No News Is Good News and the Astros Have Had News

The 2019 baseball season is a bit different than the previous seasons in that there has been only one trade deadline on July 31 and no separate waiver trade deadline at the end of August. As a result, after having the spotlight of baseball on them at the trade deadline with the pick-ups of pitchers Zack Greinke, Aaron Sanchez, and Joe Biagini and catcher Martin Maldonado, the Astros were hoping for a quiet news month prior to the September 1st minor league call-ups.

Well so much for the team’s hopes for a quiet August. On the plus side, they have continued a trend of playing more than .600 ball with a 13-7 record three weeks into the month of August. On the negative side, they have had some pretty big stories hit the headlines that may not bode well for the run to and through the playoffs.

Ryan Pressly With Knee Surgery

The Astros bullpen was brilliant out of the box this season and was led by first time All Star Pressly. Except for some hiccups leading into an earlier stay on the IL, he has been one of the toughest nuts out of any bullpen in baseball. If he comes back in 4 weeks – he will have a week or two to get ready for the playoffs. If he comes back in 6 weeks the team may be in (or out) of the playoffs. This is the toughest loss as the bullpen has been shaky at best lately.

Correa’s Back Problems Are Back

After missing almost 2 months with a massage injury, Correa is back on the IL with back discomfort, which is what he was suffering from last season when he spent time on the IL and his performance went south. The Astros can ill afford having their star short stop stumble through another playoff crash.

Aaron Sanchez With Shoulder Discomfort

After a spectacular 6 innings leading to a combined no-hitter in his Astros debut, Sanchez struggled in his next appearances culminating in leaving his last start with a shoulder problem that left him with diminished velocity and placed him on the IL. This has led the Astros back to filling their 5th spot in the rotation with a TBD.

Aledmys Diaz With Mystery Problem

The team announced he was feeling dizzy, sent him off to be evaluated and placed him on the IL. Along with Correa’s stint on the IL this has left the team with a very short list of infielders and caused them to call up Jack Mayfield, who was then replaced by Abraham Toro. They also called up OF/SS Myles Straw.

Gerrit Cole Misses a Start

This looks like a non-story now that Cole has come back and dominated on Thursday night, but it caused a bunch of dominoes to fall for at least one roll through the rotation. Luckily he only missed the one start, but it showed how fragile the team’s pitching could be.

Maybe the Derek Fisher Trade Was Not So One Sided

There were many of us (I am one of us) who wondered how the Astros got a starter, a reliever and a prospect for an outfielder with no MLB future in Houston. Sanchez’s injury and Biagini getting bombed has led us to backing off that question for the moment, though Fisher has shown a little power and little else since he joined the Blue Jays.

The Detroit Free Press Apparently Is Not Free to Report

One hopes that the mini-controversy involving Justin Verlander and the blocking of Detroit Free Press’ Anthony Fenech from a post-game interview blows over. But it just seemed so out of character for JV that it makes one wonder. A bigger problem would be if the Astros can’t figure out how to better support their ace with run support, so he might not be so touchy.

Anyways, in a period that was expected to be quiet, the Astros were making a lot more noise (and negative at that) than they or their fans were expecting. Here’s hoping for a better September and October for the team.

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Astros 2019: Who is and who is not clutch?

Friend of the blog Old Pro wrote about how the Astros are one of the best offensive teams around until …….there are people in scoring position, where they are very middle of the road. Which is unfortunate, since they have people in scoring position more often than any team around.

This made your humble writer wonder about who is and is not clutch on this team and this season in two situations – runners in scoring position (RISP) and 2 outs with RISP. The following mini-spreadsheet has the players ranked from best to worst in those situations. It is plain to see that while some of the players are Clutch Cargo, others appear to be clutching their throats in these key situations.

