The Astros were known for their amount of strikeouts last season. It may not be the same story in 2018.
In this go-for-broke age of Statcast and launch angles, teams are hell-bent to go yard, and strikeouts are the acceptable collateral damage. Last year, nearly 15 percent of all balls put in play were home runs, the highest rate in baseball history. Meanwhile, those same hitters set a Major League record with 40,104 strikeouts, a rate of roughly 22%.
Flying in the face of this swing-for-the-fence revolution were your World Champion Houston Astros. Oh, they hit home runs – in fact, they hit more home runs than any other team in baseball last year, save the Yankees (who nicked them by a mere three dingers… and then, in case anyone’s forgotten, lost to the Astros in the ALCS. Congrats on your home run title, New York!). But in a royal bucking of the trend, the Astros also recorded the fewest strikeouts in baseball, a remarkable paradox that fueled their season-long offensive dominance.
If you entered the 2018 season worried that Houston’s statistical anomaly would be difficult to sustain, well – thus far, your concern has been justified.
Through their first 13 games, the Astros rank just 18th in home runs and, more alarmingly, third in strikeouts with 122, which is a pace of roughly 430 more strikeouts than last year.
First things first, there’s no power shortage.
The Astros have totaled eleven home runs this year; last year, through thirteen games, they totaled 14. And that was with George Springer going bananas – he hit six through the first thirteen games of 2017; he has just one in 2018.
Meanwhile, there’s been some mild hand-wringing about the Astros’ strikeouts, especially after the Padres came to town this past weekend 1-6 with a -11 run differential and promptly held the Astros to six runs, 16 hits and 20 strikeouts in a three-game series that was an Eric Hosmer “error” away from possibly being a San Diego series win. Then dropping two out of three to the Twins. It was four times in their past six games in which the Astros struck out at least ten times, making many questions if it was time to panic?
The Astros ARE striking out more – but keep in mind, they’ve swapped two veteran low-strikeout hitters from last year’s opening day roster (Nori Aoki and Yuli Gurriel) with Derek Fisher and Marwin Gonzalez, and replaced super-sub Gonzalez with Jake Marisnick, the poster child for the grip-it-and-rip-it era.
Gonzalez struck out 99 times last year to Gurriel’s 62 (in 49 fewer plate appearances for Marwin), and this year, after a rough start, in on pace to strikeout 137 times over the 162 game season.
With Gonzalez at first base full-time, Marisnick has seen more playing time, having totaled 32 at-bats. He has 14 strikeouts thus far, a rate increase of 8% from last year, in which he was already striking out too much (43.8%; up from 34.7%).
Fisher, meanwhile, is on pace to strikeout… well, 176 times (if he reaches 382 plate appearances). Through the first ten games last year, in which he totaled just three fewer plate appearances than Fisher, Aoki had one strikeout. One.
And as bad as the retired Carlos Beltran was last year as the full-time DH, his replacement, Evan Gattis, has been worse; his 30.2% K rate so far is way up from his career average of 21.6%. If you’re a sky-is-falling fan, this might be the one early-season trend that’s truly concerning.
But once Gurriel’s back in the line-up, and manager AJ Hinch can adjust his line-up accordingly (including limiting Gattis’ at-bats, if necessary), the Astros’ efficiency should normalize to some degree – though it’s likely they’ll be unable to replicate last year’s remarkable feat. But if that ends up being the only remarkable feat from last year the Astros can’t repeat, fans should be more than satisfied.
**Statistics and information courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference**