Fire in the belly: How do Astros avoid being satisfied?


Digging back into the Writer’s Block post, here is a question and conversation starter from friend of the blog, Tim.

“How do we avoid the dreaded World Series hangover that the past 4 champions have experienced? They showed the records of the past 4 champions at the ASB and I think the Cubs this past season at 45-43 was the best of the bunch.”

 

Well to begin to address this question, let’s take a look at those last four champions before we look at our beloved Astros and see if we can discern a pattern to what went wrong.

2016 Chicago Cubs. 103-58 regular season — best in baseball — WS Champs

2017 Cubs. 92-70 — NL Central Champs (12 GB back of Dodgers for best record in baseball) — Lose in NLCS 4-1 to the Dodgers

Quick Synopsis. The overall numbers for the season were not that far off from 2016 during the 2017 season. They were 2nd in runs scored in the NL both years. The starter’s ERA was 4th in the NL in 2017 vs. 1st in 2016 (though it was more than a run higher than 2017). The relievers ERA was slightly higher, but ended up 3rd in the NL.

Editor’s note: ERAs were up across the board last year.

But the overall numbers don’t tell the whole story. Whether it was a WS hangover or not, the Cubs were slow rolling for the first half of  2017. At the end of June they were a mediocre 40-40, but were 52-30 the last three months of the season. Before the All-Star break they were scoring 4.53 runs per game and giving up 4.53 runs per game. After the break they amped it up as they scored 5.71 runs per game and only allowed 4.00 runs per game. For the season, the three elders of the pitching staff, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Arrieta, along with Kyle Hendricks all had inflated ERAs from the season before. The team missed having Dexter Fowler at the top of the lineup as Kyle Schwarber struggled and in the end they put up a good season, but not a great season.

2015 Kansas City Royals. 95-67 — AL Central Champs – Best record in AL — WS Champs

2016 KC Royals. 81-81 – 13.5 GB of Cleveland in the Central – 8 GB of Wild Card – No playoffs

Quick Synopsis. The 2016 Royals fell off in all aspects of the game. They went from 6th in runs scored (724 R) in 2015 to 13th (675 R). Their starting pitching’s ERA went from 5th in the AL to 12th in the AL. The relief pitching ERA rose from 2.72 (1st) to 3.45 (2nd).

A look at the drop-off shows a combination of things led to their downfall. Their lineup, which was not that deep to begin with was hit by injuries as Omar Infante, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain all missed significant time. Both Edinson Volquez and the late Yourdana Ventura had inflated ERAs and deflated won-loss records and Johnny Cueto moved on to the Giants and put up 18 wins in 2016. Closer Greg Holland left in free agency and while the bullpen led by Wade Davis was effective, it was a little less deep.

The Royals in 2016 runs scored trended down as their runs allowed trended up and a .500 record was the result.

2014 SF Giants. 88-74 (Wild Card) — 6 GB of Dodgers in NL West — WS Champs

2015 Giants. 84-78 – 8 GB of Dodgers in NL West – 13 GB of Cubs for Wild Card – No playoffs

Quick Synopsis. The Giants only suffered a small drop off in wins in 2015 after their WS year. Statistically they were about as good or better as they scored 31 more runs, their starting pitcher’s ERA went from 10th to 7th in the NL and their bullpen ERA stayed solid as 3rd in the NL both seasons.

Basically, what happened to the Giants is they did not improve in a season where slightly above average was not rewarded. In 2014, they comfortably made the playoffs as they were 6 games ahead of the 82-78 Brewers for the Wild Card. Their 84-78 record in 2015 would have made the playoffs in 2014, but with the NL Central going bat guano crazy in 2015, they were nowhere close to the playoffs. The Cards won the Central with 100 wins, while the Pirates (98 wins) and the Cubs (97 wins) picked up the two WC spots. The Giants played just above average and never sniffed the playoffs in 2015.

2013 Boston Red Sox. 97-65 – AL East Champs – Best Record in AL – Tied for Best Record in Majors – WS Champs

2014 Boston Red Sox. 71-91 – 25 GB of Orioles in AL East – 17 GB of Wild Card – No playoffs

Quick Synopsis. The 2012-2014 Red Sox were a unique team. They were the first team in MLB history to go from last place to first place to last place in a three season suite. They are a tough team to analyze. Was 2013 just an anomaly? What happened in 2014? Their run scoring fell through the floor from 853 runs (1st in AL) to 634 runs (11th). Their starters’ ERA rose like a rocket from 3.84 (4th in AL) to 4.36 (13th). Their relief pitchers’ ERA actually improved from 3.70 (10th) to 3.33 (6th in AL).

