Astros 2019: Okay, wait, is this 2017 or 2018?

The Astros are on the cusp of winning more than 100 games for the third straight season. If they go 6-5 or better they will increase their win total again for the third straight season and will for the second year in a row set a team record for wins. If they keep working they should in a few days capture the AL West for the third time in three years and if they are rip-roaring good in the next 11 games they have a shot at having the best record in the AL and all of baseball.

But none of those tie to the question of the day. The question is: Is this team headed for ultimate glory like the World Champion Astros of 2017 or are they going to come up just a bit short, like the 2018 Astros, who fell out of the playoffs in the ALCS against the eventual champions the Boston Red Sox?

This could be, but will not be a long statistical argument about the pluses and minuses of each of those teams, but instead, it will be a quick summary of each of the seasons.

2017. The Astros rolled to the lead early in the season and piled things on the opposition. They hit the All Star break 31 games over .500 and with a 16.5 game lead. They were the best offensive team in the majors by far, leading in almost every stat that is kept. They survived a series of injuries to most of the pitching staff (Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers), and some of their hitting stars (Carlos Correa and George Springer). They also survived a bit of August malaise after making no big pitching addition at the regular trade deadline. The addition of Justin Verlander at the waiver trade deadline energized the team, the injured all returned with the exception of Jake Marisnick and the rest is history. They walked one of the toughest paths to the championship through the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers and often were a play or two from possible elimination. But they never gave up and ultimately prevailed.

2018. Even though this team ended up with more wins than in 2017, it was a much tougher row to hoe as the Mariners early and the A’s late challenged the Astros for most of the season. The Astros were tied with the A’s in late August and they really did not put the division away until the last week of the season. This was a much more pitcher oriented team as they had a good, but not great offense led by the transcendent Alex Bregman, and relied heavily on Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Morton, Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Roberto OsunaRyan Pressly and company for carrying this team to the playoffs. Unlike in 2017 they entered the playoffs with many walking wounded. Players like McCullers, Springer, Correa, and Jose Altuve attempted to play through their injury problems, but their performances lagged and in a series that again hinged on a few plays, all the big ones including the umpire calls went the Red Sox way.

Today – 2019 – This year’s team is kind of a hybrid of the last two seasons. They got off to a decent but not killer start and slowly pulled out to a decent lead, but have never really been able to throttle back. They have a strong offense like 2017 and if they could only keep all hands on deck, it could be an even better one than 2017. Of course, that team seemed to be better with runners in scoring position and in flipping a game from a loss to a win late in the game. The Astros battled through a ton of extended injuries for some of their best players (Carlos Correa, George Springer and Jose Altuve), but they also added All Star Michael Brantley, saw Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman kick it in gear in the second half of the season and added All-Universe rookie Yordan Alvarez to the lineup. Again the pitching staff has been led by Verlander and Cole with a lot of help (except for a lost couple weeks) from Wade Miley. With injury problems for Brad Peacock and McHugh hurting their depth, the Astros went out and picked up six-time All Star Zack Greinke to solidify the rotation. The bullpen has been good, except when it hasn’t been and may have more questions heading into the postseason with Pressly and Peacock returning late from injuries and McHugh not likely returning at all.

The key to this year’s postseason success will likely turn on their ability to:

a) Hit better in the clutch and not just when the game has become a laugher and;

b) Not suffer contagious bullpen meltdowns when the throats are as tight as the games

So, your turn. How do you compare this team to the last two and which one do you think it will more closely track?

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Astros 2019: More Saturday questions

This is a bit of a recurring theme for Dan P.  Whip out a couple posts during the week, have you good folks come up with thought provoking comments, have the team create more questions with their play and end up on Saturday with some open intriguing questions. That is just begging for another post and here it is….

If you could only re-sign one – would you re-sign Gerrit Cole or George Springer?

It may not come to one or the other. Cole (just turned 29) is a free agent at the end of the season, Springer (about to turn 30) has one more arbitration year with the home team. But if it came down to picking between the two due to salary considerations, which one would you pick? (As daveb pointed out rightly yesterday – it may be length of contract rather than yearly salary that sinks a Cole deal).