Name Situation ABs HRs RBIs BA OBP OPS
Michael Brantley

 

RISP 108 4 54 .361 .433 1.053
2 outs RISP 48 2 24 .354 .446 1.051
Yordan Alvarez RISP 66 4 34 .348 .408 1.059
2 outs RISP 28 2 15 .357 .419 1.134
Yuli Gurriel RISP 125 9 48 .304 .363 .971
2 outs RISP 63 4 26 .280 .366 .906
Jose Altuve RISP 68 9 38 .279 .406 1.142
2 outs RISP 32 4 15 .313 .450 1.200
George Springer RISP 88 7 43 .307 .409 1.045
2 outs RISP 40 3 15 .225 .340 .890
Aledmys Diaz RISP 41 3 24 .317 .365 1.000
2 outs RISP 20 2 11 .300 .400 1.040
Carlos Correa RISP 81 5 36 .284 .386 .892
2 outs RISP 36 1 10 .222 .349 .682
Alex Bregman RISP 106 6 48 .216 .341 .782
2 outs RISP 41 4 23 .244 .404 1.014
Robinson Chirinos RISP 77 2 25 .182 .295 .619
2 outs RISP 36 1 10 .167 .302 .608
Jake Marisnick RISP 59 0 16 .237 .308 .664
2 outs RISP 33 0 7 .242 .286 .680
Josh Reddick RISP 85 1 25 .235 .291 .597
2 outs RISP 41 0 9 .171 .261 .456
Tyler White RISP 58 1 20 .207 .290 .583
2 outs RISP 23 0 4 .174 .269 .442

Observations…..

  • Eyes are not deceiving on the two best hitters in the lineup, especially in the clutch. Both Michael Brantley and wunderkind Yordan Alvarez are insanely good with RISP and are as good or better when it happens with two outs.
  • Alex Bregman is fairly effective despite his bad BA in both situations. Just imagine what those numbers would look like if he was hitting like last season (.388 BA/.488 OBP/ 1.219 OPS with RISP and .368/.446/1.201 with 2 outs RISP)
  • There is no wonder why Tyler White is gone.
  • There is also no wonder why folks are thinking Josh Reddick may head elsewhere in the off-season.
  • Carlos (Glass Menagerie) Correa is really solid with RISP, unless…..there are 2 outs. Then he is below average as is his buddy Mr. Springer.
  • Yuli, Jose and Aledmys are actually quite good with RISP. End of the lineup guys like Chirinos, Marisnick and Reddick show why they are end of the lineup guys.

So, how would you rank these guys and who do you want to see up or sitting in the dugout when the spotlight brightens?

 

Looking ahead: Astros’ September call-ups

Take a good hard look at the September call-ups for the Astros because what you see in 2019 will not match what will happen next year and at least for the near future. This season the same procedure will be followed as in previous years as teams can call up anyone on the 40 man roster on September 1 until the end of the regular season. Starting next season, the teams will have 26 man rosters, but can only expand them to 28 players, which will make next season a much more intriguing time. It also feels like that 28 player limit is a bit low. Doesn’t 30 sound like a more reasonable upper limit?

Teams can bring up the 15 extra players that would amount to 40 active players, but they never do as this gets unwieldy (plus they probably run out of seats in the dugout and the bullpen). However, it would not be surprising to see the Astros bring up one of their largest contingents of call-ups this time, especially with their recent overuse of their bullpen.

So, here’s a look at the Astros choices for call-ups. (Note: Lance McCullers Jr, who is on the 60 day IL does not count against the 40 man currently, while Aledmys Diaz and Josh James, who are on the 10 day IL do). It is assumed that both Diaz and James return to the active roster once well, but neither will likely return until after Sept. 1.

Slam dunks

  • Joe Biagini – Biagini may well be “called-up” this week rather than Sept. 1. He was only sent down because he had options and he pitched 3 innings earlier in the week.
  • Garrett Stubbs – The Astros will no doubt take advantage and bring up a third catcher to give Martin Maldonado and Robinson Chirinos some breathers down the stretch
  • Myles Straw – The Astros liked what they saw with Straw and his ability to get on base, tear around the bases and play the outfield in his earlier major league appearances
  • Kyle Tucker – Even though he may not get a ton of at bats, the Astros owe their top positional prospect some time in the majors after an up and down, but overall productive season in AAA (.268 BA/ .353 OBP/ .953 OPS / 32 HRs/ 93 RBIs/ 28 SBs)

Likely to get a callup

  • Jose Urquidy – Urquidy had a mixed bag in his mlb appearances, but the Astros will likely bring him up for spot starts or length out of the bullpen
  • Jack Mayfield – He was a poor hitter in his first stint in the majors, but he has hit well at AAA and he is the only infielder on the 40 man, who is not on the 25 man (other than the injured Diaz).  This will be doubly important if Diaz does not return in a timely manner.
  • Jose Armenteros – Yes, he had a lousy appearance the other day, but he has been pretty good at other times in his recent call-ups. The Astros need arms.
  • Framber Valdez – The Astros are so short on leftys that this makes quite a bit of sense to give Framber another go out of the ‘pen.

Likely to get bypassed

  • Brady Rodgers – After a rocky call-up to the big team, he pitched a few times at AAA, got hurt and has been pitching at Rookie ball lately.
  • Dean Deetz – Like a lot of pitchers he has been lit up at AAA (6.11 ERA) and is not likely to get the call.
  • Reymin Guduan – He is a lefty who throws hard, but he has not excelled in either the minors or for a cup of coffee in the majors this season
  • Cionel Perez – He got whacked around at AAA and the majors and is currently getting re-set at Rookie ball
  • Bryan Abreu – Of all the folks on this lower list, he is the one who has been pitching the best lately at AA and might get to follow-up on the one inning of shutout ball he threw with the Astros earlier in the season.

Please, note a couple things. The Astros might wait to promote some of these folks until whatever post season minor league run their team(s) may face. Also, note that if you want to promote someone not on this list (Abraham Toro anyone?) someone has to leave the 40 man to make space for him.

So, what do you think? How would you mold the September call-ups?

2019 Astros: Great expectations

Astro fans are struggling with something this season they never had five seasons ago. Great expectations.

Back in 2014, the team took a toddling step out of the darkness of three straight 100+ loss season, including the depths of Hell 51-111 record in 2013. They ended 2014 at 70-92 and then slipped into the playoffs in 2015, regressed in 2016 and then won it all in 2017.

It is hard to remember as the team has cruised towards a possible third straight 100+ win season, that this team had only won 100 games once (102 games in 1998) in the history of the franchise before this strong run. And thus the result is almost unreasonable expectations by all of us and maybe by the team itself. Show up and beat everyone every series, every game, every match up.

But baseball is a tough marathon of an ever-changing landscape. Teams often go on runs when they beat teams they have no business beating (note the Seattle Mariners start to this season) or go into slumps against teams they should own (note the recent struggles of the Astros). Sometimes a single injury can trigger a fall as the Gerrit Cole hamstring has done. Fans can expect that teams play at the same high level for 162 games and six months, but it just does not work that way, at least not as long as baseball is played by humans and not machines.

The Astros are in better shape this season than last as they have a 7 1/2 game lead heading into Saturday’s games with a heck of a team (on paper). They had a chance to bury the A’s this weekend, but it is not happening after losing the first two games. If they lost two more this lead would get throat tightening to 5.5 games. If they split the last two it will be a reasonable 7.5 games and if they beat the A’s twice they will leave as they came into Oakland with a comfortable 9.5 game lead in the AL West.

There is a lot to be thankful for these days and it is hard to always see that. The Astros are 78-45 today with that 7 1/2 game lead. It seems another lifetime (2013) when the Astros were 41-82 after 123 games, 29 1/2 games out of first place and already mathematically unable to go .500 for the season.

It is OK to have high expectations of this team, but it is also good to remember that they have performed at a high level to get to their current spot.

A perfect storm of bad….

It is so strange how the fortunes of sports teams can change so completely in the matter of a few days or weeks.

Two weeks ago the Astros were riding a huge wave of good news and great actions. At the trade deadline they had picked up the biggest plum in pitcher Zack Greinke and then also picked up another pitcher Aaron Sanchez, who might be a Charlie Morton steal and a solid reliever in Joe Biagini. They had also upgraded backup catcher with Martin Maldonado and they had the super bonus of finding a real Designated Hitter (Yordan Alvarez) over the last couple months to replace their Designated Misser (Tyler White). Their injured position players (Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Aledmys Diaz) had all returned and assimilated themselves back into good production. Plus Yuli Gurriel was so hot you could feel the heat from a few thousand miles away.