Looking more closely, the offense was a hot mess. They let C Jarrod Saltalamacchia go and his replacement A.J. Pierzynski could not replace his 14 HRs and 65 RBIs. Shane Victorino, who was huge in 2013 played only 30 games in 2014 and Jackie Bradley was a .198 BA/.531 OPS disaster in replacing free agent Jacoby Ellsbury. Only ancient DH David Ortiz kept up his numbers in 2014. On the mound, Clay Buchholz went from 12-1, 1.74 ERA brilliant to 8-11, 5.31 ERA stinky. Brandon Workman and Jake Peavy (before he was traded to the Giants) combined for a 2-19 record. Even solid years from Jon Lester and John Lackey could not keep this ship afloat.

In the end, performance issues more than anything else told the tale of the Sox drop from the top.

2017 Houston Astros. 101-61 – AL West Champs, WS Champs!!!

2018 Houston Astros. ?????

What could go right:

What could go wrong:

  • Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick could return towards their career norms.
  • Injuries.
  • WS Fatigue.
  • Ken Giles and Chris Devenski lose confidence over their post season woes.
  • No matter how good they pitch, Brad Peacock and Morton are not likely to combine for a 27-9 record in 2018.
  • Evan Gattis continues to not be a good hitter when DH’ing
  • Justin Verlander and Brian McCann, who share the same birthday, Feb. 20th – start showing their ages – 35 and 34 respectively.
  • The fact that a number of Astros have switched over to Scott Boras signals a me-first in these guys that has not appeared before.
  • The fact that a play here or there could have derailed this team on the march to its 2017 championship.

The plus is that the Astros had areas where they could improve and Jeff Luhnow has already started addressing those. They also have the most complete team they have ever brought to a Spring Training in the life of the franchise. And I think it is important to know that this is the type of club that mentally was able to move forward last season despite having their whole rotation in dry dock and losing two of their most important hitters for extended periods of time. This was a special team and the hope is they did not lose that in the off-season.

Your turn…

  • Are there lessons to be learned from the last four non-repeating champions?
  • Is this team vulnerable to being big headed or not ready for 2018?
  • Do you have any other concerns?
  • Does winning the 2017 championship make 2018 easier or harder?
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48 comments on “Fire in the belly: How do Astros avoid being satisfied?

  1. 1. The only thing I learned was each team, each year is different especially if you have key FAs. The Astros should at least make the playoffs. 2&3. Every team can and will have ups and downs. Multiple games last year when it looked down and hopeless and Astros rebounded. A few games went the other way when the bullpen blew it. 4. Probably can go either way. This is where the team leaders have to step up and perform.

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  2. Looking at a few pitchers’ BABIP

    Musgrove
    Keuchel
    Peacock
    Morton

    The bottom two had a bigger disparity between BA and BABIP, which tells me with a 78% and 72% LOB, they’ve been a little unlucky. Combine that with the eye test that they cruise with an economy of pitches. I rather think my concerns for improvement lie with McHugh, Paulino, Martes, Harris.

    Your two most confident are Giles Devo (and LMJ). I worry that Giles eats well in the offseason and gets well-conditioned. He looked gassed in the playoffs. He’s still young, keep in mind, and impetuous. Devo will come in ready from Day 1. Rest up and get that circle change working, it’s devastating.

    This is just a guess, but perhaps if Gattis knows that he’s JUST the designated hitter, and to only focus. He had a lot on plate last year with trying to learn with enormous responsibility. Hitting might just become his forte’ now. There’s lots of data on players in his situations, and it still might be relative to sample size; or judging by simplistic measures (BA, RBI vs ISO, O-Swing). His Isolated Power and slugging were way down last year from 2016, while BA up and .314 OBP is par. I’m excited to see FO stick with him. From body language, someone they don’t just maraud after hitting walk offs, there’s a certain amount of respect given the big Bear. Save the money for Evan, he’ll likely improve on the notion he has to be engaged in the field to be a better hitter.

    After the 5th inning when McCann is catching, it’s like watching sweat pour off him from a shower. Both he and Verlander really get lathered up out there, but knowing their intense work ethic in age is more of an example than burden. We have pitcher catcher depth, check.

    The Boras thing worries me, except he is Lance’s agent, so we’ve lived without much ado over it yet. This is where I go into “the franchise has doubled in value since purchased according to Forbes, we can afford to pay our own players” mode.

