Ask any Astros fan — well, maybe not those Chron (spit!) crybabies — and they’ll tell you, three of the keys for Houston’s success in 2015 are the improvement at first base, improvement in the corner outfield, and Chris Carter acting like it is July 1 or later all season.
Oh, sure, we want a better bullpen. We hope Keuchel, McHugh and Altuve don’t regress much if at all. We’d like to see some offense out of the catcher position. And who wouldn’t like another starter?
But these three things could be a big part of Houston’s success in 2015.
For better or for worse, the Astros are going to give Jon Singleton and his $2 million season every chance to succeed. Last year, that meant a .168 BA, a .620 OPS and 134 Ks (13 HRs) in 310 ABs. Oh, he also walked 50 times in 362 plate appearances.
But it’s not unreasonable to expect much better play out of the 23-year-old. Singleton’s horrid 2014 can easily be explained with a .238 BAbip, which was probably a result of his 16% line drive rate. That LD% was about 9 points lower than the league average. In six minor league seasons, Singleton’s BAbip was (these are my own calculations — hits/at-bats minus Ks — so they might be a point or two off) .380. If we’re just looking at his AAA numbers, his BAbip was .355.
I’m no expert, but my guess is Singleton’s BAbip will go up to somewhere between .320-.340. If that’s the case — and he can reduce his K rate by even 8 percent — Singleton’s BA would go up to about .220. And if he can get his K rate down to his AAA level of .29 percent, his BA would go up to .240.
Oh, the other encouraging thing about Singleton: He usually adjusts after a season at a particular level. Having him get better in 2015 isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s his pattern.
After George Springer and Dexter Fowler, the Astros will need to rely on either Robbie Grossman or Jake Marisnick to play like a competent major leaguer. Neither needs to carry the team. But at least one needs to just perform adequately.
Let’s start with a look at Marisnick, because he could play either center or right, letting Springer play either and moving Fowler where he belongs at left field. In 54 games with Houston, Jake from State Farm put up a .669 OPS while striking out 28 percent of the time and only walking 5 times in 186 PAs. Yeah, that’s not going to get it done. That said, despite 330 lackluster ABs over two seasons with Houston and Miami, Jake looks like a better hitter than that.
Marisnick’s LD% was about league average and his .352 BAbip in Houston is probably about the best he can hope for, but if the Astros get a full season of a guy hitting .272 in left field, they’d take that. That said, his 3 percent walk rate in Houston is less than half of his career MiLB rate. And his combined AA/AAA rate of nearly 5 percent looks more sustainable. That would give Marisnick an OBP closer to the .330s, and for a guy destined to bat 6th or 7th in the lineup, that’s not bad. If he can come within .050 of what he averaged in AA/AAA then we’re looking at an OPS over .700.
Would you take that with Jake’s defense? I would.
If Marisnick doesn’t pan out, there’s always Grossman, who is the walking definition of a streaky hitter. Basically, as goes Grossman’s BAbip, so goes his game. Pick a month. If his BAbip is over .300, it’s a great month. If his BAbip is below .300, not so much. That said, we’re talking about a 25-year-old outfielder. Giving up early on Grossman may turn him into the next J.D. Martinez. Honestly, I think another spring with Malle might help Grossman find some consistency.
Either way, we have two guys who are on the verge of good numbers. We just need one to work out. And neither has to be George Springer at the plate. Just act like a decent 6th or 7th place hitter.
All He Does Is Hit
We don’t ask much out of Chris Carter. We just want him to hit the ball.
A few months ago, I noted that Carter cut his K rate from 2013’s 42 percent to 2014’s 36 percent. Three odd things happened from one year to the next. First, his LD% remained the same at 25 percent. And while he was seeing the ball better when it came to Ks, he walked slightly less in 2014. So, making the same contact, but not walking as much. He also saw his BAbip drop from a relatively sustainable .311 to an unbelievably low .267. For a guy with that LD%, a .267 BAbip is just really bad luck. If you’re betting on someone to see positive regression in 2015, the safe money is on Carter. And that’s a good thing.
So while there are plenty of question marks in Houston for 2015, here are four players we all pretty much expect to see in 2015, but the 2015 version should produce better than what we saw in 2014, especially Carter and Singleton. And that’s encouraging news for a team that needs fewer question marks and more, well, if not exclamation points then at least periods.
Here are some things to consider as the calender is about to flip to 2015:
1. In addition to Carter and Singleton, we’ve also got Jason Castro (for now) as a guy who could do with a better 2015. Which do you expect to take the biggest strides in 2015?
2. Which of those three will be the most pleasant surprise?
3. Jake from State Farm and Robbie Grossman are both question marks for 2015, but look like they’ll be given every opportunity to earn a spot in the outfield. Which do you think is poised for a better offensive output in 2015?
4. Marisnick is a better fielder than Grossman (who isn’t bad, but JFSF just looks like an elite defender to me). How much better will Grossman need to hit to make up the difference on defense?
5. If Singleton hits .230 and raises his OPS to above .700, we get a plus-.700 OPS from the third outfielder, and Carter takes another step forward as a hitter, what will that mean toward the 2015 win total? Do the Astros become a team that’s still fighting for a Wild Card spot in mid-September?