A Brief Introduction and A Look at The 2015 PITCHf/x Astros

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Astros PITCHf/x

Aug 25, 2015; Bronx, NY, USA; Houston Astros first baseman Luis Valbuena (18) hits a two run double in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

With that backdrop, I have recently spent a lot of time diving into the PITCHf/x database for the 2015 Astros. For the uninitiated – and this world of infinite information is still very new to baseball – PITCHf/x is a system that tracks the speed and trajectory of all pitched baseballs, and can be combined with the outcome of those pitches and at-bats to give us a treasure trove of information about the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of pitchers, hitters and teams. Because all MLB ballparks are outfitted with PITCHf/x cameras, we have a full database for every year going back to 2006.

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What can PITCHf/x tell us about the 2015 Houston Astros? Here are a few interesting findings related to our recent offensive struggles. I will be working these into my writing in more detail in the future:

  1. The Astros struggle – more than most teams – with big velocity

I did a PITCHf/x search for fastballs 93 MPH or harder, and dove into the data. Despite having seen a league-average number of these pitches, and having an above-average run scoring offense overall, the Astros have produced only 237 run-scoring swings (homers, other hits, sacrifice flies, etc.) on fastballs over 93 MPH. Houston ranks 27th in MLB, and ahead of only Oakland in the American League. The league leaders, the mighty Blue Jays, have 346. The Royals are close behind. For the record, this also might help explain why the Astros won both of those season series: the Jays and Royals are comparatively weak against softer pitching.

The Rangers, with their improved late-inning bullpen built around velocity from both sides, have given the Astros fits late. As have several high-velocity starting pitchers with otherwise shaky results in 2015 (see Santana, Ervin).

  1. The Astros swing in a lot in hitters’ counts

This idea backs up something many fans have noticed: the Astros have a fairly bright green light when ahead in counts, even 3-0.

If you look at the three primary hitters’ counts as a group (3-0, 3-1 and 2-0), the Astros rank 5th in baseball with 616 swings this season. It’s worth noting that the Cubs, another modern Moneyball-inspired team, leads the league. In an era of depleted offense and strong bullpens, smart teams have begun to migrate away from taking pitches to get starters out of the game and try to build big innings. The new philosophy – for some front offices, anyway – suggests that the possibility of getting a meatball in a hitters’ count strongly encourages a swing in most situations.

On 3-0, the Astros are the free-swinging kings, and it’s not even close. Houston has swung at 39 such pitches this year, with no other team over 31.

  1. Off-speed targets (Holy Valbuena!)

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Three players are far and away the leaders on the Astros roster when it comes to being targeted with slower off-speed pitches (curves and changeups) by opposing hurlers:  Luis Valbuena (422), Colby Rasmus (396) and Evan Gattis (375). Nobody else is over 300. For Valbuena, it’s not hard to see why: he has put only 14.9% of off-speed pitches in play and gotten a hit on exactly fourteen of those 422 pitches.

Valbuena is not alone among Astros hitters the league has largely figured out. When you look at the data in more detail, it’s not hard to see why the Astros have struggled to hit in some high leverage situations lately: the combination of big velocity from opposing relievers – who usually throw harder than starters – and growing scouting reports on our existing hitters has been an especially bad combination for the Astros, who have less disciplined hitters with more difficulty with velocity than the league average.

Let’s hope our hitters each have an adjustment or two of their own for the last three weeks.