    The play here or there could have derailed us? True but, Did you want it to be a cakewalk? I was at my dad’s gravesite last week, and through a few tears I lamented that he wasn’t here to see his beloved Astros win one. But I thought and laughed about your comment, Dan, that your dad’s poor heart wouldn’t have been able to withstand the ups and downs. I take hope in the chance that he has a better vantage point.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am not worried about how other teams who won the world series did the next year. They are not us; and we are not them.

    What stirs the fire in my belly -and hopefully stirs that fire in our Astros players – is the knowledge that 2017 is over and done, and that 2018 is lining up to be a totally different animal. The challenge is not to ‘repeat’, but just to find a way to take series after series from the teams in our division – even though the Angels, A’s, R’s, and M’s all look to be gearing up for excellence this year.

    Put the trophy, and all the individual awards, away. We’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s time for fire in the belly, and blood, sweat and tears on the turf. It’s time to put a little extra spin on the breaking stuff and a few more flames on the heater. It’s time to get hungry all over again.

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    • But those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.
      Yeah I know they are not exactly like those other teams but those teams all have lessons on what to avoid.

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  4. 1. Yes. Hope for good health.
    2. Yes. See 2016
    3. Yes. Keuchel and LMJ have both been hurt in consecutive years. Remember that stretch where Mike Fiers was our only starting pitcher from week 1 who was not hurt? Well, if McHugh hadn’t been hurt Fiers might have been let go in spring training. Ideally the experience gained by our young starters will allow them to fill in if there are injuries in the rotation again…but that 2017 Cubs team had a terrible first half because of their pitching.
    4. Push. It’s harder because there is a target on your back and other teams are filling holes strategically so as to gain an advantage on the Astros. It’s easier because the monkey is off their backs, they have survived the crushing pressure and learned how to win postseason games, etc. Also, there should be a boost in attendance and improved fan support at home this year.

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  5. There are some tangible things that the team can do to keep the fire burning.
    *Bring players in like Smith and Rondon who have one goal in mind: play for another World Series winner.
    *Put your rotation in the steady hands of a professional like Verlander, whose next goal is to be the best pitcher in the AL, again. Verlander is always a guy who is willing to put in the work and the study to become his absolute best.
    * Challenge Correa to take that next step.
    * Give Brad Peacock the chance to jump from being a surprise, to being a pitcher whose name brings excellence to mind over a period of time to assure him of financial security.
    * Go get another player to add to your team that makes the other teams say “Damn it!” and the players on the Astros say OMG, are you kidding me? That there sends the message to everyone that the Astros aren’t settlers.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Ten things I expect from the 2018 Astros offense . . .

    1. Altuve will continue to excel – and will slash at least .340/.400/.950;
    2. Bregman will have a breakout year like Correa’s 2017 – without the injury;
    3. Correa and Springer will both hit more than 30 HRs and have 90 to 100 RBIs;
    4. Gattis will not do well – or last long – as our right-handed DH;
    5. Marwin will start the year in LF; he will return to a supersub by mid- June;
    6. Gurriel will hit .300 and break 20 homers and 80 RBIs;
    7. Reddick will regress slightly on offense, slashing around .280/.350/.820;
    8. McCann will regress on offense as well, slashing around .230/.315/.725;
    9. Marisnick will regress a lot, becoming even more of a strikeout machine;
    10. Altuve will steal less bases, but his steal % will improve

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  7. Eight things I expect from the 2018 Astros starting pitchers;

    1. Verlander will start poorly [for him], not getting his ERA under 4.00 until June; then he will get in gear and be fantastic;
    2. Keuchel will spend at least 2 months on the DL; have an ERA over 4.25 and a WHIP over 1.35, and end the season with a losing record;
    3. McCullers will lose the #3 starter spot to Morton, and possibly be converted to a long reliever;
    4. Morton will be the ‘stopper’ until Verlander gets everything together;
    5. McHugh will be a serviceable BOR, and throw more innings and win more games than Keuchel;
    6. Peacock will start a lot of games for Keuchel [DL], but will be most effective as a long-reliever; and
    7. Martes, Paulino, and Feliz will all start at AAA, but all will see substantial time with the big club;
    8. If Brady Rodgers or Rogelio Armenteros start any games for the Astros, it will probably mean we are indeep trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What I expect from the 2018 Astros bullpen. . .