Would you trade Josh Reddick (and part of his salary) and Carlos Correa or Yuli Gurriel to help re-sign Cole?

Josh is due $13 million next season, even if you traded him for practically nothing you would likely have to send along about 1/2 that amount in cash. Yuli is due $8.4 million next season and Carlos even with missing time is likely in the $8 million range in arbitration. These moves would help with half or more of Cole’s salary. Remember you can control Correa through 2021 and Gurriel through 2022, if you don’t trade them.

Mr. Bill had a good point about the Astros giving too much time to some of the youngsters when the team is in a death match for the best record in the AL and the majors. How do you feel about that?

How much time should Kyle Tucker, Myles Straw, Garrett Stubbs and others be taking up at this crucial time?

Should the Astros sit Wade Miley for a start and see if he bounces back?

If he just has a tired arm that may be what he needs. Of course pitching 0 innings and 1/3 of an inning in his previous outings is pretty much like throwing on your day off.

If there are days off in the next two weeks – should they use it to give Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole an extra day off between starts? How important is the Cy Young race between the two to you?

Nothing to add here.

How confident will you be in Ryan Pressly and/or Brad Peacock and even Collin McHugh if/when they come off the IL before the playoffs?

There is no doubt Pressly will make the playoff roster as long as he is standing. The other two may or may not.

Are there any questions you have today to add to the dialogue?

Astros in search of the fourth starter

We won’t even touch on the subject of the Astros having to piece together a fifth starter from miscellaneous minor league and minor bullpen pieces, because at this point the Astros are focused on the post-season and the post-season means they need four starters or at least three starters and a two man tandem for the fourth spot. Fans know they have three solid, proven starters in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke and two of those are far beyond solid.

They thought they had a solid, proven fourth starter in Wade Miley, who was cruising when he finished off the Orioles on August 9th. After that game he had a 2.99 ERA and a 11-4 record and had only failed to pitch 5 innings once in his last 20 starts. In his next start he got a no decision as he gave up 9 hits and 7 runs (3 earned) in 3.1 IP. He won his next start despite giving up 10 hits in 5.2 IP and then had a more Miley type game with 5 innings, 5 hits and 1 run allowed. The wheels then suddenly came off. He could not find the plate in a 3.2 IP start (95 pitches) with 5 walks. The next two were even worse as he gave up 5 runs without recording an out against the Mariners and then Tuesday night when he recorded one lonely out and was tagged with 7 runs in another way too short start.

If Miley needs to be shut down due to injury, or a dead arm or a dead head, that is a blow to the Astros in the short term, which may include a playoff run that is shorter than planned. In 2017 the Astros used four starters in each of the 3 rounds that they played in. Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel of course started a game or two in each round. But in the ALDS Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton started games, Morton and Lance McCullers started games in the ALCS and in the World Series. Remember that neither Verlander nor Keuchel won any games in the World Series (but the bullpen is a discussion for another day).

Folks may think that the Astros should never have let Charlie Morton head out after last season, and looking at his sterling numbers (14-6, 3.11 ERA) folks are probably right. Folks may also have thought that the team should have gone after another starter at the trade deadline other than Greinke, but they may have already forgotten Aaron Sanchez, who looked like a great addition to the rotation…..for one start, followed by struggles and then shoulder surgery.

The Astros front office felt like they had a couple cards up their sleeves with Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh, who both have previously been very effective starters for this club. Unfortunately they have both been sporting shoulder discomfort, which more often ends at the surgeon’s office than on the pitcher’s mound.

If you can believe a few successful starts, Jose Urquidy may be the best choice to step in, if Miley has to step back. But the team may be very reticent to use him a lot from here on out given his young age and given the fact he is already well past the number of innings he threw last season.

If they don’t choose Urquidy, then it may come down to Framber Valdez or perhaps Rogelio Armenteros. It certainly won’t be Cy Sneed or Cionel Perez or even Josh James who have all struggled at times.  A dark horse here would be to use Bryan Abreu in a starting role. He has not done that yet at the major league level,  but has been very good in a few relief appearances.

