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Thoughts After Losing The ALCS.....

Season ending thoughts and observations

MLB: ALCS-Texas Rangers at Houston Astros
Jose Altuve scores during the first inning of Game 7, ALCS.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The party’s over this year. But don’t turn out the lights—the Astros will be back next year. We are at the end of the line for the Astros’ season. I think the season has been a success by most measures, but it still didn’t end up where we want it.

Let me start out by congratulating the Texas Rangers for playing better ball in the post-season than the Astros .The Rangers came off the mat after Game 5 to win the AL Championship. I may not like the Rangers, but they deserve respect for building a team from the ground up that can go from a 90-plus loss season to league champion in a single season. That’s impressive.

And it’s not just the Rangers’ players. Their coaching staff and front office played an important role in winning the ALCS. The ALCS was driven by game-to-game adjustments. The Astros made some good adjustments, particularly as the series moved to Globe Life Field. But, overall, I felt like the Rangers were better at winning the battle of adjustments. I think that showed up in Games 6 & 7 of the ALCS. The Rangers’ batters, in particular, seemed to make good adjustments to pitching matchups. Sometimes they adjusted by hitting to the off-field. At other times they adjusted by executing a plan to hunt for the pitches that will result in damage. So, as painful as it might be, give their organization credit for preparing well and executing what they prepared for.

But not all “adjustments” work, because hitters like Yordan Alvarez can foil the best laid plans. Fangraphs has a nice article on the “ungameplan-able” Yordan Alvarez.

I said the Astros’ season has been a success by most measures. After battling through injuries and regression this year, I felt during the regular season that reaching the ALCS would be a successful outcome. Just reaching the MLB final four would be commendable. And looking at it from that perspective, the Astros should be proud that they fought this series all the way to Game 7. But at that point, with the series still within the Astros’ grasp, we wanted to win Game 7. But it was not to be.

I agree with Todd Kalas’ reaction.

The rumor is that Dusty Baker will retire from the manager position. He has done a good job for the Astros. We can hope that a change in the managerial position will rejuvenate and inspire the Astros. (If nothing else, it will encourage the Astros to resist complacency, which is a risk faced by “dynastic” teams.) But that would depend on whom the Astros select for the position. My only suggestion: hire someone who will keep the Astros among the best analytics-based teams in baseball. Last off-season, we heard some inklings that ownership thought the Astros had gone too far with analytics. The articles suggesting that may or may not be true. But, in any event, it would be a mistake to hire a manager who resists the influence of analytics. I’m sure the other teams competing in the AL West would love for the Astros to make the mistake of eschewing analytics.

The Home / Road Conundrum

The Astros 1 -5 record at Minute Maid Park in the post season probably will lead to more media discussion of the Astros’ bizarre “reverse” home / road splits. I wrote an article about the home / road splits on Sept. 5. Go ahead and read the article to understand some background on the subject. Without any good explanations for the Astros’ reverse split, the article concluded that the home/road win differential likely is just random variation—just a strange coincidence. As I noted in that article, normal home field advantage is mostly reflected in a tendency for home teams to out score the visiting team in the first and second inning, allowing them to take an early lead with greater frequency. And that certainly seems like something the Astros were not dong at home this year.

I will briefly update my Sept. 5 article. On Sept. 5, the Astros were 1 game over .500 at home (35-34, .507 Win %) and 8 games over .500 on the road (42-27 .609 Win %). In the regular season since Sept. 5, the Astros went 4 - 8 at Minute Maid Park (.33 Win %), ending the regular season with a .481 Win% at home. At the same time, the Astros went 9 - 3 on the road after Sept. 5, which gave the Astros a .630 Win % for the season on the road.

In short, the Astros’ reverse home/road split got much worse (i.e., more “reversed”) in the remainder of September. At the time of the Sept. 5 article, the oddity was that the home record was worse than the road record, but at least the home record was above .500. However, the Astros only won 33% of their home games after Sept. 5, giving the Astros a losing home record.

The curious part of this trend is that both the offense and pitching were worse at home than on the road. This is one reason I have been skeptical of the “batter’s eye” explanation of the H/R split. If the batter’s eye somehow distracts the batters from their main task of identifying and hitting the ball, the offense should be worse at home, but the pitching results should, if any effect exists, be better at home. Instead the Astros’ pitching is equally to blame for the poor home record.

Based on Baseball-Reference’s tOPS+, the offense’s OPS on the road is 10% better than at home, and the pitchers’ OPS-against is 15% worse at home.

The Road / Home split for the Astros’ pitchers is largely based on a difference in BABIP (batting average on balls in play). The pitchers’ BABIP is .308 at home and .278 on the road. This lends some credence to the notion that the home / road pitching split is driven by luck (random variation). One would expect the BABIP difference to regress in the future.

This also raises a question about the difference in the Astros’ defense on the road and at home. During this home field September swoon, it feels like the Astros fielding performance was worse than usual. Examining the game logs for September, the Astros allowed 8 unearned runs in approximately 15 home games, which seems like an elevated rate. And it wasn’t caused by one player. The Astros had varied culprits for the errors: Pena, Dubon, Altuve, Tucker, and McCormick.

I’m not aware of any advanced defensive metrics which are broken down between home and road. However, we can use the inverse of the BABIP splits to calculate the Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER). The DER is supposed to show the team’s efficiency at converting batted balls into outs, and is sometimes used as a rough measure of defense.

The DER for Astros’ home and road performance is compared to league average DER, shown below.

Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER)

Home .692

Road .727

MLB Avg. .703

The Astros’ DER is pretty bad at home and well above average on the road. DER is inferior to advanced defensive metrics (like OAA and DRS) because it does not take into account the difficulty of converting particular batted balls into outs. So, it is measuring both good or bad luck, as well as the defense’s efficiency. In theory, defense is a potential source of home field advantage, since the home team is more familiar with the nooks and crannies of the ballpark. However, for whatever reason, that doesn’t appear to be he case for the Astros.

Without any definitive causes identified for the home/road split, I think it’s likely that a major component of the home field disadvantage is simply random variation. Some very odd aberrations can occur randomly from time to time.

A question that stands out to me is why did the home/road reverse split become so much worse in September? At the beginning of September, the fans, media, and game announcers frequently mentioned that the Astros did not play as well at home as on the road. Did that create some type of subconscious pressure on the Astros when they played at home? Subsequently, they lost two thirds of their remaining home games in September. One can speculate that piling up the additional home losses only increased the pressure on the players. Several notable sweeps by the road team—the Yankees and Royals, for instance—only served to increase the media and fan attention to the Astros’ problems playing on their home field. Did the home field doubts became a mental block that snowballed as the losses accumulated in September? It’s all pure speculation, of course. But it could be a believable explanation.

My advice for the Astros’ players during the off-season is to forget the home field split. The home field split becomes an issue only if the players believe it is. All of the media attention to the issue may be counter-productive. If the home/road split is mostly random variation, regression will likely move next season’s home field win record in the direction of a normal home advantage.