Are Astros bats poised to break out? Musings on tonight’s starting lineup


The Astros offense seems to be going in cycles this season. A big game on Opening night was followed by a near hitless evening that started a downward trend that lasted until the offense exploded in Seattle. A couple of up-and-down stretches later, the Astros struggled in Boston before breaking out again in New York.

Unfortunately, the Astros weren’t able to sustain the momentum from the series opener against the Yankees and have failed to win any of the last four games — the last three of which were extremely close contests. The young team has had trouble winning the close ones, partially due to the struggles of the bullpen. But the relief pitching has been better lately as Bo Porterhas some new arms to call upon and is starting to make better use of his resources.

Still, a big night from the offense is the best cure for a losing streak. After struggling on the road, Robbie Grossman seems to be enjoying the comforts of home. It appears as though Porter is set on batting Grossman in the leadoff spot. Grossman is hitting .316 during his current 5-game hitting streak which also includes four walks. But Grossman has only scored two runs over that period. If the rookie can continue to get on base ahead of the consistent bat of Jose Altuve we are likely to see him crossing the plate on a regular basis.

Jason Castro gets his second straight start at DH (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Number three hitter Jason Castro has also stepped up his offense in recent days. Jason had a career high 9-game hitting streak snapped last night. After catching all 14 innings of Thursday’s game, Castro was the Astros DH on Friday. He’s back at DH tonight and in his familiar #3 spot in the batting order.

Carlos Pena is batting cleanup tonight and playing first base. Pena is on a 6-game hitting streak and his willingness to bunt against the defensive over-shift may buy him a few more hits as time goes on.

With Castro at DH and Lucas Harrell on the mound, Carlos Corporan gets the nod behind the plate. Corporan has worked well with the Astros #2 starter and had a big game offensively in Harrell’s last start. Although his overall numbers are better against lefties, the switch-hitting Corporan has more power from the left side of the plate. All of Corporan’s five career homers have come against right-handed pitchers. Tonight’s starter for Detroit, Max Scherzer, is right-handed.

Chris Carter finds himself hitting lower in the lineup (he’s batting sixth tonight) as he struggles to find consistency. The only thing he has been doing consistently is striking out. But the power is there. Carter leads the club with six homeruns even though he has yet to take advantage of the inviting Crawford Boxes — something that should happen sooner rather than later.

Ronny Cedeno gets the surprise start at shortstop tonight. Due to their lopsided splits, Cedeno usually starts against lefties while Marwin Gonzalez is the regular against right-handers. Either Gonzalez is tired or Bo Porter is playing a hunch here.

Rick Ankiel gets the start in rightfield and hits eighth tonight.  Ankiel, who is tied with Brandon Laird for the team lead in slugging percentage at .517, hasn’t homered since April 22nd. Perhaps he’s due. Laird has been surprisingly absent from the starting lineup for the last four games.

Third-baseman Matt Dominguez slides down to the #9 spot in the order. Dominguez had two hits last night and is still looking for his first homerun. Matt is one of the Astros leaders in line drive percentage — more on that later.

Scherzer is a tough opponent but something tells me the Astros are ready to have a big game. Followers of sabermetrics might say otherwise, especially those who believe in BABIP (batting average on balls in play). BABIP is used to measure the degree of luck that a batter (or team) is experiencing. The Astros currently have the second highest BABIP in the American League, trailing only the Red Sox.

Some believe that a high BABIP means a player (or team) is getting lucky and will eventually fall back to the pack and that a low BABIP suggests one is experiencing bad luck at the plate. I am not one of those believers. Last season Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, and Joe Mauer were among the league leaders in BABIP. That’s not what I would call a group of lucky hitters. I think they are actually pretty good.

If you’re going to look at a stat that completely ignores the three true outcomes (homeruns, walks, and strikeouts) I prefer line drive percentage. Unlike BABIP, line drive percentage gives a more accurate reading of solid contact. Entering tonight’s game the Astros are fourth in the American League with a line drive percentage of 21.0. Anything above 20% is pretty good. Last season Colorado’s Dexter Fowler led the majors with a 27.2% line drive rate. He was also the league leader in BABIP. Lucky? I don’t think so. The last time I checked, Fowler is off to a nice start to the 2013 season. Hitting line drives is good.

Dexter Fowler (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Last night the Astros prevented Tigers’ pitchers from tying the Major League record of consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts. But strikeouts have been an issue for the ‘Stros in the early going. If they can make consistent contact against Scherzer tonight good things should happen.