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Astros’ Pre-Season Questions

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros
Rainy day from spring training in 2022.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I get it. We’re biding our time until spring training starts. And the sports writers are obliging with their articles discussing “questions” about every team. So, I’ll join in and give you a few Astros questions. As spring begins and the season continues to unfold, I will be watching for the answers.

As defending world champions, the Astros have embarrassingly few questions. But here are a few to keep an eye on. In no particular order...

  1. How will the Astros' infield defense be affected by the elimination of the shift?

It’s no secret that the Astros' defense was a big part of the team’s winning recipe. In my opinion, this permitted the Astros’ pitchers to get results better than their Fielding Independent Pitching stats would indicate. According to the Fielding Bible’s team stats (DRS), the Astros were tied (with St. Louis) for fourth-best DRS—67 defensive runs saved. But 52% of the Astros' DRS was produced by shift defense. The Astros and Dodgers had the most productive shift defenses in baseball. Among the top five defensive teams, the Astros shift generated the largest proportion of defensive runs saved. The Astros were one of the most aggressive—and successful—shifting teams.

In 2022, excluding the shift plays, the Astros’ defensive runs saved dropped from 67 to 32. But this is largely due to the superior outfield defense. For the same year, the infield position defensive runs saved would have declined to -8 without the shift. While it would appear that the Astros’ defensive rank would take a substantial hit due to eliminating the shift, conclusions drawn from 2022 may not translate to 2023. We don’t know if the Astros' defensive strategy within the confines of the new rule will produce defensive runs saved that offset, at least partially, some of the defensive loss from 2022.

We also don’t know if the Astros will employ more shift-type strategies in the outfield. Last year, the Astros were the second-best team at outfield positioning, with 11 defensive runs saved associated with “shifting” outfielders. (The Toronto Blue Jays were the best in outfield positioning with 23 defensive runs saved.)

Jeremy Pena should adapt well to the new rule, given that he had 14 defensive runs saved without the shift. The most important defender to watch will be Jose Altuve. In 2022, Altuve was -9 runs saved without the shift. Now that Altuve can concentrate on traditional positioning, will he also adapt well?

The Astros can also improve infield defense by getting better fielding from the pitching staff. The Astros’ pitchers are not good fielders, according to DRS, with an aggregate -6 defensive runs saved. The only pitcher in 2022 with a positive DRS was Jake Odorizzi, and he is now with the Rangers. Maybe we will see a renewed emphasis on pitcher fielding drills in spring training.

MLB: World Series-Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros
Jose Altuve throws to first for a double play in Game 6 of the World Series.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

2. Who will have the most appearances as utility infielder?

With Aledmys Diaz signing with the A’s, David Hensley and Mauricio Dubon look to be the frontrunners for the two utility infield spots. Dusty Baker uses rest days liberally, which appears to be successful in keeping players focused and in good condition. But that practice also places greater emphasis on frequently using the utility infielders. Diaz was given almost 400 PA in 2022, and Dubon received 265 PA. Hensley would be playing his first full season in the big leagues, assuming he makes the opening-day roster. The Astros signed Ryan Bannon, another utility infielder, but his offense has been very weak in the past. One would imagine he will likely end up in reserve in Sugarland. J.J. Matijevic is an attractive option, given that the shift rule will enhance the value of LH bats. But he is more limited in terms of backing up infield positions. However, if he has a hot bat in spring training, he could put pressure on the Astros to make room for him.

The following are ZIPS Depth Chart projections for Hensley and Dubon. In addition, I have included the ZIPS plus/minus defense projection for each players, which originates here.

BA / OBP / SLG / wRC+ / Defense

Hensley .244 / .321 / .371 / 100 / -11

Dubon .262 / .308 / .385 / 97 / +4

If you believe ZIPS, Hensley and Dubon project to be fairly close on offense, with an advantage for Hensley due to his OBP projection. However, ZIPS projects a gap in defensive skills between Dubon and Hensley. ZIPS is not keen on Hensley’s defense. But Dubon is projected to be much better on defense (which is supported by the defensive metrics so far in his career). If the defensive projections are close to correct, I suspect Dubon would get more playing time as a utility player. However, Hensley may fit the Aledmys Diaz role since they are both better offensive rather than defensive replacements. And he could get more time if the Astros value the offense more. Watching both Hensley and Dubon in spring training and the early part of the season will make for an interesting comparison.

3. Who will be the backup catcher?

Martin Maldonado clearly is slated to start most of the Astros games. At this point, it appears that the Astros are prepared to rely on a rookie as the backup catcher—either Yainer Diaz or Korey Lee.

The Astros were rumored to be looking at veteran backup catchers earlier in the off-season, and I still think there is the possibility that they will sign or trade for one—although the odds seem to be declining. Robinson Chirinos and Gary Sanchez are the possibilities still available on the free-agent market.

It’s also possible that the Astros will consider Lee and Diaz carefully during spring training but could turn to a trade or waiver claim for a catcher if they believe neither is ready to be the backup. In any event, the Lee and Diaz competition will be one of the attractions during spring training. The ZIPS Depth Chart offensive projections and defense rating (from the sources referenced above) for both catchers is shown below.

BA / OBP / SLG / wRC+ / Defense

Lee .220 /.276 / .385 / 87 / -3

Diaz .266 / .302 / .432 / 108 / -4

The ZIPS projections paint Lee as the better defensive catcher but Diaz as a much better offensive catcher. Indeed, Diaz’s wRC+ would make him a special catcher if he could carry that into the season. ZIPS suggests that the gap in defensive skill is much smaller than the gap in offensive potential. It’s not surprising that both are rated as negatives on defense since they are rookies. It’s hard to know how much confidence to put in the defense projections since the experience level is mostly at the minor league level. I think the Astros’ coaching staff will closely scrutinize both catchers’ defenses during spring training. And unless there is little difference between them defensively, I suspect that catcher defense will be a major deciding factor.

4. Will Jake Meyers grab a role on the team?

This seems like an important spring training for Jake Meyers. Meyers was the presumptive CF starter in the 2021 playoffs but suffered a shoulder injury. In 2022, he returned from the injury about mid-season. He was used as the backup CF but performed poorly for most of the regular season. It’s possible that he was rushed back from injury too quickly. Meyers returned to Sugarland for about a month and showed much better results. He returned to the Astros late in the 2022 season. At this point, Meyers’ offensive capability is uncertain. However, presumably, he continues to show good defensive skill and should be considered a front runner for back up outfielder.

However, it’s possible that rookie Justin Dirden might push him for a spot on the team. Dirden had a fine season in AAA, and he profiles as a decent offensive option. If Meyers falters and Dirden has a hot offensive showing in the spring, maybe Meyers ends up in AAA. The ZIPS Depth Chart offensive projections and defense rating (from the sources referenced above) for both outfielders is shown below.

BA / OBP / SLG / wRC+ / Defense

Meyers .239 / .304 / .385 / 98 / +5

Dirden .229 / .304 /.415 / 106 / -7

The ZIPS projection likes Dirden’s offense over Meyers. But ZIPS also projects much worse defense from Dirden compared to Meyers. This would suggest that Dirden probably cannot back up CF. Of course, it’s possible that Dubon could be used as the main backup for CF if Dirden replaced Meyers on the roster. But this roster spot is probably Meyers’ to lose. However, if Meyers doesn’t perform well during the season, and Dirden returns to AAA and continues his offensive exploits, it’s possible that Dirden could be called up after a few months.

Alright. Enough speculation. Bring on spring training.