It’s about a quarter through the 2018 season, and things are looking good on the Houston Astros front. The Astros are on pace to win 100 games, the pitching has been revolutionary, and the team has managed to remain mostly healthy. In short, there has not been much to complain about, except one key factor - the offense.
Not that the offense has been bad - Houston’s offense is still top 10 in terms of R/SG (4.64) and wRC+ (104). Yet, the lineup is by and large the same as last year - the only real difference is no Carlos Beltran - only the results have not been the same.
What’s behind the Astros offensive regression?
One might look at Jake Marisnick’s self-destructive golf-swinging tendencies as an emblematic ‘hacking’ problem infecting the entire team - the lineup has gone too far in with the “all-or-nothing” approach, and as a result are having too many bad at-bats, strikeouts, and not enough rallies. Do the numbers suggest this?
Well, maybe. The Astros offense had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball last season (17.3%), and while that number is up from last season (22.1%), it is still the 19th lowest strikeout rate in the league. While the team’s strikeout rate has not completely mooned, it is worth noting that the ONLY batter on the roster who is actually striking out less this year than last year is Alex Bregman.
Jake Marisnick and Derek Fisher are the only Astros bats with dramatic upticks in strikeouts, as both were striking out in nearly half their at-bats before Marisnick was sent to AAA and Fisher was placed on the 10-day disabled list.
Still, the heightened strikeout rate may be misleading. The Astros take a much more aggressive approach at the plate than many teams, understanding the inflated value of homers, and as a result, they should strikeout more than other teams. The fact that they had the lowest strikeout rate in all of baseball last year is surprising.
The Astros certainly are not timid at the plate, but contrary to some belief, they do not lack plate discipline either, even this year. The Astros still have the fourth lowest swinging-strike rate in the league (9.7%). Houston has also been one of the top five offenses in terms of jumping out to an advantageous count, as the opposition has landed a first pitch strike in just 58.8% of Houston’s at bats.
But, the biggest change for the Astros has not been a more undisciplined approach at the plate - it’s an unexpected drop in power. Last year, the Astros led the league in ISO (.196) and home runs (238). So far this year, the Astros are 19th in ISO (.157) and 14th in homers (52).
The Astros low HR/FB% (11.5%) rate suggests that the Astros bats are getting somewhat unlucky and the homers should pick back up, yet the Astros also aren’t getting the same good contact results as last year - the team is currently 24th in Hard%.
It could be that pitchers are just refusing to give the Astros pitches to work with - the Astros are walking more than last year, and are seeing less fastballs and more breaking stuff thrown at them than in years past.
Other than that, natural player regression was not to be unexpected, as players like Evan Gattis, Marwin Gonzelez, and Josh Reddick are playing well below their levels of production in 2017. While it would be silly to expect all of these players to repeat career years, Gattis and Marwin have been so unexpectedly bad that they are probably playing well below their means, and will likely pick it up going forward. Offensive improvements from Brian McCann and Alex Bregman have also helped offset some of the Astros “regression woes”.
All-in-all, it’s not exactly clear what is behind the Astros offensive decline in 2018, but the data suggests a wide variety of contributing factors. At this point it’s still very early, and I highly doubt the Astros fail to finish the season with a top 5 offense.
Expect the power numbers to naturally trend upwards (though maybe not to last year’s extent, as pitchers are becoming wary of pitching to contact against Houston) and in the short-term, the strikeout woes to improve with a struggling Marisnick and and an injured Fisher out of the lineup.