Most of the folks reading this post are Astro fans. Some of you may be fans of other teams just checking in here and you are most welcome. Unless you are Yankee fans.*
*Note – A sarcasm font has not been invented yet and we at Chipalatta refuse to use emoticons.
Anyways, Astro fans will have a lot to absorb in the new season, but to simplify things here is a guide to Ten Key items to watch during 2021.
- On the Road Again – During the Astros three-season 100+ win run between 2017 and 2019, the Astros were road warriors going 53-28, 57-24 and 47-34 and winning more on the road the first two seasons than at home. This came crashing down with a pitiful 9-23 effort on the road in the COVID shortened 2020 season. Considering the Astros won 71% of their 2020 home games, a higher percentage than in 2017 or 2018 and higher than the 2020 Oakland A’s winning percentage at home, this is an important number to follow to see if the Astros can again dominate the AL West.
- Working Overtime – The Astros were a very poor 2-7 in extra-inning games in 2020 after going 10-4 in 2019. This was partly due to a very inexperienced bullpen trying to pull the load after the Astros’ lost so much relief pitching (Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh, Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith and Chris Devenski). It also tied to the Astros’ inability as an offense to play the small ball required by the MLB’s new rule of putting a runner at 2nd base with no outs to start an inning. Well, that rule (unfortunately) stands for 2021, so the Astros better figure a way to take advantage of it or finish off their opponents in regulation innings. This is an area that needs to improve.
- Pitching Mules – How will the teams handle the increased workload on their pitchers? No one threw more than the 84 innings by Lance Lynn of the Rangers in 2020. Framber Valdez led the Astros with 70.2 IP. It is not unprecedented to have pitchers have big jumps in their workload. That same Lance Lynn missed the 2016 season with Tommy John surgery and then came back to throw 186.1 innings in 2017 and tie for the league lead with 33 starts. There would seem to be more concern with jumps in usage for pitchers 25 and under. Cristian Javier (24 y.o.) might be a candidate for reduced usage or a stint in the bullpen based on that concern. It would not be a surprise to find the Astros moving to a 6 man rotation when they have Framber back from his broken finger, joining in with Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. Jake Odorizzi, Jose Urquidy and Javier. You may see pitchers given two-week vacations on the IL for minor situations like fatigue. It will be a focal point and could turn the results of the season for some teams.
- OPS is More Than an Army Term – The geekier stat nerds will disagree with this assessment, but if you want to see how your offense is doing, watching your team’s OPS (a summation of on-base percentage and slugging percentage) it is a pretty good barometer for how their offense is doing. In 2017, they were 1st in the AL (and in all baseball) in OPS and in runs scored. In 2018, they fell to 5th in the AL in OPS and in runs scored. In 2019 they rose to 1st in OPS and were 3rd in runs scored (only about a tenth of a run per game behind the top-ranked Yanks). 2020 was a complete fall-off as they fell to 9th in OPS in the AL and 7th in runs scored. If the Astros can get back to the top 3 or 4 in OPS, they will likely be in good shape on the offensive side in 2021.
- Virus’ Revenge – The world is further down the line vs. COVID and the announcement that the Astros were allowed to return to Texas (a state that has opened up vaccines to all 16 years and over) to receive shots was probably good news. The receipt of the shots is a personal choice, but it is likely that the majority of the players went in for it. With the news that the Mets and Nats first game is postponed, the virus is still going to affect the season and the teams trying to find their way to the finish line. Watch to see who is and is not hit by this as the season unravels.
- Swap City – In two of the Astros best seasons (2017 and 2019) they made huge moves at the waiver trade deadline and the regular trade deadline respectively. This brought in Justin Verlander, who went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA down the stretch in 2017 and Zack Greinke, who went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA with Houston in 2019. Looking at the Astros situation vs. the luxury tax in 2021, where they are an estimated $3 million under the Competitive Balance Tax Threshold (per Spotrac.com) there is not much space to make a move at the trade deadline. It does not mean they cannot take on more than a $3 MM contract – as they would only be responsible for the last couple of months of salary for the season. Also, they might decide to unload a contract to make some room (Joe Smith? Brooks Raley?), but that is a way down the road. They could also decide to go over the tax line, but it does not feel like something they would choose to do. Watch this closely in July.
- Sophomore Jinx – Is the sophomore jinx a real thing? Or is it just that a big step in a player’s career is to follow up his early success once the league has the book on them, to show the ability to adjust again and again? The Astros had quite a few successful rookies perform well in their first taste of the big leagues, including Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, Andre Scrubb, Luis Garcia, and Cristian Javier. In a way, 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez may have already sustained his “jinx” by missing the 2020 season minus two games, but of course, he will be one of the players that teams will heavily game plan for. The Astros success will hinge on getting good production from most of these players on their second time through the league.
- Boo Birds – It was pretty evident that a number of the Astros were negatively affected by “IT” as they seemed to try too hard to show they were quality hitters without the help of garbage cans and stolen signs. Will they move on in their minds and psyche from this? Or will having actual fans booing and harassing them from the stands bring back more of those performance issues? It is evident from reading fan comments from across the blog world that there is a lot of unspent poison towards the Astros, even though the 2017 team is only partially represented in the 2020 version. Watch to see how the Astros react this time around.
- Bounce Back – Along the same lines of #8 – the ability of the Astros infield to bounce back from a mostly down 2020 season is critical to their success. Astros’ infield: Comeback players of the year? | CHIPALATTA Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel are the veteran core that needs to lead this team. Can they recapture the fire of the 2017 – 2019 time frame?
- The Back End to the Front – With questions about how much the starters will pitch and how much they may pitch in each game, the bullpen moves to the front of the line in criticality. In his second season as the closer, will Ryan Pressly become a bit more confident and steady? Will Pedro Baez return from COVID and fill a high leverage spot? Will Ryne Stanek return to the solid reliever he was before 2019? Will young Brian Abreu use his considerable talents to fill a critical spot in the bullpen? And will Paredes, Taylor and Scrubb overcome #7 above? All worth watching as the season unwinds.
Those are ten areas to watch heading into the 2021 season. What interests you this season?