The Astros out-performed most pre-season expectations this year.
Sure, most prognosticators had them winning the AL West, although Sports Illustrated gave the crown to the Angels. But to most prognosticators, 90 wins seemed near the ceiling for the Springer-less, Verlander-less 2021 Astros.
Even our home-team-oriented staff here at TCB under-rated the Stros. On March 31st, our Starting Nine (eleven) staff predicted anywhere from 88 to 95 wins, the average coming out to 92.
(Kudos to Exile in St. Louis for predicting the actual number of wins, 95, sticking his neck out with the highest number predicted by anyone else)
In the Starting Nine article, these were the main concerns the caused our staff to predict a number about 10 wins lower than the average from the previous three full seasons.
- Uncertainty about both the quality and depth of the pitching staff that in 2020 relied too much on rookies who were possibly very lucky.
- Outfield depth in the absence of George Springer
- The health of Yordan Alvarez’s knees plus doubt that after his 2019 rookie performance his 2021 season might fall victim to the sophomore jinx.
- Lingering doubts about Kyle Tucker as a bonafide major-league hitter
- Fear that subpar 2020 seasons by 30+-year-old stars Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel indicated that both players were on the inexorable downsides of their careers.
So how did the Astros fare in each of these areas of concern? Let’s look at each issue above separately.
Pitching quality and depth
The Astros staff, particularly the starting rotation, overcame all doubts and produced a best-case scenario and then some. The staff 3.77 ERA was third in the AL, and the starters’ 3.60 was second. That, despite not having a consensus ace.
And yet there were four starters with over 100 innings pitched who ranked in the top 17 of AL starters in terms of ERA.
- Framber Valdez.........3.14 ERA..............6th
- Lance McCullers........3.16 ERA..............8th
- Luis Garcia.................3.38 ERA.............13th
- Jose Urquidy...............3.56 ERA............17th
(all stats before Sunday’s games)
Even Zack Greinke made the top 30 at 4.11
Although Astros pitchers generally out-performed peripherals, a fact possibly explained by outstanding Astros defense, it is still arguable that Valdez and McCullers put in ace-like performances in 2021, both exceeding the likes of Gerrit Cole, for example, in ERA.
At least, you’d have to agree that the Astros have a staff of top-end number two starters, and they seldom had to resort to replacement-level bottom-feeders to just eat innings. At various times in the season, they got good starting performances from Cristian Javier and former All-Star Jake Odorizzi. So both the depth and quality were there for the Astros, at least in the starting rotation.
The biggest X-factor was Luis Garcia, who no one predicted to have the kind of season that would put him in the rookie-of-the-year discussion. According to Fangraphs, he contributed 3.1 wins above replacement to the Astros this year.
Lance McCullers, in his first full season back from Tommy John, had a breakout season, much closer to the McCullers we all envisioned when he was drafted first round in 2012. He now has four plus pitches, a BA against of only .204, a K% at 27%, and a ground ball percentage at 56.4%. He’s hard to hit, and he can both strike you out or get you to ground into a double play.
After 2020 we expected goodness from Framber Valdez, and thank goodness he didn’t lose too much time due to the early finger injury. But Garcia and McCullers were definite plusses for the Astros this year and exceeded expectations.
Outfield depth in the absence of George Springer
Nobody could have expected an internal replacement within the Astros system to replace George Springer. The hope was that someone could come close and not just produce replacement level numbers. And with Myles Straw, whose fWAR was negative in 2020, that seemed like a real possibility.
From 2016 through 2019, all four seasons in which Springer played nearly injury-free and during physical-peak years, Springer averaged approximately 4.4 fWAR. So how did the centerfield position perform for the Astros this year?
- Myles Straw............2.0 fWAR
- Chas McCormick....1.4 fWAR
- Jake Meyers.............0.8 fWAR
- Jose Siri.....................0.5 fWAR
Together that equals 4.7 fWAR. Of course, that accounts for 162 games, and Springer didn’t average anywhere close to 162 games in the four seasons used as a reference.
Still, these players together compensated for the loss of Springer more than anyone could have predicted. As an Astro Straw was a nearly average MLB hitter with a wRC+ of 90. After his trade, Straw was replaced by Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers, who had 105 and 104 wRC+’s respectively, although high BABIPs call into question the long-term sustainability of those numbers. But at least in 2021, these players, and later Jose Siri, were wonderful surprises and cushioned the loss of Springer beyond what anyone before the season could have imagined.