    1. Giles will continue to be occasionally great, and sometimes terrible – but he will not be replaced as closer, because he willl be ‘good enough’ for Hinch’s taste, and there is no one better;
    2. Musgrove will have a breakout year, and end the year as being for us what Devenski was last year;
    3. Devenski will have start out like gangbusters again, then lose the touch on his change-up as the year progresses and have some significant struggles late;
    4. Harris will do well if he is not overworked – which he should not be;
    5. Rondon will do well if he is not overworked – which he probably will be;
    6. Smith, Harris, Hoyt, and Rondon will each get out a higher % of lefthanded hitters than Sipp – or whoever our designated ‘loogy’ turns out to be [not at all confident Sipp starts the year with us];
    7. Peacock and McCullers will both throw some important long relief outings;
    8. Martes will spend a good bit of time with the big club and improve his marks a little with a few more relief appearances;
    9. Gose will go back to the Rangers.

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  9. A few have mentioned the target on our backs. Just want to say that technically the target was already there this year, 2017, courtesy of SI three years ago. It’s not like they’ve never played under pressure. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Yikes Bill, 27 expectations? First of all, I think Luhnow has more work to do with this club. That’s one expectation from me. But, yes, there will be injuries to the pitching staff. In some respects, that helped us in 2017. We had mostly guys rested and ready for the post season. So, with depth and some help from AAA, we’ll again manage with a staff that might not have a guy get 30 starts or a guy that has to throw 200 innings.

    I think the pen is better already. We’ve got two new guys and some guys with a year more experience under their belts. Some of that experience in the highest of leverage situations. I’m dubious of Giles though. Is he really the guy to get the biggest of outs? Again, though, I think Luhnow already has that issue in mind.

    I have no concerns about guys like Bregman, Altuve, Springer and Correa coasting, even for an inning. I think they’ll stay on each other. I do expect some regression by Marwin and Reddick, but a couple of others guys are just getting started and wil have better years. McCann will get fewer starts, and that will be by intent. If Gattis gets the DH job, I say leave him alone at least until the break. I think he’ll figure iit out.

    This will be a polished, confident team going into 2018. I don’t see an overall club regression.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Here is link to Steamer/Fangraphs projections. They think all Astros will have a minor or major regression, until you get to Fisher, etc. Not sure how they calculated Beltran with 1 at bat and hitting .253, but they did.

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    • My only response on that is to think that Reddick and Marwin had career years, McCann is getting older and showed some of his age last year, and that we keep saying “how can Altuve possibly be any better?” Regression doesn’t worry me though. There are so many good hitters on this team that we don’t need everyone to be “better” in 2018. The bullpen looks stronger on paper. Ultimately, whether you win by an average of 2.5 runs per game or 2.0 runs per game doesn’t matter as long as you’re winning the games. Also, I think Springer, Correa, and Bregman can all be better across the 162 game season.

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      • Exactly – when you’re dominant the way we beat teams late in games, we can afford guys taking their lumps along the way, working out the kinks; or, in the case of prospects, getting used to ML pitching. Pitching Armenteros doesn’t mean we’re in trouble.

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      • Grayson, my comment about using Rodgers and/or Armenteros as a starter being a sign of trouble was not a disparagement of Armenteros. It was a recognition that in front of him on the list of potential fill-in starters are: Peacock, Marte, Paulino, and Musgrove. If all 4 of those guys – or four of our five ‘first line’ starters like Verlander, Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, and McHugh are on the DL, we will probably be back in a state analogous to August, 2017 [we went 11 and 17 last August, if you will recall].

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      • I don’t think going 11 and 17 is all that bad a thing. Every team should struggle and get frustrated and have to deal with adversity. I’m not asking for a 500 year flood again, but I think ultimately a great team grows from those setbacks. That September was such a good month in response to August showed the backbone of the group, and of course, Verlander was a pretty good tonic too.

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    • Mr Bill,
      I do read you loud & clear, I just think guys will take more time off like last season with less severe ailments, specifically to fit in an Armenteros Paulino Martes Hoyt Guduan Gustave Moran White Davis Kemp. It’s a violent game, and the mission is over a grueling haul. No GM/Mgr had previously navigated this important balance in Astros history. Credit has to be given for using the rules to your advantage by *making guys ride the pine, skip their starts or go on the DL. We used players who werent the best available (Jankowski, Sipp, Guduan), without sacrificing important wins. In other words, if we’re comfortably ahead in the division, it would allow playing prospects.