Even though there is a lot of talent there, it would be a surprise to see them call on Cristian Javier after an eyepopping rise through the minors but only 11 innings of AAA ball or even a solid looking youngster like Brandon Bielak, who has been at Round Rock most of the season. Forrest Whitley? I think not.

The Plan(s) for the fourth spot in the rotation would seem to be as follows:

  • Plan A – Fix Miley – figure out if he’s tipping his pitches, if he needs a two start vacation, if he’s home sick, whatever.
  • Plan B – Figure out what everyone feels comfortable with as far as using Urquidy and follow that
  • Plan C – See if they can get Framber Valdez to pitch as well with nobody on base and no outs as with men on base without having a visit from Brent Strom every other inning
  • Plan D – Pray that Mr. Peacock or Mr. McHugh have a few good starts in their bag when or if they come back from the IL.
  • Plan E – Surprise the opposition (and the fans) with mystery man in the rotation like Abreu or Javier.
  • Plan F – Maybe use some scrambled mess of a 4th starter tandem situation – like Urquidy and Valdez.

Anyways – there you go. The Astros have a lot of options. Just not sure how many of them are good options.

What would it take to fire Luhnow or Hinch?

Today’s news of the Red Sox firing their President of baseball operations (Jeff Luhnow equivalent) Dave Dombrowski was a bit of a shocker considering he put together the best team in the majors that won the World Championship less than 11 months ago. As the Red Sox have struggled to a winning season in 2019 that likely will not include a playoff run, there have been rumblings about both Dombrowski and manager Alex Cora being on the hot seat.

Now, the Red Sox under their current ownership group have been a quick trigger group. Despite winning 4 World Series in the 2000s (starting in 2004), they have brought in 4 managers since firing Grady Little after the inexcusable sin of leaving his ace in the game during the 2003 ALCS against the Yanks. Terry Francona managed from 2004 to 2011 and led the team to their first two World Series championships since the team sold off Babe Ruth a little after the War to end all Wars. Bobby “we hardly knew ye” Valentine came in for one disastrous season – 2012. John Farrell won another World Series in his time in Boston (2013 – 2017) as has Alex Cora (2018 – 2019). Perhaps the ownership impatience paid off as three of the four managers (Francona, Farrell and Cora) won the World Series in their very first season with the team. At the higher level, along with Dombrowski being fired less than 1 year after winning it all, he was the same man who replaced Ben Cherington in 2015, who had put together the 2013 champions.

So, the question for today is what would it take (other than an off the field scandal) for the Astros to fire and replace Jeff Luhnow and/or A.J. Hinch?

If Jim Crane had the patience and foresight to stick through the franchise nadir (2012-2013) with Jeff Luhnow it is hard to see that anything short of an unexpected collapse over multiple years would undermine his trust in the man. Luhnow has run the team exactly as agreed with his boss. He completed the teardown and cut the payroll to the bone just as agreed. He then built a fine minor league foundation for the team, grabbed some top players through the draft, through the waiver process, through a big investment in the international market and through trades and finally free agency.

Luhnow has fairly quickly worked out a relationship with his boss, where he has his support to spend money for the right reasons but has limited the long term investment in huge contracts. Along with this of course has been the gathering of complex and deep player data, and more importantly the application of the data for player improvement. The Astros are headed for their 5th winning record in a row, 4th playoff run in 5 seasons and 3rd 100 win season in a row. The team is not only very good, it looks sustainable. Behind the core they have signed for a number of years, there appears to be a pipeline of good minor league players to move to the majors or to move for major leaguers.

It would appear that if the team hits a speed bump of underperformance over a number of years that Luhnow may be safe and the finger pointed at A.J. Hinch. After all this is what happened earlier on when Luhnow hand-picked Bo Porter as manager and then sent him packing less than two seasons later.

However…..if Hinch continues to listen to the input the wonks send his way, continues to tightrope walk between being a player’s manager and a disciplinarian and continues to show a cerebral approach to the game there is a good chance he would survive a win drought of a few seasons. This is especially true if there are good reasons for it, such as age or injury.

It is a gut feeling that this owner will listen reasonably to his baseball people and not knee jerk between GM and manager pairings. This may or may not result in the short term success the Red Sox have enjoyed, but it certainly has resulted in more sustained success here than any other era in Astros’ history.

