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Friday's Three Astros Things

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Good morning. The village idiot filling in for the legit reporter here and doing his signature column. Apologies in advance. Talking about stupefying payrolls, the battle for the strike out record, and CARLOS FREAKIN' CORREA.

1) MLB's payrolls just keep inflating

We're all glad that Jim Crane has been true to his words about raising payroll for two straight seasons, but despite that, the Astros still rank in the very bottom tier for 2015 (only Miami is spending less, in fact). Part of that is, doubtless, due to the rebuild still being in it's final stages; we could well see a much more significant increase next year should Houston decide it's time to spend big to fill in a final hole or two.

But part of it is that the figurative Joneses are getting harder and harder to keep up with. One of ESPN's bastions of sanity, Jayson Stark, has a piece today looking at the skyrocketing payrolls across MLB.

You know how many franchises started this season with payrolls of $100 million or more, according to the annual estimates by The Associated Press?

How about 22. Yep, you read that right: 22.

As recently as a decade ago, in 2005, that number was three. As recently as three years ago, in 2012, that number was still only nine.

Stark makes a number of great points and observations, but what does it all mean for Houston? Hanging on near the bottom rung, it's natural to want to see an increase, and a big one, soon. But is it wise? Is it even necessary?

Among the eight teams for 2015 who are under $100 million, only Cleveland and Pittsburgh entered the season with any level of playoff-potential fanfare from the national media. The Diamondbacks appear to be rebuilding, and Atlanta and Oakland both had significant tear-downs in the off-season (though you could argue that Oakland had more of a puzzling-but-ultimately-effective shuffle than a fire sale, as Billy Beane is wont to do).

But low-payroll teams competing and high-payroll teams floundering is nothing new (the Phillies' and their ninth-highest payroll don't figure to get much done this season); teams in true small markets with legitimate payroll restrictions can make the playoffs, though making deep runs appears to be harder. Each of the last four World Series champions has fielded a team worth nine figures, and the few during the last decade who didn't missed the mark by small amounts (and, as Stark noted, those were literally quite different times in terms of what the average payroll was). The Marlins were the last franchise to field a team making less than $60 million that won it all, and that was way back in 2003.

That leaves a question; where do the Astros need to be, payroll-wise, to consider themselves legitimate championship contenders? As assembled now, and with the talent in the upper levels of the farm system, consistent playoff spot competition seems highly likely, but many teams seem to get stuck at that threshold they can't cross. The last 11 World Series have been won by just six different teams.

Spending wildly doesn't seem to work anymore; the Yankees have just one World Series appearance during that stretch. But spending does seem to have something to do with it. Crane has mentioned the Cardinals as a model organization in the past; St. Louis' 11th-highest payroll is currently about 41% higher than Houston's. When, how and if the Astros reach that level may determine just how smart or silly that Sports Illustrated headline looks 30 months from now.

2) Pittsburgh is (probably not really) looking to nab our record

Hey look, it's another article about strike outs and offensive struggles! Are we having fun yet?

Fortunately this one is from Fangraphs, so rather than hear the talking heads tell us all just how terrible strike outs are because of #reasons, we get some actual analysis. As it stands, Pittsburgh has a slim lead in the team strike out rate race over Houston.

It's a bit odd, considering that, as the graph shows, they struck out less than MLB average in four of six months last year, and the two they were above were never by more than a percent or so. A lot of it, as Craig Edwards duly notes, could be due to small sample size. But there are other potential issues that he points out.

Taking fewer pitches and swinging more appears to be part of the Pirates’ problems thus far. The increased strikeout rates have also come with a lower than expected walk rate. Last season, the Pirates walk rate was 8.4% which ranked sixth in MLB. So far this season their 4.8% walk rate is higher than only the Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies.

He concludes that the Pirates are likely to improve, which is a fair assumption even without taking a super-close look at the situation, but he does seem to draw a clear line between overall plate discipline and success on the field. This seems obvious, as well, but but if you're talking simply about putting runs on the board, things don't appear to be so simple.

The Astros have the 10th-most walks drawn of any team in the Majors, yet they've scored the second-fewest runs. Meanwhile the Pirates have drawn the second-fewest walks in the Majors (and less than half the number the Astros have), yet they've scored 21% more runs than Houston. The Orioles are leading the Majors in homers and are sixth in runs scored, but they're in the bottom half in terms of walks and are actually tied with the Pirates for the fourth-most strike outs. The Royals are the top scoring team in baseball right now, but they've walked less than 21 other teams.

