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Two intriguing developments for the Astros as they head into May

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Putting stock in April data is ill-advised, but what else is there to do right now?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The first month of the 2021 season is nearly over. As it stands, the Astros are just a game over .500. Considering the team’s lofty preseason expectations, it’s a start that’s not ideal and might tempt fans to book a trip to Overreaction City, a popular destination for fan bases every spring.

This is a needless notion.

However unattractive a 12-11 record is for an expected contender, things are going reasonably well for the Astros beneath the surface. Their run differential is the third-best in the league, and comprehensive data indicates they’re playing at a relatively high level on both sides of the ball.

The lineup’s propellant

On the heels of the offensive outburst in the 2020 postseason, Astros hitters have continued their return to form through the first four weeks of the 2021 regular season.

Despite middling home run production, the lineup’s overall output has been quite potent, as evidenced by how they rank in runs scored (4th), wOBA (6th), and xwOBA (5th). The secret to the Astros’ success at the plate has been making contact. Specifically, making the right kind of contact.

Sweet spot percentage (SwSp%) is a popular hitting metric and for good reason. Balls that are hit between 8 and 32 degrees — the “sweet spot” — typically have a batting average around .600.

The Astros rank seventh in SwSp%. Due to their hitters’ elite contact skills, they rank second in terms of quantity.

In a perfect world for the club, a spike in home run production would occur. It would seamlessly complement the damage that’s being done within the ballpark. For the time being, however, it doesn’t appear to be necessary.

The viability of the lineup’s current output profile, while fruitful thus far, is not without its long-term questions. Should the status quo remain the same, monitoring its sustainability would be a fascinating and worthy venture.

Unconventionally effective

The Astros pitching staff is off to an inauspicious start, to say the least. Injuries aside, the group as a whole is not missing a lot of bats, ranking 15th in whiff rate. Getting opposing hitters to swing at bad pitches has also not been a clear strength, ranking 16th in chase rate. Fittingly, the team’s ERA is 15th.

In spite of this apparent mediocrity, Astros pitching has excelled in multiple key facets.

For starters, no other pitching staff has a better hard-hit rate or average exit velocity. This is a necessity for most teams’ staffs, but it’s especially important for the Astros’, which has the fourth-highest fly ball percentage in the league.

As a result of this mixture, numerous lazy fly balls are hit. These fall under the Statcast metric Under% (no pun intended). In 2019, the batting average for this batted ball outcome was .074. The Astros’ staff currently ranks second in Under%.

Although their Weighted On-Base Average On Contact (wOBACON) is unremarkable, Astros pitching ranks seventh in Expected Weighted On-Base Average On Contact (xwOBACON). Missing bats is the name of the game, but regularly inducing easy outs is the next best thing.

Without an improved strikeout rate, which is currently bottom-10, it’s paramount that the Astros continue to minimize hard contact and generate a good amount of routine plays for the defense.

TL;DR version

A lot of contact is being made when the Astros play, whether it’s by their hitters or by the opposing team’s. Their lineup is making quality contact at the plate while their pitching staff is inducing the inverse on the mound.

Each unit’s success is not without sustainability concerns. The question is how significant are they.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant