While the Houston Astros have more problems than I care to name in one post, in my opinion, their biggest issue is their defensive wretchedness. They rank at or near the bottom in most defensive categories, including fielding runs above average, where they rank 29th with a NEGATIVE 40.6 rating. The Astros’ roster is filled with less than adequate defenders, and that must change if they plan to be competitive anytime soon.
If you take a look at the top five defensive teams in the MLB according to fielding runs above average, you will find five teams with payrolls under $100 million. The Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates are all above .500 with a combined record of 300-240 for 2013. If the Astros are going to succeed anytime soon without a top-notch rotation or offense, their focus should most certainly be on defense.
If you look solely at the stats, the current roster has just two plus defenders. Centerfielder Brandon Barnes has proven that he is a human highlight reel. Night after night he makes spectacular plays by getting great jumps and having outstanding field (and wall) awareness. He wasn’t blessed with exceptional speed like a majority of gold glove caliber centerfielders, but he reads the ball well off the bat and always puts himself in a position to make a play.
While we’ve only seen about 85 innings worth of shortstop Jonathan Villar, there’s been a lot to like. He’s shown good range, quickness and a plus arm. He makes tough plays look effortless and could end up being the Astros’ long-term solution at shortstop. One of the big knocks on Villar in the minors was his inability to consistently make the routine plays. This usually happens when a fielder has a temporary loss of focus and gets caught “going through the motions”. Hopefully being on the big stage will be enough to keep Villar focused.
Matt Dominguez has the ability to get to any ball on the left side of the infield, but he’s had his share of issues this year. His numbers say that he is a below average fielder, but anyone that’s seen him play knows that he makes plays that very few third sackers can make. He has made plays on 38 balls outside of his zone, but the issue has been the team-high eleven errors this season. Like Villar, Dominguez’s issues have been a lack of focus at times, as seven of those errors were of the throwing variety.
I think the Astros know what they have in Jose Altuve. He’s a free swinger that can barrel-up nearly any pitch in any location. They knew when signing him to an extension that he would never consistently show prowess defensively. Jose is an adequate defender that can make some outstanding plays, but due to his physical limitations, he will never be able to be an elite second baseman. This season he’s made plays on 74% of balls within his zone, while the elite defensive second basemen are in the 80-90% range.
While the Astros are still a long ways from being a good team, just improving their defense could help them to be consistently more competitive. I do feel much better about their abilities now that they have Robbie Grossman in left next to Barnes, and Jonathan Villar has taken over for the steel-handed Ronny Cedeno. Hopefully the Astros will make defense a determining factor when assembling their 2014 roster.