Would Yordan Alvarez’s rookie year turn out to be a fluke?
Alvarez did not replicate his rookie year, but nonetheless, he remained a scary force in the middle of the Astros lineup. His wRC+ declined from 177 to 138. Still, 138 is 38% better than league average, and no one sneezes at 33 home runs and 104 RBI. What’s most important is Alvarez’s knees appear to be fine. He ran fast when needed.
The regression appears to be a moderate case of the sophomore jinx, where the league has figured out how to pitch to Yordan. (Plus, his .366 2019 BABIP was unsustainable) Now it is up to him to compensate, which, at age 24 seems more likely to happen than not.
So Yordan was not a best-case scenario, but he wasn’t a worse case either, and he even played a decent left-field. His 3.7 fWAR was a lot better than the 0.1 he contributed in 2020 while injured for all but two games.
Kyle Tucker’s development
Not even his most avid partisans would have predicted how far Tucker has advanced as a hitter and as a player. He doesn’t have the charisma of the 2017 World Series Astros Core Four, (Springer, Correa, Altuve, Bregman) but he has become as good a player as any of them.
He was the only Astro this year to finish with an OPS over .900. He finished with a .293 BA, 30 homers, and 92 RBI. After a slow (and unlucky) April. Tucker was probably the best hitter in the AL the rest of the season. Because of some time missed due to “health protocols,” the 24-year-old Tucker only played 139 games but still accrued 4.7 fWAR. And he stole 14 bases too!
Here’s a quick thumbnail on Tucker’s development. When he first came up he was criticized for grounding into the shift too much. In 2018 his groundball rate was 49% and his pull rate was 43.1%. This year his groundball rate was 34.1% and his pull rate was 35.6%. He’s beating the shift, and the opposing teams are forced to use less extreme shifts than they used to get away with. With a slugging pct of .552, his strikeout rate was only 15.8%.
Tucker finished the season fifth in the AL in wRC+, within five points of positions 2-4, Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, and Matt Olson. Of course, Vlad Guerrero was tops all by himself at 165.
Kyle Tucker has become elite.
Tucker and Alvarez. Both 24 years old. Could they become the most fearsome left-handed combo since Ruth/Gehrig?
Had Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel passed over the hill?
In 2020 Jose Altuve’s wRC+ was 76. His fWAR was 0.1. He was a replacement-level player.
Yuli Gurriel’s wRC+ was 78, and his fWAR was -0.1. He was worse than a replacement-level player.
Had old-age caught up with Altuve, then 30, and Gurriel, then 36?
No and no.
Altuve did not have his best season this year, hitting wRC+129. For some reason, the 5’6” Altuve has decided to become a full-blown power/pull hitter. So his batting average was only .276, (.279 BABIP) but he did get 31 homers and an .835 OPS. Only compared to himself does that look disappointing. Especially for a second baseman who got 5.2 fWAR, the third-highest of his illustrious career.
It may not be vintage Altuve, but 2021 was definitely a bounce-back year for the dean of the Astros.
Yuli Gurriel raised his batting average from .234 to a league-leading .319. Both his BA and a 3.4 fWAR were the highest of his career. At age 37, and after last season, no one saw that coming.
Other factors in the Astros’ better than expected season
- Carlos Correa: He played a full season for once, played superb defense, managed a 134 wRC+, and was fourth in the AL in fWAR at 5.7. He will get a bunch of well-deserved MVP votes.
- Team Defense: Fangraphs rated the Astros team defense third in the AL with a Def rating of 25.9, including a #2 DRS rating and a #3 UZR rating.
- Alex Bregman: This was the worst season in Bregman’s career, hitting only .777 OPS. Plus, he only played 91 games, so his fWAR was only 2.0, the lowest full-season total of his career.
- Rookie pitchers: Crucial rookie contributors in 2020 like Enoli Pardes and Andre Scrubb were non-factors in 2021.
If that seems like an insignificant list of negative factors it is. Without the list of pleasant surprises above, the Astros could have ended up in second place in the AL West...behind the Seattle Mariners.
Count your blessings Astros fans. It’s a fifth straight trip to the playoffs. The 2016 World Series champs, the Cubs, lost almost as many games this year as the Astros won. A run like the Astros are having doesn’t come very often to teams outside New York or LA.