Weekend thoughts: Astros in September

As the Astros appear to be roaring towards another spot in the playoffs, it is a weekend for thoughts and musings.

The Carlos Correa / George Springer – Perception

Most Astro fans value George Springer over Carlos Correa. From a pure baseball “value” standpoint, Carlos has some advantages over George. In a couple weeks they both have birthdays as Springer turns 30 and Correa only 25. Correa plays what is considered the more skilled, tougher to fill position as a SS vs. an OF. Their career slash numbers are very similar – Springer .270 BA/ .361 OBP/ .845 OPS vs. Correa .277 BA/ .356 OBP/ .843 OPS. In an average 162 games Springer puts up 115 runs/ 34 HRs/ 91 RBIs, while Correa puts up 92 Runs/ 30 HRs/ 110 RBIs.

The difference in perception by local fans comes from two areas.

  1. In general, the fans have always believed that Correa would flee for a bigger media market as soon as he was able, while Springer has already been open to a couple of buyout extensions by the team. Correa’s recent changing of agents to Phillip Morris, which specializes in Hollywood celebs and not athletes and his apparent attachment to A-Rod seem to signal someone who has his sites on the big lights of L.A or N.Y.C.
  2. While George Springer has had his share of injuries and missed time, Correa’s injuries have been viewed with a lot more suspicion. Part of it is that Springer’s injuries have been mostly in full view of everyone, whether it is pulling up gimpy with a hamstring pull or having a collision with the outfield wall (which has twice made him miss time). Correa did have his thumb injury when sliding back in 2017, but the injuries the last couple years (Back strains – twice, massage injures a rib?) were not as visible or believable. He seems like a Porsche that is going to break down at the drop of a dime.

Maybe the Astro fans embrace Springer because he just seems more “real” whatever that means. How the team values them both will be on display over the next two seasons.

Yordan Alvarez / Kyle Tucker – Perception

It sure seems strange to look at Alvarez and Tucker and realize that they are both so young (22 years old) and that Tucker is actually 5 months older. Alvarez is built like an Adonis – looking like he fills up that whole batter’s box. Tucker looks like a string bean from Archie’s comics. It may seem like a slam dunk that Alvarez will be the better player after the historic start of his career, hitting marks that have him compared to Ted Williams and Albert Pujols. But with Tucker getting some playing time with Springer on the sideline, the young man has shown that he may bring a more versatile bag of talent to the game. He flashed his speed in both a fine fielding play and a stolen base on Friday night. He was very important in the team’s huge comeback on Thursday night with his first major league homer and his clutch 2 out, 2 strike hit in the 12th to keep the team alive.

It will be fun to watch these two develop over time. Tucker may never be the pure hitter or pure power bat that Alvarez is and Alvarez may never be the multi-tool player that Tucker is, but the key thing is the Astros have both and we will get to see them a lot in the 2020s.

Justin Verlander / Gerrit Cole – Perception

You don’t have to look far to see what esteem this post holds Justin Verlander.

It is probably a good bet that if you took a poll, you would find that 80% or more of the fans would rather see Verlander win the Cy Young than Cole. This is obviously due to his age, his heart, what he did for the 2017 WS run and the fact that he signed for two more seasons with the team. However, Cole has given nothing but his best and stands shoulder to shoulder with JV in the race to the CY Award. A big chunk of the prejudice towards Verlander comes from the belief that Cole will be pitching somewhere else next season.

Unlike Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole has only missed a start here or there.  He has been one of the two best pitchers in the world this season and if the Astros win it all, he and JV will be a big part of that story.

Fans may not be as excited about a Cole Cy Young award as a Verlander one, but they should be.

August ChipalattAwards for a winning month

The Astros had some ups and downs in August, but in the end, rolled to a very good 19-9 record. Just like in July, the hitters and the starting pitching carried the load, while the bullpen clung for dear life. There were some excellent performances and we will honor those here.

Starting Pitcher of the Month. Gerrit Cole. Both he and Justin Verlander were terrific in August, but Cole nudged out his rotation mate. Cole was 3-0 with a 2.36 ERA and a tiny 0.713 WHIP. His opponents only managed a slash line of .165 BA/ .195 OBP/ .515 OPS for the month, which is like having 9 so-so hitting pitchers in the lineup.

