Tom Verducci on the Astros' fading playoff hopes, Prince Fielder changing his approach, and why changing the rule for intentional walks would be a bad idea.
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The Astros were a trendy pick to go to the World Series, but their season might be over before we’ve reached Memorial Day. A 17–28 start has the Astros on the endangered list of potential playoff teams, if only because of precedent.
Houston is the 84th team in the Wild Card Era (since 1995) to lose at least 28 of its first 45 games. Only one of the previous 83 teams that started so slow wound up in the postseason: the 2005 Astros, who began 15–30, then played .632 baseball on their way to 89 wins and the National League pennant.
Here’s the longer view, and it’s not good for Houston. Since 1913, only three teams started as badly as the 2016 Astros and still made the playoffs: the 2005 Astros, the 1981 Royals (in a strike-shortened year) and the 1914 “Miracle” Braves.
Houston may need another miracle. During its 6–15 start, manager A.J. Hinch explained, “We played good enough to lose.” That stretch included a three-game sweep to Texas in Arlington. After the third loss—their 10th straight in Arlington—Hinch held his only team meeting of the year. “Remember how badly this feels,” he told his players. “I want you to remember what it feels like the next time we come in here.”
Houston goes back to Texas for a four-game series on June 6. In the interim, the Rangers swept Houston at Minute Maid Park last weekend, including two of three straight 2–1 losses by the Astros. No AL team had lost three straight 2–1 games since the 1991 Brewers. Good enough to lose.
Houston has time to get back on track. The question is, how? The Astros tried injecting some energy and contact hitting into their offense last week with the debuts of outfielder Tony Kemp and third baseman Collin Moran. The return of Lance McCullers, who has looked good in two starts since recovering from a fatigued shoulder from his innings jump of last year, promises to give the rotation more needed swing-and-miss stuff. Setup reliever Ken Giles looks much better after a shaky start, though Houston may want to go shopping for Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman for a second straight July.
Eventually the Astros will transition to having A.J. Reed (playing decently at Triple A) at first base and Alex Bregman (tearing up Double A) at third base, but that might not happen soon enough. Pitcher Joe Musgrove (0.96 ERA this year split between Double and Triple A) is on a faster track and will help.
Just to get to the 86 wins they had last year, Houston will have to play .590 baseball over the final three-quarters of the season (69–48). That sounds possible, until you realize the Astros have not been very good for a long time. They are 87–100 over their past 187 games, postseason included. Last year they broke quickly (18–7) and went just 68–69 the rest of the way, squeaking into the postseason as the AL's second wild-card team by a single game over the Angels. This year they will have to pull off the inverse. To do so, they will have to find ways to correct these first-quarter flaws:
• Ace Dallas Keuchel has lost the good sink and location on his two-seam fastball
The bad news is right there in the metrics. (HMov stands for horizontal movement and VMov is vertical movement; both are measured in inches.)
• The lineup is painfully shallow
The top three of Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa is terrific. But the lineup falls off dramatically thereafter. Check out the team's OBP and where that ranks among the 15 AL teams in the fourth through ninth spots:
• The lineup is exposed as a bad rally team when it doesn’t hit home runs
Houston leads the league in walks but is 10th in runs per game and 12th in hits. “Walks are great,” Hinch said, “but you need hits to get people in.”
• Carlos Gomez is lost
If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, Gomez would rank as the league’s worst hitter at making contact (career-low 61.5%) and is swinging more often than anybody except Jonathan Schoop and Adam Jones. At age 30 and with poor hitting fundamentals, Gomez no longer can get by on pure athleticism—a troubling prospect for someone looking at free agency. Gomez was so lost that the team stashed him on the disabled list recently as much for a mental break as a physical one.
• The Astros’ complete buy-in into defensive shifting isn’t working as well
It’s not that shifting isn’t smart baseball; it’s that Shifting 2.0 must be more nuanced, with adjustments made according to pitchers’ velocity and game/score/situation circumstances. Shifts are great against David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder and the like, but put runners in scoring position, and they are different hitters. The Giants, as an example, are one team that has dialed back its shifts because, as bench coach Ron Wotus said, “We’ve seen too many good hitters adjusting to the shift.” Shifts that go too far may encourage hitters to become better hitters by using an all-fields approach. This comes into play especially against the Astros, as their pitching staff has the lowest average fastball velocity of any team in baseball.
Houston ranks 14th in the AL in defensive efficiency (turning batted balls into outs) and 14th on batting average on balls in play. Only Minnesota is worse in both categories. Chew on this for a minute: The 2013 Astros, a team that lost 111 games, was better at turning batted balls into outs than this year's Astros.
Hinch writes off the poor defensive efficiency to some “careless errors,” such as dropped pop-ups, and measures the effectiveness of shifts more on defending grounders than overall balls in play. Houston is better on grounders, but still not especially efficient—the team is below average on defending grounders, ranking ninth with a .237 batting average against.