What does it all mean? It means we don't know what it all means. There still doesn't seem to be a clear relation between striking out a lot and not scoring enough. It's a little more clear that walking is important, but even that doesn't nearly hold true all of the time. If striking out directly correlated to not scoring, the Orioles should be one of the six worst offensive teams in baseball right now, not one of the six best. Much like the Astros, they strike out, but they also walk and hit homers.

Just remember that the next time the Astros are whiffing 15+ times a game (and there will be those days, help us) and you feel the urge to stab something rising inside.

3) Carlos Correa is apparently better than A-Rod already. Or something

So some "scout" talked to Jon Heyman recently and, well, just look;

One scout predicts Astros shortstop prospect Carlos Correa will hit 500 homers, in the majors, maybe 600. "He's going to be what A-Rod should have been," the scout said

500 bombs, guys. There you go. Book it.

Okay, look, I love Carlos Correa. You love Carlos Correa, assuming you're not some kind of communist serial puppy killer. If there's one guy who might one day challenge the almost-creepily-perfect J.J. Watt as the face of Houston sports worship, it's this dynamite kid from Puerto Rico. But to say he will hit 500 homers? Yowza.

There have been a lot of incredible hitters who didn't hit 500 homers. If I were as excellent as Coleman is I'd probably bother to look this up, but I feel pretty confident in lazily just saying that most of them probably hit more than 20 homers during their first 1,050 minor league plate appearances, if they had that many.

Which isn't to say Correa won't be a home run hitter, or even a Hall of Fame player. No one doubts that potential. But potential and actualization, when it comes to baseball prospects, are separated by a figurative killing field the likes of which hasn't been seen since the trenches of The Great War. Loads of prospects through the years have held 500 homer potential in their bats; currently, exactly 26 of them have reached that potential, and that's in over a century (and with God knows how many of them pumped up on God knows how much of God knows which chemicals).

But the A-Rod comp is an odd one. Set aside the fact that A-Rod averaged 20+ steals for a 14-year stretch from 1996 through 2009  (while scouts almost universally agree that Correa's run tool is his worst). Set aside the fact that A-Rod was an elite defensive shortstop during his prime (meanwhile scouts still question Correa's long-term defensive profile). Set aside the fact that, at the time, A-Rod was considered perhaps the greatest prep prospect in the history of the sport. Set all that aside.

Even without those glaring issues, what does this guy actually mean about Correa being what A-Rod was supposed to be? Because A-Rod, for all his issues, has 656 homers in the Majors. He's the current active career leader in games, plate appearances, runs, hits, home runs, RBI, walks, total bases and sacrifice flies. He has 14 All-Star selections, ten Silver Sluggers, three MVP awards, two Gold Gloves, one World Series ring, and a partridge in a pear tree. If this scout is saying he'll be something A-Rod was not performance-wise, he's essentially saying Correa, a kid with less than 40 PA in AA, is definitely the next Ted Williams, and that's coo coo for Coco Puffs, no matter how much you want to love a prospect. Even Morgan Ensberg would tell you to pump the brakes. Probably.

It stands to reason, then, that he must be speaking about some of those fabled Correa intangibles. But most old reports talk about A-Rod being dedicated and playing hard and loving the game and so on, too. He was confident, but he should have been given what he could do, and most of the great ones are confident. I remember Greg Maddux talking about how he was "the house, and the house always wins," to paraphrase.

A-Rod got caught up in PED scandals, and most might say he turned into kind of a...well, insert your own words there. But are we sure Correa won't? We think he won't, but who knows how 10+ years of fame and fortune might change him, if he does in fact explode as we hope?

So it's a confusing statement to make, especially when made as a statement of fact. In reality, the odds are enormously, stupendously stacked against Correa becoming what A-Rod was during the bulk of his career. If he ends up 70% as good as A-Rod was he'll likely be a Hall of Famer anyway. Correa is an amazing prospect, but we at TCB just wanted to remind you to listen to cooler heads, like ours, who aren't wont to throwing around insane hyperbole or Photoshopping the heads of our prospects onto the bodies of fictional super heroes and then giving them nicknames partially derived from the nicknames of future Hall of Fame shortstops or anything crazy like that. Stick with TCB; your Interwebz home for sane, level-headed Astros #analysis.