I’m not going to lie, the Astros have had a rough first week of games. After starting things off on the right foot, hitting three home runs off the reigning Cy Young winner in Game 1, things rapidly deteriorated, with the Astros going 1-5 in that time.
The pitching has largely held up their end of the bargain, leading the league in FIP at 2.41. The hitting has basically vanished since that Opening Day outburst, though, as they sit second to last in runs per game at 2.14, and only 10 runs have come in last six games. There’s no way that’s going to hold up, for those of you that might be concerned of that; we are dealing with an incredibly small sample size, after all. But still, I just wanted to look at how bad the Astros’ luck has been on the hitting side of things through seven games.
Let’s start with a question: who would you say has been the weak link in the Astros lineup so far? It’s definitely not George Springer or Carlos Correa, who are the team leaders in wRC+ so far (among qualified hitters) at 183 and 180. Josh Reddick and Jake Marisnick have both been surprisingly good as well (150 and 228). Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are both below what we expect from them, but neither has been exactly bad, either (120 and 97).
In fact, the more you think about it, the more you might realize that no starter has been downright awful. Max Stassi, Tony Kemp, and Aledmys Diaz all have negative wRC+ marks (which is unlikely to hold up in a larger sample size, but it is what it is so far), but they’ve also had fewer plate appearances combined than Springer has by himself. The lowest wRC+ in the everyday starting lineup is Michael Brantley at 96, which isn’t ideal, but is also a pretty strong weakest link.
Indeed, the Astros have a team wRC+ of 108, which is actually good enough to be tied for eleventh in the league! And even within the American League, they’re just shy of the upper third of teams, coming in tied for sixth. So what gives? How does an above-average team score runs at a rate half the league average, and worse than every team in the league outside of Detroit?
The biggest answer is sequencing. With runners in scoring position so far, the league as a whole has hit .255/.357/.417, slightly above the overall average of .233/.313/.391. The league also sees a slight bump in batting average on balls in play, .306 to .283, as fielding become less able to take positioning advantages for each new batter.
In comparison, the Astros’ luck is almost comically bad in this area; they go from hitting .235/.304/.363 overall to an abysmal .095/.220/.238. And if you’re tempted to blame a change in approach for causing that drop, it’s worth pointing out that their K% is actually below the league average in both cases (the Astros go from around 20.0% to 25.5% with runners, while the league overall rises from 23.7% to 26.7%), while their batting average on balls in play actually drops from a (moderately below-average) .275 all the way down to a .103 mark. Who knew that the God of Bloop Singles was a fan of Ron Kulpa?
That performance in key moments is why the lineup overall has cost the team nearly -2.0 in Win Probability Added thus far, but it’s also why you should feel pretty confident that this is just a run of bad luck instead of a sign of the lineup melting down. Even if their BABIP doesn’t improve (and given that their line drive rate is tied for ninth in the league, it still might do that*), there’s no way their BABIP with runners in scoring position continues to be that much lower than their normal one.
*On a related note, I would also like to take this opportunity to also note that Bregman and Yuli both have top-50 LD% among qualified batters, but BABIPs of .222 and .261, respectively.
Even last year, when they posted a worse overall LD%, they still managed a .289 BABIP, and a .311 one with RISP. And even if you want to be an extreme pessimist, the mediocre 1968 Yankees, who have the team record for lowest team BABIP over a full season at .241, managed to bump that up to .256 with runners on second and third, a rate which would still double the Astros hits in those situations this year. Given the strong pitching and number of close losses this year, even a small number of extra hits like that should be enough to swing a few games.
Weird things can happen this early in the season; that’s why they play 162 games. It’s like a pop-up shower that causes a rain delay, where all you can do is shake your head and wait for it to pass. The important thing is that there doesn’t appear to be a larger underlying problem causing these struggles.