• The pitching staff doesn’t have enough pure stuff
The rotation is filled with pitchers who rely on spin more than power, and the closer is a sinker/slider pitcher who needs to get hitters to chase. The least powerful staff in baseball averages just 90.0 mph on fastballs, nearly a full tick below the next softest-tossing team (the Angels are at 90.7) and fully two mph below league average.
The Astros have placed a heavy emphasis on spin rates and spin axis. When betting on curveballs and other breaking balls, you are making a bet on execution. When breaking ball pitchers don’t execute, they get hit. When power pitchers don’t execute, velocity allows them a greater room for error. Houston’s hitters have noticed the difference between the pitchers they face and the ones they play behind. (The club is -95 in strikeout differential.) One good bit of news for the Astros is the emergence of Michael Feliz as a promising power arm who can fit into the rotation or bullpen.
• The league has adjusted to Correa
It’s not that Correa isn’t playing well; he's fine. It’s just that his damage is down because, Hinch said, pitchers are pounding the 21-year-old inside and Correa has been too passive, especially against starters. He’s confused about when pitchers are attacking him and when they are pitching around him. Correa gives away strikes to starting pitchers and becomes more aggressive late in games against relievers. He is hitting .246 with three home runs on inside pitches.
The Astros are 45 games into its season and still have yet to win three games in a row. They have three “streaks” of two wins in a row, each of which has been followed by a loss. To close ground on a playoff spot—they are 9 1/2 games out in the AL West and eight games behind in the wild-card race—Houston is going to need better starting pitching and a more diverse offense to string together longer streaks. The Astros have time to do it, but in 45 games, they have used up almost a season’s worth of margin for error. Playing under the preseason expectations is one thing; playing under urgency before we hit June is even greater.
Prince using the whole Fielder
Rangers designated hitter Prince Fielder has just two home runs, including none in his personal-worst drought of 111 at-bats. The guy who hit 30-plus homers six years in a row (2007–12) is 32 years old and may never get back to displaying that kind of elite power. But it’s obvious that Fielder already is making a transition to becoming a different kind of hitter.
“He has a nose for driving in runs,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said.
Starting last season, Fielder pulled a page from the book of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, another lefthanded pull hitter without speed whose career has been compromised by the shift. With the bases empty, Fielder is more likely to launch his old-school big swing from days gone by. Why? His lack of speed means that almost anything he hits into the shift on the ground is an out, and even if he gets on base with a single, Texas will need two hits to get him home. So the approach is to swing for at least a double.
Once you put runners on base, however, Fielder is much more likely to swing with a lower launch angle and to hit the ball to all fields. The shift is far less effective against Fielder with runners on base.
It’s easy to see this career transition in his 2016 splits:
|Situation||Avg.||BABIP||Opp Field Hits|
Slow down in Queens
Mets aces Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom have lost life on their four-seam fastball, even while apparently healthy. We shouldn’t be surprised.
When young, hard-throwing pitchers get extended into a seventh month (the playoffs), they should not be expected to come back the next year with the same zip on their heater. What Harvey and deGrom are going through reminds me of Cole Hamels in 2009, Michael Wacha in '14 and Yordano Ventura and Madison Bumgarner in '15—the year after they pitched into the World Series as young starters. The wear and tear shows up in a lower-octane, much more hittable fastball. Check out the batting averages against four-seam fastballs for the six pitchers mentioned above.
|Pitcher||World Series Year||Year After||Difference|
And then there is Noah Syndergaard, whose four-seamer has been even tougher to hit in 2016 (.219) after packing on all those innings last year (.224). It’s just more proof, right there with his 99-mph heater and 95-mph slider, that the Mets’ beast of a righthander looks like a physical outlier.
Four reasons four automatic balls is a bad idea
I refuse to believe that baseball will do away with the four pitches necessary to complete an intentional walk—yet another idea floated in the name of speeding up the game. Let’s count the reasons why it’s a bad idea:
• Intentional walks have hit their lowest rate since it was first kept as an official stat in 1955. There is one intentional walk every 2 ½ games. This is not a problem that needs addressing.
• It would be eliminating the chance that something could happen. “We had a wild pitch on a intentional walk in the playoffs,” said former Washington shortstop Ian Desmond, referring to Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS when Nationals reliever Aaron Barrett, trying to hold a one-run lead, threw an intentional ball all the way to the backstop with runners at second and third. Buster Posey was thrown out at home after catcher Wilson Ramos tracked down the ball.
• More famously, in the 1972 World Series, Oakland manager Dick Williams ordered pitcher Rollie Fingers to fake a 3-and-2 intentional walk to Cincinnati's Johnny Bench (after first base opened following a steal) and instead throw a slider. Duped by the signal from catcher Gene Tenace for an intentional ball, a surprised Bench took strike three after Tenace hurried into his crouch.
• It’s amateurish. It just looks bad. It’s not up to major league standards.