Ahead of the All-Star break, the Astros were playing quality baseball. They had accrued a July record of 11-5 and had been gaining ground on the Yankees for the best record in the American League while expanding their division lead in the AL West.
In the five games since the Midsummer Classic festivities, the Astros have been firing on all cylinders.
They swept the Bronx Bombers in a home double-header, and then proceeded to end the Mariners’ 14-game winning streak in fairly spectacular fashion by sweeping them in a three-game series in Seattle.
After Monday night’s vexing loss in Oakland to the lowly A’s, the Astros are two games behind the Yankees for the AL’s No. 1 seed, while the M’s face a sizable 12-game deficit in the division standings entering Tuesday.
Amid this torrid stretch, here are three developments worth monitoring:
An elite (home) run differential
The importance of the long ball nowadays cannot be overstated.
Producing home runs is the most efficient way for teams to score runs against widespread high-octane pitching. Simply put, it’s really hard to string hits together against modern pitching staffs — they’re loaded with premium velocity and exploding breaking balls.
On the flip side, limiting the amount of dingers on the mound is pivotal when it comes to run prevention.
On the season, the Astros have hit 138 home runs and have allowed 86. At plus-52, they have the third-best home-run differential in baseball behind the Braves (plus-67) and Yankees (plus-72).
Home run differential leaders
In their 22 games in July, the Astros are at plus-12. It’s a key reason why the club is on a hot streak. And given what happened in last year’s playoffs — teams that out-homered their opponents went 25-2 — it’s something that bodes well for the defending AL champions come October.
So this isn’t entirely bad, but it’s bad
When the Astros signed Héctor Neris to a multi-year contract last winter, the reasoning behind it was clear: to add another quality late-inning arm that was capable of both missing bats and barrels.
Through 40 innings in 2022, Neris has been acceptably effective on the surface, but underneath his half-decent 3.60 ERA lies troubling data.
First and foremost: a diminished whiff rate.
The marked reduction in swings-and-misses has resulted in Neris’s lowest strikeout rate since 2015: 25.6 percent. His career figure is 30 percent.
Fortunately for Houston, coinciding with the lower K rate is a 6.9 percent walk rate, which would be the lowest in Neris’s career. This is likely due to a drastic alteration in the 33-year-old veteran’s pitch usage, which features his four-seam fastball significantly more:
Obviously, the Astros like Neris’s heater.
2022 is the first year he’s thrown it more than his devastating splitter, which is one of the best in baseball. Fastballs are the easiest pitch to throw for a strike, so the increased usage here has made an impact on minimizing the free passes.
Though Neris’s four-seamer has fared well purely in terms of results (.186 batting average), its peripherals, namely a .505 xSLG, suggest otherwise.
The downside to throwing more fastballs is that it usually leads to more hard contact, as they’re the easiest pitch type to hit. This has very much been the case for Neris, whose exit velocities are some of the highest in the major leagues.
Before 2022, Neris’s Hard-hit rate had never eclipsed 40 percent in a single season. It’s currently at 50 percent this year.
This isn’t inherently fatal, as all hard contact is not the same, but it’s less than ideal that Neris’s Dynamic Hard-hit rate is the second-highest on the Astros pitching staff.
Astros Dynamic Hard-hit rate
Because essentially every other batted ball has been well struck — in a season where Neris’s ground-ball rate has plummeted — he’s been barreled up more, which has him on the wrong side of the league average for the first time since 2018.
In addition, Neris’s Blast rate is the highest among Astros pitchers.
All of this has somehow not culminated in a home-run surge, though it soon might. Neris’s 3.9 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio looks awfully shaky compared to his career figure of 13.6 percent. Stark regression in that department seems inevitable, especially given his dreadful batted-ball profile.
In essence, it’s bad that Neris is missing fewer bats and allowing substantially more hard contact. It’s a dangerous mixture that seemingly hasn’t caught up with him yet. If he can continue to miraculously keep the ball in the park, perhaps he’ll remain afloat.
Alex Bregman’s bizarre splits
Alex Bregman’s been of the premier lefty mashers of the last several years, carrying a career slash of .299/.388/.534 (150 wRC+) against southpaws.
In 2022, the Astros third baseman is hitting .185 against them, complete with a .294 OBP and virtually no power output, as all but one of his 12 homers have come against righties.
It’s all of 143 plate appearances, but it doesn’t help that Bregman’s .269 wOBA against left-handers is accompanied by a meager .304 xwOBA, indicating there hasn’t been a potent element of bad luck that’s greatly hampered his numbers.
Secondary to Bregman’s anemic production versus lefties are his home and road splits.
Without looking at his career numbers, you’d think he’s been a significantly better producer at home because of the Crawford Boxes. Like me, you’d be wrong. His home and road wRC+ are the exact same.
With that said, things have changed in 2022:
Through 180 appearances at home, Bregman is slashing .283/.383/.500, good for a 156 wRC+.
On the road, he’s faring considerably worse, as evidenced by a .670 OPS. A .215 BABIP away from The Juicebox has not helped, but the difference in output is quite large.
It’s tough to draw any meaningful conclusions from these splits since the sample sizes are relatively small, but in a season that’s seemingly been up and down for Bregman, it makes sense that his splits across the board reflect the sentiment.