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Three Astros Topics

As the New Year begins, the Astros’ “news” is sparse...so bring on the potpourri column

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
Astros hitter Yordan Alvarez signing autographs at Minute Maid Park.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

pot·pour·ri (noun) a mixture of things, especially a musical or literary medley. plural noun: pot-pourris

It’s no secret that Astros’ news has been quiet as we enter the new year. The Astros’ hot stove has been so quiet that CBS Sports gives the team a “close to failing grade” (actually the article gave the Astros a “D” grade). So, maybe my best writing strategy is the potpourri article.

Let’s talk about a few nuggets of interesting information.

IMPRESSIVE COMPARABLES

The ZIPS projection system rattles off a list of comparable players for each 2024 Astros player. As I understand it, the comparable players are used in the development of aging curves for the player projections. For many players, the list of comparables consists of names we haven’t heard of, or at least don’t remember.

But, for some players, the lists of comparable players is nothing short of impressive, consisting of Halll of Famers or future Hall of Famers. The Astros have a few that are particularly impressive.

Yordan Alvarez: Frank Thomas, Freddy Freeman, Eddie Murray.

This is probably one of the most impressive comparables list that ZIPS projections will produce. Thomas and Murray are “no doubt” Hall of Famers. Freddy Freeman is still playing the game, but most people view him as a future Hall of Famer. These guys were perennial MVP candidates. I don’t know if we fans appreciate what we are seeing. We are now watching a hitter in the prime of his career who (barring injury) may one day be regarded as one of the greatest in baseball history.

Kyle Tucker: Mookie Betts, Amos Otis, Barry Bonds.

This comparables listing is a notch below the Alvarez list. Mookie Betts is a league MVP, and potentially could become a future HOFer. Amos Otis might fit in the “Hall of Very Good.” Otis was a three time Gold Glove recipient and a five time All Star. He accumulated 43 WAR which falls just short of the the average Center Fielder in the HOF. And, then, there is...Barry Bonds, the major league home run champion, and the batter no one wanted to pitch to. He isn’t a HOFer, but we all know his major league production isn’t the reason.

Yainer Diaz: Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez; Javy Lopez; Matt Nokes.

This is a notably impressive comparables list, considering that Diaz is coming off a rookie season with only 353 at bats. It surprises me, given that Diaz doesn’t always receive attention around the league. Rodriguez is one of the best catchers in the Hall of Fame: 14 times All Star, 13 times Gold Glover, and a league MVP. Lopez had a 15 year career as a slugging catcher, who retired with a 112 OPS+. Matt Nokes is not as famous as Rodriguez or Lopez. But he was a quality catcher and above average hitter for 10 years who received a silver slugger at the position. Let’s hope that ZIPS knows something about Diaz’s future.

STARTING PITCHERS’ “CLUTCH-NESS”

Did you know that Astros’ starting pitchers were ranked No. 1 in Clutch performance in 2023? Clutch is a win probability metric that measures increase or decrease in performance during high leverage situations. The Astros’ rotation was No. 1 in this metric and the margin over the No. 2 Orioles’ rotation wasn’t really close. It’s unclear what this means for future performance. The extent that clutch-ness is repeatable embodies a debatable topic. Clearly pitchers can exhibit some control over high leverage situations by increasing velocity or changing pitch selection. But random variation also plays a role, and we normally view extremely low BABIP or extremely high LOB% as signs of pitching luck. In 2023, Framber Valdez was No. 3 in starting pitcher clutch performance. Cristian Javier (No. 16) and Justin Verlander (No. 20) also ranked well above average on the clutch scale.

Looking more closely at Valdez, this is not a BABIP effect—Valdez experiences both higher BABIP and batting average during high leverage situations. Valdez’s improved performance during clutch situations is caused by two clutch effects: higher GIDP rate and lower HR rate. His GIDP rate is twice as high as the comparable rate during medium and low leverage situations. Valdez also experiences more than twice the rate of HRs during low and medium leverage situations, compared to high leverage situations.

Clutch starting pitching is a good thing. But we should be wary of relying on the same clutch performance in the future. Some part of this effect—like the distribution or sequencing of HRs—may be largely random and could be subject to regression.

CHANGING APPROACHES TO CONSTRUCTING A ROTATION

Dan Symborski’s X comment, below, makes an interesting observation.

He goes on to note that in the early years of ZIPS projections, “good teams had more inning certainty relative to the league than good teams now do.” This comment is particularly timely after the Braves’ acquistion of Chris Sale. Sale is a quality pitcher, when he isn’t injured, but he has averaged about 50 innings per year over the last three years. The strategy observed by Symborski describes how the Dodgers and Rays have constructed their rotations in recent years.

A simplistic view is that their approach favors quality (as in “stuff”) over quantity (innings pitched). The injured list becomes a useful tool for maintaining an inventory of starting pitchers (even if they are frail). But it remains to be seen whether this approach can be successful in navigating the post-season. Both the Dodgers and Rays are hoping that the timing of starters’ injuries won’t hobble the rotation when it is needed most—in the playoffs. But that has proven difficult to attain.

I don’t generally associate the Astros’ philosophy with this strategy. The Astros suffered rotation injuries in 2023, but relied upon “innings eaters” in the bottom of the rotation to replace the injured pitchers. Brandon Bielak and, to a lessor extent, J.P. France can be viewed as healthy innings eaters. Bielak, whose stuff is below average, according to the Stuff+ metric, frequently provided five innings of starting pitching.

Although the Astros’ pitching results declined in 2023, the Astros still ranked No. 2 in starters’ innings pitched. (The Mariners were No. 1, with one more inning pitched than the Astros.) The Dodgers and Rays were ranked 22d and 26th, respectively, in starter innings pitched—more than 100 fewer innings than the Astros and Mariners.

However, if the Astros are relying upon Lance McCullers, Jr. and Luis Garcia to return in the final months of 2024, there is some similarity to the strategy referenced in Symborski’s comment. The Astros are hoping that McCullers and Garcia can return in time to inject their higher quality stuff into the Astros’ playoff rotation.

The strategy for constructing the rotation also affects the construction of the bullpen. If the rotation pitches fewer innings, that generally means the bullpen has to cover more innings. The Dodgers’ strategy works because the team’s bullpen is solid. The Dodgers’ bullpen is ranked 2d and 4th in FIP and ERA, respectively. The Astros’ bullpen is ranked 17th and 7th in FIP and ERA.

If the Astros’ rotation depth proves inadequate in 2024, this could trigger bullpen shortcomings, like falling dominoes. At this point, the 2024 Astros’ bullpen appears to be very strong for the final two innings of the game, but question marks surround relievers in the middle innings. If the rotation’s share of innings pitched declines, the team will rely more on the middle inning relievers.

Of course, the Astros haven’t completed their off-season pitching moves. And acquisition of more depth in the rotation or bullpen could change that problematic scenario.