Fans of the Houston Astros are being treated so far in 2015. They've become accustomed to watching nail-biters fall in the Astros' favor for the first time seemingly in forever, and they've also gotten used to seeing the Astros offense periodically obliterate opposing teams' pitchers. In fact, that seems more common than the close wins sometimes.
As of July 10, the Astros lead the majors in isolated power, and are in eighth in walk rate and third in runs scored, but 25th in batting average, first by a wide margin in strikeout rate, and despite that team walk rate, twenty-first in on base percentage. The feast-or-famine mold of the major league team is becoming General Manager Jeff Luhnow's trademark in many peoples' eyes - sacrificing strikeouts for power.
One look at the Astros' Triple-A affiliate, however, might give one pause before leaping to that conclusion.
The Fresno Grizzlies play in one of the hitter-friendliest leagues in baseball, the Pacific Coast League. Extreme hitting environments like Reno, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, and Las Vegas crowd the offensive leaderboards. But the Grizzlies' home, Chukchanski Park, actually plays fairly neutral. Minor League Central gives hitters a very slight advantage in hitting home runs, but hits, runs, and doubles all play evenly or even a little in the pitchers' favor.
It's no surprise, then, that the offensive leaderboards in the PCL are filled with players from Reno (team batting average .295) and Las Vegas (team slugging percentage .453). What is surprising, however, is that the Grizzlies are currently tied for the lead league in runs scored. Even more surprising for fans of the major league team might be the way in which that offense has scored all those runs: With balanced hitting.
Fresno's offense - which has the youngest aggregate age in the entire league, per Baseball Reference - boasts better-than-league-average line drive rates (5th), isolated power (4th), walk rates (2nd), strikeout rates (7th), K-BB rates (2nd), and batting average (9th). (stats courtesy of Minor League Central).
They are one of only two teams (along with the Las Vegas 51, New York Mets affiliate) to rank above average in all six categories.
The Memphis Redbirds, affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (Luhnow's former employer), have long been considered an excellent developmental team. In fact, it should be no surprise that they outpace the Grizzlies in walk rate and K-BB%. That disciplined approach has become their hallmark. But Fresno hitters have managed to match them almost walk-for-walk this season while adding something that those Cardinals hitters haven't been quite as successful at: Hitting for power. The Grizzlies' .154 team ISO dwarfs the Redbirds' .116, and their line drive rate is nearly five percentage points higer.
69.86% of the Grizzlies' plate appearances this season have been taken by players brought to Houston by Luhnow, either via draft, trade, waiver, or free agency. Only five players on the team - Matt Duffy, Chan Moon, Jon Singleton, Jonathan Villar, and Domingo Santana - were inherited by the current front office.
The plate numbers may not be surprising to anyone who's followed Luhnow's path with the Houston minor leagues - in July 2013, our own Irish Pete surveyed strikeout-to-walk ratios across the Houston Astros minors, and in August of that same year, I took a look at the stats of college hitters acquired by each organization - but the 2015 Grizzlies may be the best example of the Astros' nascent blend of power and patience - a likely result of the "selective aggression" approach they've been targeting and instilling in their developmental players.