Once Jose Altuve suffered a broken right thumb, it was clear that David Hensley and Mauricio Dubón would see an increase in playing time, at least in the short term to start the season. The question was whether Dusty Baker would opt for offense at second base with Hensley or defense with Dubón. Thus far, the playing time has been about even, with both reserves appearing in nine games each at the position. Considering how much Baker values Dubón’s defense, this development isn't necessarily a surprise, especially when ground ball-heavy starters like Framber Valdez are on the mound.
Rather, the surprising aspect is how Hensley and Dubón’s performance has shaken out to start the season. To be clear, the small sample caveat is still in play here, but the fact that Dubón has outhit Hensley to start the season qualifies as a mild surprise. For me, anyway. I forecasted some positive regression from the Honduran native when accounting for his career-low .221 BABIP, but his 139 wRC+ in his first 38 plate appearances has been a decent surprise. While I don’t expect him to keep up that pace all season long, especially considering his power limitations, Dubón’s improved plate discipline, which started last season, has continued to improve at a noticeable clip.
Even when Altuve returns, Dubón is playing himself into the conversation for meaningful playing time as the roster nears full strength. In a lineup that values quality plate discipline, there is possibly a more significant role here for the age-29 utility player.
For the third consecutive season, the Astros have compiled a 6-7 record in their first 13 games. Honestly, that record by itself isn’t worth too much concern as we’re only about 8% through the 2023 season. By their Pythag record (8-5), the club is trending in the right direction, even if the record isn’t particularly noteworthy at this moment. While the 2020 season was peculiar, the club would eventually rebound to win a combined 201 games from 2021 through 2022 for a reason.
But not every year is the same. The absences of Altuve and Michael Brantley to start the season have impacted the lineup to some degree. While this group of hitters is averaging about 5.08 runs per game, there are stretches when the offense is bogged down, especially when the current big three — Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Alex Bregman — are not producing. The pitching staff hasn’t been great, but also not terrible. After all, only five teams have allowed fewer runs per game than the Astros (4.08 runs). Regression was expected compared to last year’s championship squad, though. Regardless, I wouldn’t sweat the early season struggles too much right now this early in the season. I’d expect the pitching staff to turn it around a bit in the coming weeks with a lineup that should only improve once they’re relatively healthy. But if this treading water pattern continues into May and early June, then a different conversation is warranted.
With Justin Verlander now with the Mets, I was curious to see how the Astros' pitch distribution would change this season. After all, this team was ranked in the top three of four-seam usage in 2022, averaging about 41.3%. Verlander himself threw his four-seam fastball about 50.1% of the time. Last year’s staff leaned heavily on the four-seam fastball and it showed in the results, as led by Verlander, who had the best run value on his four-seam fastball at -24 runs out of all qualified pitchers.
This season, that pitch distribution looks a bit different. For example, four-seam usage has dropped to roughly the middle of the pack at about 32.7%. In turn, there has been an increase across a few pitch categories, mainly in sliders (+3.8%), sinkers (+2.7%), changeups (+1.6%), and curveballs (+1.1%). There is also a decrease in cutters and splitters but limited to only -0.7%. While it remains too early to make any firm determinations, I do think it is fair to say that the Astros are less dependent on the four-seam fastball than they have been in recent years.