But in a perfect storm of bad luck, bad timing and bad performances the Astros have a big challenge facing them on the pitching side of the ledger. What all happened simultaneously to lead to at least a short term crisis?

  • First of all their closer Roberto Osuna capped a couple months of declining performance by handing away a get away game to the terrible Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. There is something about blown saves that is both psychologically depressing to the team and often contagious to the other folks in the bullpen.
  • Also, their oh so crucial pitching coach, Brent Strom is not with the club as he recovers from emergency gastrointestinal surgery.
  • Then the nicely laid out rotation of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Wade Miley and Aaron Sanchez got side swiped by a rain out in Chicago, which forced them to play a doubleheader on Tuesday against the Pale Hosers.
  • Part of the unlucky circumstances was that they would not have another day off for 13 days. This was after having two days off the week before. A day off would have let them skate past the doubleheader issue.  
  • The doubleheader immediately meant they would have a TBD for one of their weekend starts against the A’s if they were going to keep everyone on normal rest. On top of this it meant they would have to use up most of their bullpen in one day as they were likely going to need an inning from three or four relievers in each game.
  • Then in another bad break 2nd game starter Gerrit Cole went lame with discomfort in his hamstring (Can we explore transplanting un-pullable hamstrings into all our Houston athletes? We do have one of the biggest med centers in the world here.) This meant that the Astros had to use multiple relievers for multiple innings each, burning them for use in the day(s) that followed.
  • So when the Astros really needed a good, long outing from Wade Miley on Wednesday – he put up by far his shortest (3.1 innings) and worst (7 runs / 3 earned – but most of the unearned was his fault) performance of the season.
  • On top of this, the Astros pitching in this game, 5 times allowed the White Sox to score in the bottom of an inning where the offense had scored in the top and where All-Star Ryan Pressly gave up the dagger blow, a James McCann tie breaking grand slam with 2 outs 2 strikes in the bottom of the 8th.

The Astros now totter off to Oakland for the kind of four game series that could bury the A’s for the rest of the season or give them new life against our hometown heroes. Will the ill winds continue to blow against their ship?  

One can only hope that the Astros can stop the bleeding. But will they have to wait for Cole’s muscle to heal first?

Astros’ offense a repeat of 2017?

After many struggles and injuries along the way, the Astros offense is becoming one of the best in baseball, reminding folks of their championship team. In 2017, they led all of baseball in almost everything. They were first in the majors with 5.53 runs/game, .282 BA, .346 OBP, .478 SLG and .823 OPS. They were first with 1581 hits, 346 doubles and a “shameful” second in HRs with 238, while striking out 1087 times, the least in the majors.

In 2019, they have been working their way to the top, while having to overcome the following:

  • Thirty-five games missed by Jose Altuve with a knee injury, who was also hitting a very un-Altuve .243 BA when he went down
  • Twenty-seven games missed by George Springer with a hamstring pull when he was in the midst of an MVP start to the season
  • Fifty games missed by Carlos Correa with a rib injury, while he was in the midst of an All-Star worthy season
  • Forty-seven games missed by Aledmys Diaz who was playing very well in his super-sub role when he went down with a hamstring pull
  • Having to play Tyler White for 71 games where he put up a paltry 3 HRs and 21 RBIs
  • Having to play Max Stassi 31 games where he only accounted for 1 HR and 3 RBIs
  • And of course the 16 games Jack Mayfield (.143 BA / .472 OPS) and the 9 games Garrett Stubbs (.160 BA / .422 OPS) played in did not help the overall offensive stats.

But now all the wounded are back and importantly, Yordan Alvarez (17 HRs and 51 RBIs in 46 games with a .355 BA / 1.164 OPS) has come up and been a revelation. When you are being mentioned in the same breath as super rookies like Albert Pujols (.329 BA/ 1.014 OPS – 37 HR and 130 RBIs in 161 games) and Ted Williams (.327 BA / 1.045 OPS – 31 HRs and 145 RBIs in 149 games) that is some achievement.

