It seems as though the chickens have come home to roost.
In recent years, we've become accustomed to seeing the Astros launch balls out of the ballpark at a high clip. That is not happening right now. As of today, the Astros are a bottom-10 team in terms of home runs hit. Unfortunately, this should not be surprising.
It's widely known that slugger Yordan Alvarez has been sidelined this season due to bad knees. It is also no secret that the lineup overall has not been nearly as explosive as it has been the past few seasons. George Springer is hitting .206, and despite doubling his launch angle (and suffering from some bad luck), his barrel rate is down by 5%. Carlos Correa's ground ball percentage has increased by more than 12.5% in 2020, and subsequently his barrel rate has dropped from 13% last year all the way down to 4.2%. I don't think I need to explain Jose Altuve's struggles this season.
Is this steep drop in home run output primarily due to injuries and key players slumping? Not necessarily. In 2019, the Astros hit the third most home runs in the league. Nine of the top 10 teams in home runs hit were also in the top 10 in barrel percentage. The only team not in that top 10? The Astros. The Astros hit the third most home runs in the league despite being 20th in the league in barrel percentage.
The simple explanation could be that regression was inevitable, even if the lineup was fully healthy and star players weren't struggling to produce. For argument's sake, however, let's examine the offense through a wider lens:
- In 2019, which team's lineup made the most contact on pitches in the strike zone? The Astros. And in 2020? So far, the Astros.
- In 2019, which team whiffed the least? The Astros. And in 2020? Again, so far, the Astros.
- On an odd note, in 2019, the Astros' swing percentage on meatballs -- aka middle-middle pitches -- was strangely 27th in the league. This year, that rate is up by nearly 3%, which is currently good for 12th in the league.
- The Astros' collective chase rate has dropped by .2% this season.
So, they're still making plenty of contact and are a disciplined lineup that is now swinging more often at hittable pitches. Additionally, the 2020 squad's hard hit rate and launch angle are similar to 2019's.
You're probably wondering why these stats matter if they just confirm that the Astros' home run output was due for regression this season. Well, the confirmation is the problem. Aside from All-Stars like Springer, Altuve, and to a lesser extent, Correa, simply producing better numbers, there is no clear solution to this problem, and it is a significant one, as many contenders are at or near the top of the home run leaderboard.
As it stands now, the Astros have the 9th best record in the league. Only two teams in the current top 10 standings are in the bottom 10 in home runs hit: the Astros and the Indians. The Indians, even after trading Mike Clevinger, might have the best pitching staff in baseball. As good as the pitching has been for the Astros thus far, their staff is likely incapable of carrying them in October should they need to, whereas it's reasonable to expect that the Indians' staff could be relied upon in that regard.
Currently, the Astros are 29th in the league in barrel percentage. Alex Bregman returning in the near future will obviously help, but with how important home run production is nowadays, this problem is the Astros' biggest issue heading into the dance, which begins in less than four weeks.