The Houston Astros are 30-18, hold a two game lead in the AL West over a Cano-less Seattle Mariners—and they have room to improve.
After dealing with some writer’s block for the better part of a week, I just found myself staring at Evan Gattis’ photo. I don’t know how I landed on him per say, but there I was, eye to eye with Brian McCann’s doppleganger. As you probably already know, Gattis hasn’t been great at the dish this year, holding a wRC+ of 77 while clubbing four homers to go with a .209/.276/.365 slash line. Coming from the team’s primary designated hitter, this stat blast leaves one wanting and leaves room to play a hot bat instead.
The Bear in the Room
Since his arrival in Houston, Gattis has tallied wRC+ marks of 103, 120 and 105 with 100 being league average. There is something to be said for having a lineup filled with above average hitters, and even if it’s just barely, Gattis has proven to be an above average presence in the batting order. This year, however, the 31-year-old holds a wRC+ of 77, well below average, and while it’s still relatively early in the year, this is the time that a team like the Astros can start making adjustments to improve upon a sluggish (by their standards) start offensively to the season. Last year Houston compiled a wRC+ of 121, best in the bigs, and their lineup is largely unchanged.
We’ve already seen some minor tinkering with Jake Marisnick being sent down to Fresno, but he was also 88 percent below league average at the plate through 87 plate appearances. Outside of Gerrit Cole’s 100% strikeout rate, Marisnick had (obviously) been the worst hitter on the team at the time of his demotion. Derek Fisher, who was recently placed on the DL with digestive issues, has been 32 percent below league average.
The difference between Gattis and the duo of Marisnick and Fisher is that the latter two offer value in the outfield, while El Oso Blanco has seen just about all of his time come from the DH spot in the lineup, which is the easiest position to make a change.
As the season rolls along, the DH slot could see one of a few different ways of being used. Either Gattis starts clobbering the ball and takes ownership of the spot, or we could see the regular position players get a few more half days off to give them a rest during the dog days of summer. Of course, A.J. Reed or a number of other Grizzlies could start hammering the ball and force their call up, and with most of the spots in the lineup already spoken for, DH could be the easiest one to make some room.
Behind the Dish
I was taking a look at the sprint speed leaderboards, and while Evan Gattis is about a half-foot per second off of league average (and just a tick behind Marwin Gonzalez), Brian McCann is one of the three slowest players in the big leagues. Sure, he’s 34 and his speed isn’t a high detriment to the club while he’s hitting (.248/.347/.396, 104 wRC+), it does add an element of station-to-station base running to a club that can field at least five above to well above league average runners at any given time.
I’m not here asking for the Astros to do away with McCann because he’s slow. He’s a valuable piece of the championship equation and his experience behind the dish is more valuable than his speed (or lack thereof) on the bases.
Instead, I wanted to mention that his contract is going to expire after this season, and while he has a team option for $15 million (he’s making $17M this season, $5.5M being paid by the Yanks...suckers), the option itself won’t vest automatically. For that to happen, he’d have to accumulate 1,000 plate appearances between last year and this year (he’s at 517 and splitting time with Max Stassi), catch 90 games this year (32 games, 29 games started so far) and also not be on the disabled list to end the season (tbd).
If the Astros are looking to make a switch behind the dish, they can easily manipulate his playing time to make sure he doesn’t reach those milestones. If that’s the case, then the duo of Stasi and the Astros #24 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, Garrett Stubbs, will more than likely be handling the pitching staff next season.
While it may be a bit off in the distance, Stassi and Stubbs (Stubsi? We’ll workshop that) could potentially add a new dimension to the offense. We’ve seen what Stassi is capable of at the plate, as he’s slashing .281/.352/.500 with a wRC+ of 135. While he isn’t quite as fast as Gattis, his 26.1 ft/sec sprint speed is well above McCann’s 22.5.
Stubbs, meanwhile, grades out as a 50 runner per Pipeline, but he has two stolen bases and has tallied three triples this season in Triple-A, all while batting .358/.379/.506. His start to the season has been nice, but last year he hit .221 with a .341 OBP with Fresno in 23 games, and had a similar line with Corpus Christi in 75 games. Regression is coming. Stubbs was placed on the disabled list last week, but he’s not really in the running to take time away from McCann or Stassi, and likely wouldn't make it to Houston before September unless one of them was set to miss some time.
Over at Baseball Savant, they now have catcher’s pop times and ratings for each backstop’s arm strength along with a plethora of other data. Of 74 catchers that have been rated, Stassi ranks 71st while McCann comes in at 55th. In terms of arm strength, McCann ranks 61st and Stassi 62nd of 65 total catchers with that data. Stubbs’ arm is rated as a 60 on the 20-80 scale, so he should provide a boon there.
These rankings don’t bode well for either player, let alone the team as a whole as they try to limit the run game, but McCann’s exchange time actually ranks 49th (Stassi at 70th), which has helped him accrue a caught stealing percentage of 33% this season, with the league average being 26%. Granted, that number could be inflated just a bit due to a relatively small sample size of 18 attempts and his legs being fresh to begin the season. Last year McCann caught just 13% of would-be base stealers. With Dee Gordon, Mike Trout, Delino DeShields Jr. and the impending arrival of speedsters Jorge Mateo and Franklin Barreto in Oakland this summer, McCann will surely be tested as the season progresses. Stassi has only been run on five times and has caught one thief, so it’s hard to make a big hubbub one way or the other about his 20% caught stealing percentage just yet.
There is going to be a lot of talk about the potential departures of Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Marwin Gonzalez over the course of the year, and changes will be coming in one form or another no matter how this season shakes out. Forrest Whitley should be a staple in the rotation in 2019 and Kyle Tucker should be roaming around the outfield on a regular basis, too.
What I’m saying is, there will be a lot of bigger storylines that will be covered in the months to come. But opening up the DH spot to allow more rest for the regulars and having a little more speed behind the dish (and potentially to replace Marwin) could add another dimension to an already dangerous club.