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On Slugging and the Astros: The grand experiment

At the season's start, many observers were skeptical about the Astros' strikeout heavy lineup.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

When the season began some sportswriters were dubious of the Astros' trade for Evan Gattis and the signing of Colby Rasmus. The moves were looked at as "grand experiment" with the team's lineup. The lineup, already including strikeout kings Chris Carter and George Springer, was going to hit for power but was also going strikeout in a metric ton of their at-bats. It was going to be another crazy mad-scientist experiment by Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, a dubious attempt at winning by flouting baseball truths that were coded in stone tablets long ago. Well, with two month of the 2015 season under our belts how has the experiment gone?

Not too poorly, actually. Currently the Astros sit at 11th in the league in runs scored, and they lead their division by a healthy margin. The Astros are doing this despite being dead last or next to last in classical offensive categories like AVG, OBP, and K%. Sabermetricians may not care about the team's batting average, but the team's collective .305 OBP would make anyone pause before declaring the Astros an offensive success. If you substitute the team's offensive rank into their slash line the Astros would be 26th/23th/5th offensively. It doesn't really look like a formula for success does it? kinda has been, mainly due to their slugging. 5th in the league with a .417 slugging is good, it wasn't long ago that the Astros had dipped down from being in the top 5 but a hot patch has put them back into that cohort. The Astros lead baseball with 68 home runs, so when the slug the ball, they slug it into the bleachers. This hasn't been their only offensive weapon though. Fangraphs ranks the Astros 4th in the league in base running wins as well. They have a unique offensive combination of power, speed, and not much else.

For all of Jeff Luhnow's mad scientist abilities he may have created a unique type of offense that we haven't seen before. How many teams have finished the season in the bottom five in AVG and OBP (The Astros are only a few points of OBP away from being bottom 5 material, where they've sat most of the season), and top 10 in slugging, while remaining in top half of the league in runs scored? Probably not many.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that's safe to say is that Jeff Luhnow and the front office didn't come to the conclusion to field this lineup based on pure madness. They had facts and data (surprisingly! Okay not really) to back them up. One look at fangraph's Guts! Page shows how the value of different offensive outcomes has shifted league-wide. While offensive value fluctuates year by year for each outcome, a few trends are clear. The first is that the value of walks has been in decline for over a decade. A walk that was worth .723 in 1999 is now worth .688 in 2015. T

he value of singles has also been slowly bleeding for awhile, from .910 in 1989 to .886 today. Doubles and triples have roughly kept their value, while home runs have risen to their highest value since 1992. Guess what also has gained, or rather, lost value? Getting caught stealing a base. In 2000 fangraphs ranked getting caught stealing as being worth -.460 of a run. Now? The penalty plummeted to -.387 in 2015, so it could really be that fortune favors the bold on the base paths.

Given this kind of data on offensive values is it so surprising that the Astros created a lineup to take advantage of these trends? This is just what's available on fangraphs, let alone the myriad statistical models that a front office like the Astros have. With the data they have at their disposal, the direction they wanted to head in must have been even more clear to them, even if that direction takes some sabermetric truths about OBP to the extreme.

We often conflate OBP with walks, and though the Astros are a bad OBP team, it's not because they aren't drawing walks. The Astros are still walking at an 8.8% clip, good for 4th in the league overall. This means that their poor OBP is mainly due to the team's low batting average.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

So maybe the Astros do have a third offensive weapon in their arsenal, but going by their team OBP you'd be forgiven for not noticing it. Keith Law once said that "OBP is life", but according to the Astros that's not relative to the league, only to how many home runs you're hitting. In a low-scoring offensive environment maybe team-wide OBP isn't a big deal if you can hit enough home runs to make up for it.

Don't kid yourself either, the biggest difference between last year's offense which ranked 22nd in runs scored and this year's offense which ranks 11th is absolutely more home runs. The Astros are on pace to hit around 204 home runs this year, about 41 more than last year's team which hit 163. That's a minimum of 41 runs added to their run differential over the year, which is significant. While the team may settle into being more of a middle of the road offense team compared to the league, doubling down on the Chris Carter-like strategy of slug it or f*** it from last year is paying off dividends.

The Astros may be playing offensive trends to the extreme with some success, but that doesn't mean they'd rather not do it a different way, given the chance. With offense at a premium it's not like there are teams out there wanting to give away their most consistent hitters. If the Astros could easily trade for a Mike Trout or a Miguel Cabrera they would do it. Jeff Luhnow would love to field a team with a .350 OBP but clubs aren't trading away their best hitters, they're the most valuable commodity out there.

What's left is to get creative with the data available, and construct the best lineup you can while waiting for your top prospects. The addition of Gattis and Rasmus to the Astros' lineup was never a mad scientist experiment, it was a rational decision to add the best players available. There was nothing crazy about it, in fact, it was downright practical.

That doesn't mean that the signings have gone perfectly of course. Rasmus has been one of the team's more consistent hitters and Gattis has been heating up but hasn't quite yet found his level. Looking at the league standings, and the Astros' run differential though, who thought that two months into the season that the team would be 11th in the league in runs scored and looking for starting pitching instead of offense? The season is only one-third of the way over, but so far the "experiment" with the Astros' lineup looks like a success.