Did the Astros Intentionally Decide To Cut Back on Strikeouts?

Sep 21, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis (11) hits a two-run home run during the sixth inning as Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell (63) looks on at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kenny Karst-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis (11) hits a two-run home run during the sixth inning as Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell (63) looks on at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kenny Karst-USA TODAY Sports /

The Astros lineup at one point in time used to be a breeding ground of strikeout-prone hitters.

Strikeouts were once a part of the Astros offensive identity. It appeared that Houston’s front office didn’t mind the strikeouts. As long as there were above average skills in the equation (power, defense, pitch framing), the strikeouts were viewed as a small price to pay.

Look no further than the examples of Chris Carter and Jason Castro. Both possessed a notable propensity to strike out more than their fellow batsman.

Carter K% with the Astros: 33.7 K%

Castro K% with the Astros: 27.4 K%

But each had skills that allowed teams to employ them in nearly everyday roles. Carter and his power immediately comes to mind. Castro and his pitch framing abilities as well. They were Astros regulars for an extended amount of time. To be fair though, Houston did employ plenty of hitters that struck out more than others. Colby Rasmus was another whom strikeouts seem drawn to in his career. It’s just that Carter and Castro were just the first two names to pop into my baseball-obsessed mind.

To drive the point home, did you know that the Astros had the highest K% of any team in baseball from 2013-16? A whopping 23.9 K%! In fact, it was wondered whether the analytics savvy front office discovered a market inefficiency.

Fast forward to this offseason and the Astros have suddenly, sort of, changed their ways.

The strikeout-prone hitters that we’ve grown to slightly adore are no longer on the team. Carter has now been an ex-Astro for over a full calendar year. Rasmus is in Tampa Bay and Castro signed a new contract with the Minnesota Twins this winter.

Normally this would be a non-topic when you consider that players naturally come and go. And it easy to see why Houston let Carter, Rasmus, and Castro go elsewhere.

But the players that the Astros acquired this offseason have one notable common link: the propensity for less strikeouts.

Think about it for a minute. Carlos Beltran isn’t notorious for strikeouts. Nori Aoki is most definitely not known for strikeouts. If anything else, he is known for the exact opposite. Josh Reddick is another hitter who doesn’t generate many strikeouts. And strikeouts have never been an issue for Brian McCann. But don’t take my word for it; check out these statistics.

Beltran career K%: 16.1 K%

Aoki career K%: 8.0 K%

Reddick career K%: 17.1 K%

McCann career K%: 15.3 K%

As you can summarize from above, these new Astros hitters shouldn’t generate much in terms of strikeouts. When you add the newbies to the existing Astros lineup with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Evan Gattis, and Yulieski Gurriel, then you can see the K% dropping before a game is even played.

At this point, the Astros primary strikeout point person could very well be George Springer. Like Carter, Castro, and others before him, Springer provides enough above average skills to where he mitigates the strikeout issue. In fact, his other skills are so good that strikeouts shouldn’t be a major concern with him for quite some time.

This leads back to my original point in this post: Did the Astro intentionally set out to be less about the strikeouts in 2017?

It is rather difficult to determine how intentional Jeff Luhnow was this offseason in terms of this premise. Sure, he probably has memories of the Astros striking out more times than he cares to remember. But it wasn’t like this strikeout issue wasn’t costing the team dearly in terms of competitiveness.

Another angle to use is whether the Astros wanted to increase the contact potential. Last season, Houston finished 28th in overall contact percentage at 75.5%. The year before the team finished 29th.

Lo and behold, the players that the Astros acquired this offseason (Beltan, Aoki, McCann, and Reddick) each have better contact percentages than the former Astros (Carter, Castro, and Rasmus) from 2015-16. And yes, I know that Carter did not play for Houston in 2016.

Beltran contact %: 83.2%

Aoki contact %: 90.4%

Reddick contact %: 85.8%

McCann contact %: 83.3%

Carter contact %: 64.4%

Castro contact %: 70.1%

Rasmus contact %: 69.2%

Here is an interesting tidbit for everyone about contact percentage: In 2015, the Chicago Cubs were the only team with a worse contact percentage at 74.7% than the Astros. Last year, the Cubs were 24th. Yes, this wasn’t a drastic jump up the leaderboard. However, it does make one wonder whether improved contact will truly help a team’s fortunes.

Next: Projecting the Astros Opening Day Roster

Either way, the Astros have seem to embrace less strikeouts and more contact. The transactions that the front office consummated this offseason seem to support the theory. Whether that turns into more wins in a tough American League is left to be seen. But the offense should be Houston’s best asset in 2017.

**Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs**