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The Astros Hitting is Below Average. Don’t Blame Injuries; Blame 1st base and Catcher

Kudos to the replacements. Time to replace the catcher

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros have just finished the first month of baseball. As has been their wont on other occasions during this championship era, their bats are off to a slow start. Currently, the Astros rank 19th in MLB in wRC+, with a below-average rating of 98. They are 22nd in home runs with 27 but, miraculously, are more middling in runs scored, ranked 13th with 135.

But lest you forget, the Astros were even worse at the end of April last year, with an 89 wRC+, only slightly better in 2021 with a 101 wRC+. And even in 2017, when the Astros rivaled the 1927 Yankees in team-hitting statistics, they only started at 107.

“Well, just wait until Altuve and Brantley return from injury,” shouts the chorus. The same chorus prayed that someone from the depths of somewhere would get hot and make losing these two preeminent sluggers less painful. Those someone’s arrived.

We all know about Mauricio Dubon, who has ensconced himself at second base in place of Altuve. Sure, he hasn’t launched anything out of the park, but he’s probably hitting for a higher average and similar OBP than if Altuve were here. His slash line:

.317/.340/.406 with a 109 wRC+ and plus fielding. Not Altuve career averages, and we could use a few Altuve bombs, but it’s not exactly like he’s the biggest hole in the lineup. With a runner on second base and the score tied, there’s no one I’d rather see at the plate right now than Mauricio Dubon.

Then there’s the Brantley replacement. It’s hard to finger exactly who that is. It’s been some combination of Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, and Corey Julks. None of these three have exactly been black holes in the lineup, either. Let’s look.

Corey Julks...........................295/.302/.423, 98 wRC+ in 80 PAs.

Chas McCormick................. .275/.383/.500, 150 wRC+ in 48 PAs.

Jake Meyers......................... .268/.333/.394 with a 107 wRC+ in 78 PAs.

But since McCormick went on IL, it’s much better with Jake. .308/.368/.481 with a 140 wRC+ in 57 PAs.

Neither the third outfield spot nor second base are killing the Astros. So what is?

I don’t have to tell devoted readers of this website the answer. It’s first base and catcher.

Catcher Martin Maldonado is slashing .162/.250/.235 with a 40 wRC+. Out of 31 catchers with 70+ PAs, Maldonado is rated last in wRC+ and last in fWAR at -0.3. His DEF rating is barely above water at 0.1. This WAR rating means that currently, Maldonado is worse than a replacement player. I think Yainier Diaz and Corey Lee are probably better than replacement players. Maybe Cesar Salazar could do better.

Jose Abreu, MVP as recently as 2020, is almost as bad at a premium offensive position:

.235/.266/.269, with a 47 wRC+, the worst in the major leagues for first basemen who qualify. He is actually worse than Maldonado in fWAR: -0.6. The “slugger” has a .034 ISO. At least Maldonado has two home runs. Abreu has none after more than a month. And to my recollection, he’s not even been close.

It hurts to compare Abreu to the departed Yuli Gurriel, a favorite of Astros fans and all who love baseball. He’s slashing: .306/358/.449 in 53 PAs in Miami. “Oh, we should have kept Gurriel. Time to give up on Abreu,” they say.

But really, the fact that Gurriel has so far had a great rebound from last year’s weak performance (people forget he started fast last year, too) is exactly why we shouldn’t give up on Abreu. Abreu can come back too.

Sure, he’s definitely in a slump. The worst of his career, no doubt. I don’t think it’s all because of his age. He should figure out his swing, and then we can expect positive regression. Don’t sell low. (Like we did with Lance Berkman to the Yankees, remember?).

But Maldonado? This is it. This is who he is—time to cut the sunk cost and move on. Let the future develop. They can’t do any worse, even in the present.