, I ended up staring at the Astros' OBI% (others batted in) and thinking that I had found the answer. It's a fun thing to look at, but the more I thought about how much lower Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and Hunter Pence's OBI% were compared to their previous three seasons (click hereherehere, and here), the more I realized that all I was looking at was their depressed offensive levels through another lense.

Having to press pause on the madness that somehow fixated me on OBI%, I began thinking about what, if anything, can be derived from the the numbers that might tell us what has changed. The pause saw me think about what my subjective impression of the Astros makes me feel about their PAs thus far. I realized that I disliked most of them, which took me to FanGraphs' plate discipline section.

Initially, I looked solely at Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, but then I started looking to everyone's career numbers vs. their current season. Two distinct observations came to mind: 1) The Astros aren't "seeing the ball" 2) Maybe only some of the Astros aren't "seeing the ball." 

Below is a table of the Astros 2010 plate discipline statistics. Here's a quick run down of what you are looking at: O and Z denote outside (O) and inside (Z) the rule book strike zone; if there is no O or Z than the percentage is general; swinging is a swing and a miss and contact is, well, contact; F-strike is the percentage of first pitch strikes.

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike%
Lance Berkman 19.90% 68.40% 40.30% 50.00% 90.00% 78.60% 42.10% 54.90%
Michael Bourn 20.00% 58.80% 39.00% 63.00% 88.50% 81.80% 49.00% 59.20%
Jeff Keppinger 21.10% 49.00% 35.20% 82.10% 97.90% 93.20% 50.70% 53.90%
Pedro Feliz 31.70% 65.50% 50.60% 72.70% 91.40% 86.30% 56.00% 63.30%
Carlos Lee 32.10% 64.40% 47.50% 62.70% 93.50% 82.60% 47.80% 54.10%
Hunter Pence 34.40% 64.80% 49.90% 75.40% 89.00% 84.40% 50.90% 65.80%

I selected the following hitters because, for all intents and purposes, they are our starters that have career numbers to compare to 2010's sample size:

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike%
Lance Berkman 18.10% 71.70% 43.60% 46.70% 86.30% 77.70% 47.60% 53.40%
Michael Bourn 20.60% 60.30% 40.80% 56.40% 87.10% 79.50% 50.70% 58.70%
Jeff Keppinger 19.70% 58.50% 40.50% 79.00% 96.40% 92.50% 53.70% 57.40%
Pedro Feliz 28.30% 70.30% 50.70% 58.80% 88.50% 80.70% 53.30% 63.90%
Carlos Lee 23.30% 70.10% 47.80% 65.40% 91.30% 85.30% 52.40% 57.80%
Hunter Pence 29.30% 71.90% 50.70% 57.50% 85.00% 77.10% 50.20% 62.50%

And now the differences (career-2010):

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike%
Lance Berkman -1.80% 3.30% 3.30% -3.30% -3.70% -0.90% 5.50% -1.50%
Michael Bourn 0.60% 1.50% 1.80% -6.60% -1.40% -2.30% 1.70% -0.50%
Jeff Keppinger -1.40% 9.50% 5.30% -3.10% -1.50% -0.70% 3.00% 3.50%
Pedro Feliz -3.40% 4.80% 0.10% -13.90% -2.90% -5.60% -2.70% 0.60%
Carlos Lee -8.80% 5.70% 0.30% 2.70% -2.20% 2.70% 4.60% 3.70%
Hunter Pence -5.10% 7.10% 0.80% -17.90% -4.00% -7.30% -0.70% -3.30%

I know. A lot to take in. But I hope it's useful. At the very least you can just pay attention to the third chart, which is what brought me to my two aforementioned observations. Pedro Feliz, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence are exhibiting no plate discipline at all. The magnitude of change in their 2010 numbers seems out of line from just sample biases in areas you would expect if a batter had no clue what they were up there doing besides trying desperately to get a hit. All exhibit big jumps in swings on pitches out of the zone that are offset by fewer swings at pitches that are hittable; and Feliz and Pence have massive increases in outside of the zone contact which indicates they are just trying to put the bat on the ball, rather than seeing if the ball is worth having a bat put on it. Berkman has the same pattern of behavior at the plate, but the magnitudes are small enough that I think we can chalk it up to either sample size or nothing of real meaning.

If we don't chalk it up to something meaningful, than half of the Astros starters exhibit a pattern of not seeing the pitches that they are swinging at, or at least not reacting appropriately to what they are seeing. I don't know what we expect from this. Is it early season slumps that will regress to the mean eventually? Pressing too hard? Or perhaps bad advanced scouting?

The main question I am left with is whether this the straw that is stirring the Astros' dismal offense's drink? I, myself, think that it may be. The offensive contributions of Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence—especially in terms of power—are critical to the Astros' offense even having the faintest glow of not historically terrible. Power, or even average numbers, is not going to flow from excessive swings and contact coming on pitches outside of the zone. If I were an advanced scout, I'd tell my pitchers not to throw either them a pitch in the zone because they're likely to chase it. Thus, if I am Sean Berry, I am telling the two of them to leave their bats on their shoulders.