The Astros are not quite the juggernaut (yet) over the whole season as they were in 2017, but consider the following:

  • They are 1st in the majors with .275 BA/ .350 OBP/ .839 OPS
  • They are 2nd in the majors in slugging with .489 SLG and third in HRs (198) and 4th (but rising) 5.53 runs/game
  • In the 27 games since they were shutout by the Rangers on July 11th, they have averaged 7.22 runs per game
  • In that time they have not scored less than 2 runs in any game
  • The AL average in hitting is .254 BA / .323 OBP / .762 OPS
  • The Astros have 9 players hitting over that .254 BA mark and 6 hitting over .290 BA
  • They have 8 players getting on base above that .323 OBP mark and 6 over .360 OBP
  • They have 10 players over the .762 OPS mark with 6 over .870 OPS
  • The Astros could easily have 11 players with 10 or more HRs and 7 with 20 or more HRs by the end of the season
  • They could also have 7 players with 70 or more RBIs by the end of the season

The bottom line is that with Alvarez, Altuve, Springer, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Correa the Astros have a core of 7 players that every team would envy. Add to this solid support from Josh Reddick and Jake Marisnick with occasional knocks by Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado and this is a team that seems to be flipping the lineup and bringing up the tough hitters every inning.

Will this offense do what the 2017 version did and lead the Astros to another World Series championship? There is a lot of road to cover before that happens, but they seem to have built an offense where anything is possible.

Work, work, work! The Astros’ front office Is just getting started

We’ve all been there in our lives. Some big deadline or event hovers over us (project completion, wedding, vacation, etc.) and once we get past that we naturally relax a bit and slowly get back into our normal gear. But does that apply to a major league team facing and racing past the trade deadline?

Let’s look at the major accomplishments for the Astros’ front office last week:

  • Trade Tyler White, who you have to release anyway for a couple low level prospects
  • Trade Tony Kemp, who you have to release anyway for a backup catcher you desperately need, who also knows most of your pitching staff, Martin Maldonado
  • Trade Derek Fisher, who has no chance of leap frogging the outfielders in front of him in the organization for starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez, reliever Joe Biagini and an outfield prospect, Cal Stevenson
  • And trade four prospects who are all good, but mostly blocked in the organization for the best pitcher to change teams at the trade deadline, Zack Greinke

So, now they can sit back and coast to the playoffs – NOT!

Like the Seven Dwarfs who work, work, work – the front office in conjunction with Manager AJ Hinch and his coaches have a ton of work to do. Let’s look at this list….

  • How to handle the returns of Ryan Pressly, Brad Peacock and Josh James to the 25 man active roster? One way to do this that will not result in the team releasing anyone would be ….Pressly comes back soon and Garrett Stubbs gets optioned to AAA. Peacock comes back soon and Chris Devenski who still has options is sent down to AAA until the Sept 1 roster expansion. Josh James does not come back until after the roster expansion.
  • How to update the line of succession with the roster changes? They will have a different Plan B, C and D with the new folks involved and with some of the old folks gone. Who comes up when player X gets hurt?
  • How to coach up the new folks on the roster from the recent trades? They already have changed the pitch mix on Sanchez. Do they try some Ryan Pressly fairy dust on Biagini? And what do you do with soft tossing ace, Greinke? Do you lessen the number of shifts played behind him? Do you try and change the pitch mix of someone who has been a top line pitcher for a number of years including this one?
  • Who to call up September 1st? Starting next season, this will be a tough call as the roster will be 26 instead of 25 before September, but only expand to 28 after the first of September. This season it is under the old rules where anyone on the 40 man can be in the dugout. The Astros will bring some up but the guess is that this number will be about six to eight. This could include Myles Straw, Kyle Tucker, Garrett Stubbs (if he is sent down), Chris Devenski (if he is sent down), Cy Sneed, Jose Urquidy, Rogelio Armenteros and maybe Framber Valdez. Someone like Bryan Abreu or Cionel Perez might get a shot. This may depend more on who Hinch thinks he can really use.
  • How hard does the team push it for home field advantage? The Astros have been playing excellent ball and still are only 1/2 game up on the Yanks in the AL and a game behind the Dodgers for the overall best record. Who do they rest? Do they give a couple of their older starters (Justin Verlander, Greinke) a 10 day vacation on the IL?
  • How do they line up the rotation for the playoffs? Do they go with their two hammers Gerrit Cole and Verlander in the first two slots or do they get cute and put Wade Miley or Greinke between them to change the hitters viewpoint game to game? What do they do if Sanchez completely outperforms Greinke down the stretch?
  • How soon (it might have started already) do they start scouting possible foes in the playoffs? When do they break down the film and put together the videos that show that player X is susceptible to inside breaking balls on 2 strike counts or whatever? When do they start “Beltranning” the opposition? Looking for the tips and tells on a pitcher that a fastball is coming?
  • How do they fashion their playoff roster for an ALDS or ALCS matchup with the potentials? How many relievers and who do they keep on the playoff roster? Does a Myles Straw turn into the 2017 version of Derek Fisher and find a specialty pinch running, late defense spot? How do they tweak the roster between series if they are that fortunate?
  • And if they make the World Series, what do they do with Yordan Alvarez on the road? It is hard to picture them not finding more than a pinch-hit at bat for him, but they also don’t want to have him giving up runs either with his bum knee in the field.

