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Astros’ Margin for Error Grows Increasingly Thin

MLB: Houston Astros at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Currently trailing the Rangers by five games in the AL West, the Astros have found themselves in an increasingly problematic state. I write that not to necessarily sound an alarm, even if that time is growing close, but to at least put the notion aside that the division is simply there for the taking as it was in past seasons. Credit to Texas, they’ve outplayed Houston and nearly all other teams in the AL through the first week of June. A five-game deficit in the division in early June isn’t insurmountable; however, I don’t expect all of the AL West rivals to collapse upon themselves as has been the narrative in recent seasons.

Entering Friday with a 36-27 record, the Astros are far from a “bad” team. In fact, they’re still quite good, one of the better teams in baseball. Run prevention is a key reason why as this year’s pitching staff has allowed the fewest number of runs per game (3.56), even amid the pile-up of injuries in the rotation. There is the natural question of whether pitchers like Brandon Bielak, J.P. France, and Ronel Blanco will continue to outperform their peripherals, but, for now, the trio has done an admirable job. The ultimate hope is for Jose Urquidy to return at some point this summer and the club enters the stretch run with a top four of Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown, and Urquidy. But hope isn’t a guarantee.

For as good as the Astros are at run prevention, run-scoring has been decidedly pedestrian. While the offense is roughly around league average in terms of runs per game (4.53 R/G, 99 wRC+), this lineup is maddeningly inconsistent at times, especially when Yordan Alvarez isn’t involved. By OPS, the Astros don’t have one position with an OPS higher than .790 in left and right field.

2023 MLB Team Position Performance by OPS

Depending on the severity of Alvarez’s oblique injury, Houston could be without their best hitter for a prolonged period of time. Not a great development for a club already reeling offensively, especially from a power standpoint. A far cry from recent seasons (2021 and 2022), when the Astros had one of the best lineups in terms of power production.

A Declining Offense: 2021-23

2021 0.178 0.304 0.268 0.340 0.446 0.337 115
2022 0.176 0.278 0.248 0.319 0.424 0.324 112
2023 0.152 0.290 0.246 0.315 0.398 0.312 99

To see the decline from the league’s best offense — by wRC+ — in 2021 to sixth in 2022 to an unremarkably average one this season is something that wasn’t expected, at least to this degree. The primary culprit — a noticeable lack of power — has made this lineup increasingly ineffective. Out of the regulars, Alvarez, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, and Mauricio Dubón currently have an ISO (isolated power) right now higher than they had at the end of last season. José Abreu was meant to be an upgrade over Yuli Gurriel at the plate, but we already know how that has not worked out thus far. Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker have also seen their slugging percentage and ISO decline compared to 2022 rates, with Jeremy Peña slightly below where he was in his rookie season.

For the Astros, this lineup has regressed in an area they could ill afford to. While the club’s contact rate (77.7%) is among the top ten in baseball, it takes more than only contact to produce runs. Don’t get me wrong as I prefer contact to not, but when contact without adequate power happens then a lineup’s overall effectiveness is limited. We’re currently seeing that up close with the Astros. It is also telling that the Twins are the only club with an ISO higher than .165 to have a below-average wRC+ (less than 100) and only barely at that (99). Only the Blue Jays and Mets have an ISO of .160 or less to have an above-average offense by the same measure.

Contact Isn’t Everything

Team Contact% (sc) wRC+ SLG ISO
Team Contact% (sc) wRC+ SLG ISO
ARI 80.2% 105 0.433 0.170
WSN 80.2% 96 0.39 0.127
TOR 79.5% 112 0.423 0.160
CLE 79.4% 83 0.359 0.121
BOS 78.6% 106 0.425 0.165
NYM 78.3% 102 0.397 0.156
TEX 77.8% 123 0.458 0.181
HOU 77.7% 99 0.398 0.152
STL 77.4% 106 0.422 0.173
MIA 77.3% 99 0.401 0.140
CHC 76.8% 99 0.396 0.151
BAL 76.7% 104 0.415 0.167
NYY 76.6% 101 0.422 0.188
SDP 76.6% 96 0.384 0.159
CIN 76.4% 93 0.394 0.138
PIT 76.2% 99 0.404 0.157
LAD 75.9% 115 0.46 0.217
DET 75.9% 80 0.341 0.120
LAA 75.6% 110 0.428 0.171
CHW 75.0% 87 0.386 0.149
TBR 74.9% 131 0.474 0.211
ATL 74.8% 115 0.471 0.206
MIL 74.8% 88 0.38 0.149
COL 74.7% 82 0.403 0.144
PHI 74.3% 98 0.415 0.160
SFG 74.2% 105 0.419 0.170
KCR 74.0% 83 0.38 0.150
SEA 73.9% 96 0.375 0.148
OAK 73.8% 92 0.359 0.135
MIN 73.0% 99 0.395 0.167

The Astros, unfortunately, fall within the category where the lack of power will only continue to limit this lineup. Without Alvarez for any amount of time, who is largely responsible for dragging this lineup to roughly league-average, there is a real concern about how this team will generate runs. The margin for error was already starting to thin and it is now non-existent if one of the best hitters in baseball is unavailable.