Runner-up.  Justin Verlander. JV’s numbers were plenty good in August with a 2-1 record, 2.57 ERA and a 0.773 WHIP. He was just a little less stingy than Cole with an opponents slash line of .188 BA/ .220 OBP/ .621 OPS. The Astros have the best 1-2 punch in the majors and that trend continued in August.

Last Month. Verlander and Cole tied and no runner up was awarded.

Positional Player of the Month.  In a month of great performances by the Astro individuals, Alex Bregman was the best. He combined a .404 BA/ .487 OBP/ 1.235 OPS with an outstanding 27 runs scored, 14 doubles, 6 homers and 31 RBIs. He has lifted that mid .260 BA to within shouting distance of .300.

Runner-up.  You Pick ’em. Is it Yuli Gurriel slashing .344 BA/ .423 OBP/ 1.101 OPS with 7 HRs and 29 RBIs? How about Michael Brantley hitting .378/ .431/ 1.033? Jose Altuve with a one month club record of 32 runs scored, 9 HRs, and 20 RBIs? How about super youngster Yordan Alvarez with a .309 BA/ .425 OBP/ 1.095 OPS with 23 runs scored, 9 HRs and 26 RBIs?

Last Month. Yuli Gurriel was the winner and Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley tied for the runner-up spot.

Relief Pitcher of the Month. Will Harris. This was another month with a dearth of good relief pitching performances. But Harris in 12 games was 1-0 with a save, a 1.64 ERA, and a 0.545 WHIP. Opponents hit a miniscule .088 BA/ .162 OBP/ .427 OPS against the former LSU Tiger.

Runner-up.  Joe Smith. Smith was good and pitched in a club leading 15 games for the Astros in August. His 2.03 ERA and 1.050 WHIP were quite solid along with allowing only a .229 BA/ .275 OBP/ .650 OPS against.

Last Month – The winner was Joe Smith and Chris Devenski was the runner-up.

Biggest Surprise (Positive). Wade Miley. Not sure how positive this is; it may depend on your point of view. Miley was a team-leading 4-0 with a very good 3.07 ERA. How he did this with an awful 1.636 WHIP and a nasty .293 BA/ .366 OBP/ .815 OPS against is a real head-scratcher.

Runner Up. N/A.

Last Month – Yuli Gurriel was the winner with Yordan Alvarez as the Runner-up

Biggest Disappointment. Roberto Osuna. He is on the other side of the Miley surprise. How did a guy with an excellent 0.889 WHIP and a .194 BA/ .257 OBP/ .709 OPS against end up with a 5.00 ERA?

Runner-up. Josh Reddick. He continued his second half slide with another poor month of hitting. He has not hit a homer since June. In August, he hit an anemic .213 BA/ .268 OBP/ .562 OPS and was the worst hitter in the lineup.

The amazing stats award.

  • Justin Verlander showed unbelievable control in August striking out 47 hitters and only walking 3.
  • Joe Biagini had a mediocre 4.22 ERA, while putting up terrible 1.875 WHIP and allowing hitters to pound him for a .357 BA/ .426 OBP/ .949 OPS. How did he do this? He toted up 5 double-play grounders in 10.2 innings of pitching.
  • The Astros had five hitters who had as many or more walks than strikeouts and none of them were named Michael Brantley (with a still good 8 walks/9 Ks). Yuli (12/11), Carlos Correa (14/13), Bregman (15/11), Aledmys Diaz (6/6) and Abraham Toro (5/4) were all on the good side of hitting eyes in August.

Anyway, bottom line, do you agree with these awards?

Want to propose awards of your own?

In praise of Justin Verlander

Friend of the blog, Becky, was asking us before Sunday’s game, do we remember what we were doing at 11:59 PM on August 31st two years ago. Not sure what everyone else was doing, but I’m pretty sure I was sleeping. But most of us awoke to a glorious September 1st, that brought us one of the best pitchers ever and one who would be the catalyst for the Astros first World Series run.

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