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Silver linings in the Astros 2020 season

The future is brighter than we might have thought

Texas Rangers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

What a year!

No, I’m not talking about impeachment, pandemic, lockdowns, police atrocities, “mostly peaceful protests,” election craziness.

I’m talking about the Astros in the midst of all this. The awful Brandon Taubman incident. The de-moralizing cheating scandal and the firing of the top brass of the Stros. The postponed and shortened COVID season. The early injuries to key players: Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, ROY Yordan Alvarez, closer Roberto Osuna and many others.

This was supposed to be the last year of the Astros’ championship window. In fact, the window wasn’t even as open this year as last, with the loss of key pieces like Gerrit Cole and Will Harris. But without Verlander, Osuna and Alvarez, the Astros in a short season just didn’t have enough bullets to contend. The 29-31 regular season record looked about like what the Astros really were this year.

And what they will be.

But 29-31 was good enough to make the expanded playoff format and the Astros surprised the world yet again. They beat powerhouses Minnesota and Oakland to make their fourth straight ALCS, and took the AL’s best team, the Rays, seven games before losing Game 7 in a close contest.

Nonetheless, clouds hang over the future. Verlander and his $30 million+ contract is lost for 2021. Zack Greinke overall was average at best in 2020 and appears to be in decline at age 37. Lance McCullers back from Tommy John was inconsistent and unreliable. And, of course, the entire outfield is likely to be lost to free agency. Yes, even the cover boy of the 2014 and 2017 Sports illustrated issues, the beating heart of the Championship Astros, playoff and World Series legend, George Springer.

Even with Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve under contract, some might be tempted to think it’s time for another Astros tank job, ala 2011. Especially with Altuve’s abysmal season.

But with all the negatives the Astros bring into the 2021 season, there are many unexpected silver linings to the 2020 season that give us hope for the 2021 season. Here are a few.

  1. The Astros made their fourth straight ALCS and came one game from their third World Series in four years. WITHOUT Verlander, Osuna, or Alvarez.
  2. The Astros progressed further into the playoffs than the Yankees again for the fifth time in six seasons.
  3. News of the death of Jose Altuve’s career was highly exaggerated. After hacking his way through a horrible regular season, the real Jose Altuve emerged in the playoffs, hitting over 1.200 OPS during the 13 games of the playoffs.
  4. Framber Valdez emerged from being the fringiest, replacement level pitcher, to a true TOR ace. His ERA of 3.57 understates his success. His xFIP was 2.94 and SIERA 3.23. He overcame his command problems, getting his BB/9 down from about 5/9 down to 2/9. (13th best in MLB, 50+ innings) While striking out more than 9.5+ batters per 9 innings, his ground ball percentage was the highest in MLB for pitchers over 50 innings at 60%. For a full season, 210 innings, his fWAR would have been 6.0. Verlander had 6.4 fWAR in 223 innings in 2019.
  5. Even more surprising, the emergence of a bevy of rookie pitchers whom no one expected to be major contributors in 2020, or maybe ever, in some cases.

Rookie pitchers, 2020

Player Regular season record playoff record
Player Regular season record playoff record
Cristian Javier 5-2, 3.48 ERA in 54.1 IP, 1.3 bWAR 2-0, 2.89 ERA in 9.1 IP
Andre Scrubb 1-0, 1.90 ERA in 23.2 IP, 1.0 bWAR 0-0, 2.25 ERA in 4 IP
Jose Urquidy 3-2, 2.73 ERA in 29.2 IP, 0.8 bWAR 0-1, 4.02 ERA in 15.2 IP.
Blake Taylor 2-1, 2.18 ERA in 20.2 IP, 0.7 bWAR 1-0, 2.45 ERA in 5.2 IP
Enoli Paredes 3-3, 3.05 ERA in 20.2 IP, 0.5 bWAR 0-0, 5.14 ERA in 7.0 IP
Brooks Raley 0-1, 3.94 ERA in 16.0 IP, 0.3 bWAR 0-1, 3.18 ERA in 5.2 IP
Luis Garcia 0-1, 2.92 ERA in 12.1 IP, 0.3 bWAR 0-0, 0.00 ERA in 2.0 IP

Overall, this group had a 2.94 ERA in 177.1 IP. In the ALCS, in a bullpen role, their ERA was 3.72, better than the vaunted Rays bullpen staff. These mostly bottom of the basement, emergency, replacement level players, themselves contributed four wins above replacement in one third of a season. The Astros were only two games ahead of the Seattle Mariners for the last spot in the playoffs.

Do I need to say it? Without these no names, the Astros would not have made the playoffs. What a low cost, young core for the future, all of whom should only improve. And there are others where these came from, a supposedly depleted farm system.

Brent Strom’s continued miracle-working, a career of transforming castaways into stars, good pitchers into great ones, should qualify him for the Hall of fame.

6. Kyle Tucker. He answered the questions this year. He is a legit big leaguer, perhaps a fringe All-Star. His combined numbers for 2019-20 are: 300 PA, .268 BA/.323 OBP/ .518 SLG, 124 wRC+. Even more encouraging, he showed growth, learning how to hit more to left field, forcing opposing managers to soften the shifts employed against him. And he’s an Astro rarity; a good baserunner.

7. Aledmys Diaz. Diaz was injured much of 2020 and underutilized once he was available. In the playoffs Dusty Baker kept playing conventional lefty/righty splits, using Diaz only against lefties. Reddick did his normal playoff thing, hitting OPS .431, while Diaz hit .918. But here’s the real kicker. Diaz hits righties better than lefties historically, .821 OPS career against righties, .692 against lefties. Considering the declining athleticism of Reddick this year, not to mention his terrible batting, with some Spring Training work in the outfield, Aledmys Diaz could be a possible low cost upgrade to Josh Reddick in the outfield next year.

Remember Marwin Gonzalez? Diaz was a 2016 All-Star. Free Aledmys!

So, assuming no Verlander, no Osuna, no Springer, and no Brantley next year, the Astros still have more replacements in the pipeline for 2021 than we would have projected this time last year. To remain competitive, the Astros will need to make a few astute free agent acquisitions, at least one for the outfield, and no, they won’t win 100 games. But with a healthy Yordan and the continued success of the surprise youth movement of 2020, (and hopefully a recovery of Yuli Gurriel) the Stros should compete yet again for the AL West Division title and another playoff run.