Basically, the coaches, manager and front office have a ton of work in front of them, but wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Astros’ upward arc since May

It feels like a season ago, but a couple months ago at the end of May, the Astros were in a bit of a pickle. They had just placed SS Carlos Correa on the IL where he joined fellow starters  and All Stars Jose Altuve and George Springer on the list. Oh, and super-sub Aledmys Diaz was on the list already as was backup catcher Max Stassi and starting pitcher Collin McHugh. They had struggled and would continue to struggle with that 5th spot in the rotation and things got dicier when the team had to put 4th starter on the IL at the end of June.

Somehow the team managed a winning record in June (15-12) and then as the wounded began to return they did even better in July (16-8). Even with all that, the shape of their pitching rotation “Verlander, Cole and Miley and two days of your manager being Wily” scared the heck out of the Astros’ fandom. The trade pickups of Zack Greinke, Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini and Martin Maldonado has given the team a super boost that mirrors the Verlander pickup in 2017.

The changes since the beginning of May are pretty amazing:

  • Correa, Altuve, Springer, Diaz and Stassi all come off of the IL. That meant all those at bats that went to Jack Mayfield, Derek Fisher, Myles Straw and Garret Stubbs came to and end.
  • More importantly the musical chairs in the infield with Yuli Gurriel playing 3rd, Alex Bregman playing SS (or sometimes Mayfield or Straw) and Tyler White playing 1B ended also. The defense has tightened up quite a bit with folks in their rightful spots.
  • Wunderkind Yordan Alvarez owns the DH spot that Tyler White could not even rent in 2019. In 80 more at bats, White had 8 less runs scored, 10 less HRs and 20 less RBIs. Alvarez’s .340 BA/ .422 OBP/ 1.115 OPS slash has been amazing in its consistency and in its quality. His 41 RBIs in 41 games is ROY great.
  • Maldonado takes over the backup catcher spot from Stassi. Martin is not a great hitter, but in 3 games he already managed to match Stassi (in 31 games) with 4 runs scored and 1 homer. Oh and he caught 3 games that the Astros won and where the opponents scored 3 total runs and of course the no-hitter on Saturday.
  • The 4th and 5th spot in the rotation, which have been a hodge podge of Framber Valdez, Corbin Martin, Jose Urquidy, Rogelio Armenteros, Josh James and the one start disaster that was Hector Rondon is now the hopefully rejuvenated Aaron Sanchez and All-World Zack Greinke. The Astros starting depth goes from questionable to formidable.
  • Joe Biagini and his high spin rate subs in for Urquidy in the current bullpen adding to the humor rate and hopefully the performance rate.
  • They still expect the return of Ryan Pressly, Josh James and Brad Peacock between now and the end of the year.

The bottom line is that the Astros since the end of May have added in (or added back) 6 former All-Stars to a roster that was pretty strong before the additions. They have to prove it all on the field, but they have a team that can be as tough as any in the majors going forward.