      It is my outright contention there’s diminishing returns when Springer plays 162. Or when LMJ gets more than 150 IP (thus far). How many times did Julia ask Hinch about a player on the 10-day, and his answer was sort of shrugged shoulders “he’s fine” attitude?

      I appreciate your study and insight mostly, but I predict brighter outcomes for a few of your points.

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    • Yeah 45, I read that horse dookie. I’ve seen enough to know that I can’t go by computerized projections. I watched Bregman play about 155 games. He got better defensively and offensively before my eyes. He got smarter. He got more confidence. He got swagger. Unless he’s hurt, he gets better. Does Steamer think Correa peaked at the age of 22? I could go on and on. But no way everyone on the club had a career year.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Dang…..I’ll be glad when December is over I’m pooped! Speaking of being pooped, George Springer and Alex Bregman are going to be worn out before Spring training starts! Neither one of them ( Correa too) have stopped since the season was over! Go home, get some much needed rest PLEASE!! Since baseball is played by humans, I won’t speculate on if they take a nose dive in 2018.
    I’m gonna hope not, since most of these guys have been to the playoffs 2 out of 3 years, and WON. THE. WORLD. SERIES. !! The only area I have questions about is the rotation, except Verlander.
    P.S. I got my Commissioners Trophy Christmas ornament yesterday……it is sooo AWESOME!!

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Sorry, Dan. We left Round Rock yesterday and arrived in Orlando today. I had a nice debate on Twitter, as AC45 mentioned, with Maury Brown today on the plummeting NFL ratings. As you know I refused to give in and he eventually stopped tweeting back at me. Some of his minions tried to come to his defense.

    In regards to this topic I think it’s simply human nature to have a bit of a let up after winning the World Series. Also, as some have mentioned, we had a few players have career years and, other than August, the Astros had a magical season. 2018 won’t be as smooth, but this is a very talented team and should still win the division by 7-10 games. They have the perfect manager to keep the players grounded and focused and considering their interest in Darvish it is clear Crane and Luhnow are hungry to keep winning.

    Finally, I can’t recall a slower moving Hot Stove League than this winter. All the big name free agents are still out there and Christmas is a few days away. January, which is usually a slow month for baseball transactions, could be very heavy this year. I’m in no rush to start the season as it just shortens the time I can savor the sweet taste of being World Champions. Normally, I get very antsy for the season to start right around Christmas, but not this year. I still visit YouTube daily and watch highlights from the World Series, especially Game 5.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Sometimes it is funny reading just the comments on other blogs. One the other day was about MVP and how over rated Altuve is. In fact, per this clown, Odor is a much better player. Then another brought up Odor had a WAR of -0.2. Then another said, you mean he was NOT as good as a minor leaguer. Then another said, Odor is MVP – Most Valuable Punk.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Steamer also seems to think we have a batch of overrated guys. I’d like to have more overrated guys like Altuve.

      But seriously, there are no stats that can make an argument for Altuve being overrated. So that leaves us with the eye ball test. I’d love to know what that particular blogger sees what we’ve missed. I think it would be great to have this human make a guest appearance on Chipalatta.

      Liked by 3 people

  15. I see Luke Scott either wants to make a comeback this year at age 40 or be a hitting coach. His lifetime is .258 which is 100 points higher than a hitting coach I know plus Luke has a career + WAR. Just saying, not sure what qualifies as a good hitting coach. Obviously not Barry Bonds. And Merry Christmas to all.

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  16. When I was little I thought Christmas Eve as the looongest, day ever! I knew the next day was going to filled with toys and sweets, and everything about Christmas day was delicious! Yes, I’m still relishing in the glory of our guys winning the World Series, and looking forward as I did when I was a child to the Astros goodies I will be getting from my family. I can hardly wait to see what they got me! Soon I will say goodbye to my 60’s, but for this old gal I’m as excited as if I was 7yrs old again! I hope each and everyone of you are able to spend tomorrow with those you love the most….it will only be me my husband and our youngest (34) son. Our other children are busy with their families, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. For those of you who were effected by that horrible flood I hope the future will look brighter for you in the coming year. I’m always glad to see December leave, because that means the count down starts for Spring training……*52* days until the pitchers and catchers report!
    I hope Santa will be good to you, much love to all my “sisters” and all you fellas!
    Becky⚾🎄

    Liked by 3 people

  17. For Christmas, my wife gave me World Champion, Houston Astros pajamas. She throwing out my Superman pajama pants now…and I’m perfectly OK with that.

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