Astros Observations: The General Lack of Offense

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 30: Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros reacts after flying out to deep center in the fifth inning against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park on April 30, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 30: Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros reacts after flying out to deep center in the fifth inning against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park on April 30, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

A time to panic for the Astros? Nope, not really a time to panic. Yet.

Let’s start this post off on this note: the Astros‘ offense is in a funk. Yes, this is the elephant in the room for the defending World Series champions. Back-to-back shutouts are never a good look for an offense. The record-breaking offense from last season has not returned.

Not yet, anyway.

If I could be frank, we shouldn’t be overly surprised that the bats are faltering. After all, it is hard to replicate the type of success — 121 wRC+ — that the 2017 Astros enjoyed at the plate. Only three teams posted a higher wRC+ since the start of the live ball era in 1920: the 1927, 1930, and 1931 Yankees.

This season, the Astros’ lineup has posted only a 106 wRC+ entering Wednesday’s game against the Yankees. I expect the wRC+ to be slightly worse on Thursday.

Stat check: Yes, the Astros’ wRC+ entering Thursday is 103.

The team’s offense is clearly down. However, the offense across baseball throughout Regardless, the Yankees and Braves were tied for the best offense in terms of wRC+ at 114 entering Wednesday. The Astros were at 106 in wRC+. Not too far off the mark early on this season.

That stated, there are a few areas of concern for the Astros. For one, the overall lack of production from left field and designated hitter. Even first base, third base, and center field have been less-than-stellar. Here is the current OPS by each position and the current rank in the American League.

First base: .640 OPS (14th)

Third base: .719 OPS (12th)

Left field: .617 OPS (12th)

Center field: .669 (11th)

Designated hitter: .541 (15th)

If I can be even more frank for a second, these numbers are concerning. Sure, we are only early May. Way too early to sound off any major alarms. Yet, these numbers are concerning. You can’t tell me the numbers aren’t concerning. And concern is different than panic.

Realistically, I think it is fair to not be overly concerned about first and third base in the long-term. Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman are solid baseball players. Quite talented, in fact. Don’t forget Gurriel has only played in 17 games. He is still shaking off the rust. His numbers should rebound before too long if his 2017 season has any predictive authority. In Bregman’s case, he did get off to a slow start last year in the first-half — 105 wRC+ — before his second-half improvement — 141 wRC+ -, which was essential during Carlos Correa‘s extended absence from his injured thumb. George Springer is the current center fielder, so I do not expect much a slump all season long.

One reason behind this author’s optimism besides the first- and second-half splits is the expected wOBA compared to the actual wOBA. Here are the figures for Gurriel, Bregman, and Springer.

xwOBA – wOBA

Gurriel: .307 – .281 =  -.026

Bregman: .361 – .321 =  -.040

Springer: .404 – .337 =  -.067

If I translate the numbers into one sentence, it would be this: I do expect for Gurriel, Bregman, and Springer to start hitting better based on their batted ball results.

The numbers that should be of an overt concern is left field and designated hitter. Derek Fisher only has a 58 wRC+ in 56 plate appearances. Marwin Gonzalez has not come close to replicating his impressive four-win pace from last season. And Evan Gattis as the designated hitter experiment has not gone well. In his career, Gattis has posted a 90 wRC+ as the designated hitter.

As the catcher, Gattis’ wRC+ climbs to 133. Sure, we may see some improvement over the season if Gattis sticks as the designated hitter. But he would have to turn it around in a major way to be a positive in the lineup. At the same time, his defense behind the plate is not quite on the same level as the current catching duo of Brian McCann and Max Stassi. And with Stassi’s improvement with the bat, it would be difficult to justify demoting him to play Gattis at catcher part-time.

Let’s do the same exercise expected wOBA and actual wOBA as before for Fisher, Gonzalez, and Gattis.

xwOBA – wOBA

Fisher: .287 – .248 =  -.039

Gonzalez: .288 – .293 =  .005

Gattis: .249 – .252 =  .003

If I could translate into one sentence, well, it may be not appropiate for all parties. In a more detailed and web-friendly manner, I will explain. First, Fisher has been performing below what his expected wOBA based on his batted ball results. Alas, the .287 expected wOBA is still not good. While this is Statcast data I’ve utilized, the FanGraphs rule of thumb has an average wOBA around .320. I don’t think it is too outlandish to assume that Statcast and FanGraphs’ wOBA are overall similar. As you can clearly see, all of the three immediatley listed above (and Gurriel) have an expected wOBA that is considered less than average. Way below average, in fact. But Fisher has talent, and he could turn it around as he gains experience. If not, the Kyle Tucker promotion chatter will start to grow louder.

In terms of Gonzalez, we may have seen his high water mark last season. Unfortunately for him, a potential career-year came one year too early as his contracts ends following the conclusion of this season in 2018. And we all witnessed how adverse teams were on the free-agent market to players. And he has hit about what the batted ball results expect him to hit. The same thought applies to Gattis. Improvement can be made as expected and actual wOBA are not perfect metrics. The metrics can sometimes transform over the course of a 162-game season. But the early indications are not pleasant.

Next: Is it time for the Astros to make lineup changes?

Overall, the Astros are currently ranked eighth in the American League in team OPS at .726. Only the Twins at .717 and the Indians at .716 rank worse out of the presumptive contenders. If it wasn’t for the Astros’ pitching staff and their strong start, the overall concern would be even more alarming. Hopefully the lineup starts to regain its past success. There is still plenty of time.

**Statistics and information courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant**