Our Houston Astros are hitting the home stretch left the last seven weeks of the season, and are in great position to finish with the best record in the AL. With that best overall record, Houston would put themselves in the best possible situation in their quest for a second world series championship.
There has been substantial concern about the team’s weakness – the bullpen — and whether or not it would be good enough to carry them through the playoffs. General manager James click addressed that issue by bringing in stud Kendall Graveman, along with Yimi Garcia and Phil Maton at the deadline. Those acquisitions, in addition to the anticipated returns of both Pedro Baez and Josh James, gives Houston a much stronger bullpen for a deep playoff run.
While the Astros addressed their major weakness at the trade deadline, there’s potentially another hole in the lineup – offensive production out of the bottom third of the order.
The seven-eight-nine spot in a batting order isn’t exactly where the best hitters in the game reside. But come playoffs, when teams are marginally close in talent, a deep balanced lineup where every batter is a tough out could give a team a huge advantage.
The Bottom of the Order: 7-8-9
Currently the Astros have Aledmys Diaz hitting seventh, followed by center fielder Chas McCormick at eighth, and catcher Martin Maldonado hitting ninth. Depending on the matchup, Dusty Baker can mix in either Robel Garcia or Jason Castro into one of those spots. And, assuming Alex Bregman comes back later this month, I’d expect borderline all-star Kyle Tucker to slide down to the 7th spot.
So, the question becomes: can the Kyle Tucker- Aledmys Diaz- Martin Maldonado – Robel Garcia – Jason Castro- Jake Meyers corps provide enough offense at the bottom of the lineup in the playoffs?
When glancing at the career postseason numbers for these guys, you can’t help but get squeamish.
Kyle Tucker: .278 BA (17-61) 1 HR, 6 RBIs – 0.656 OPS
Aledmys Diaz: .230 BA (6-26), 1 HR, 2 RBI – 0.635 OPS
Martin Maldonado: .148 BA (11-74) 3 HRs, 4 RBIs – 0.624 OPS
Jason Castro: .050 BA (1-20) 0 HRs, 2 RBIs – 0.186 OPS
Chas McCormick and Robel Garcia have zero career postseason at bats. Jake Meyers doesn’t even have 10 regular season ABs for his career. Can this crew really be depended upon in October?
Since the 2021 Astros are the best offensive team in the league, let’s compare this team with two other prior championship teams that had a loaded offense – the 2017 Houston Astros and the 2019 Washington Nationals.
2017 Houston Astros
The 2017 Houston Astros, one of the greatest offenses in the history of the game, were incredibly deep and productive at every position in the batting order – especially at the 7-8-9 spots. The primary bottom third of the order that season was 23-year-old Alex Bregman, peak-Marwin Gonzalez and former all-star catcher Brian McCann. Depending on the pitching matchup, AJ Hinch would plug Evan Gattis and former silver slugger Carlos Beltran into the lineup.
Those five “bottom of the lineup” players (Bregman, Gonzalez, McCann, Gattis, Beltran) combined for a .268 batting average in over 2,400 ABs that season. This group had a combined on base percentage of .322 and a slugging percentage a .457 – combining for OPS of .790, a number which was higher than the average of all but 4 teams that season. This five-man average combined for offensive war (oWAR) of 2.5. – an insane average for a team’s group of “lessor” hitters.
Obviously, some of this high production may have been linked to the Astros cheating scandal, although most of these guys had better numbers on the road than at home that season. The overwhelming point here is that this five-guy group was way over-qualified to be in the bottom third of the order that season, and their ability to rake in that part of the order was a huge reason for this team’s 2017 success.
It’s not exactly fair to compare this year’s bottom order to the 2017 team that a future MVP candidate and two former all-stars in those spots. But perhaps a more recent champion would be a better comp.
2019 Washington Nationals
The 2019 Washington Nationals was another team that predicated a lot of their success on their offense that carried them through the second half of the season and all the way to a World Series ring.
**I know, I know – the Nationals play in the National League. Let’s just pretend they are an AL team for this argument.**
When this team played against AL with the DH that season, The Nationals went with 34-year-old All-Star Ryan Zimmerman in their 7th spot, 22-year-old Victor Robles at eighth, and either Yan Gomes or Kurt Suzuki hitting ninth. Gerardo Parra and Michael A Taylor were their additional bats off the bench that Dave Martinez used in certain matchups.
This group (Gomes, Robles, Suzuki, Parra, Zimmerman, Taylor) combined for a solid .256 batting average in roughly 1,300 at bats that season, with an on-base percentage of .320 and a slugging percentage of .433 (0.753 OPS).
These numbers were primarily driven by an underrated great power season by Kurt Suzuki, and an impressive season for Victor Robles where he was among the league’s leaders in OBP and stolen bases. These six players combined to average an offensive war of 1.52 – far less potent than the 2017 Astros, but still well above the offensive league average of 1.15 that season.
So… How Do the 2021 Houston Astros stack up?
Assuming Alex Bregman will rejoin the team, the bottom of the lineup will likely be Kyle Tucker, Chaz McCormick and Martin Maldonado – with a Aledmys Diaz, Jason Castro, Robel Garcia and Jake Meyers as bat options off the bench.
In roughly 1,000 at bats, these seven players have combined for a .240 batting average (.315 OPS, .437 slugging, 0.753 OPS). This group of Astros have combined for an average offensive war of 1.26 – above the league average of 1.07. Not bad, considering that offense is down around the league compared to the 2017 and 2019 seasons.
This year’s Astros have an explosive offense similar o those teams – however, it’s clear they are not at the same level of potency at the bottom of the lineup versus the ’17 Astros and ‘19 Nationals. And since this year’s Astros does not have a top-heavy rotation to anchor like those teams, it creates even more of a need for this year’s squad to have added offense in those spots.
So, can the Astros expect any lift and thus batting spots?
The Astros have some good hitters in this bottom-line up group – simply plug Kyle Tucker, Aledmys Diaz and Chaz McCormick would solve everything. The problem with that is none of those three players play catcher – one of Martin Maldonado or Jason Castro must play.
Maldonado is currently hitting .181 with a sub 600 OPS as the primary everyday catcher. Jason Castro is only hitting .200 with a respectable .350 OBP in his limited at bats this season. Whether those two players improve at the plate or not, Houston will likely stick with them for the rest of the season.
Robel Garcia is looking less everyday like a viable option on offense and more like a potential DFA candidate. And it isn’t exactly fair to expect significant offense from Jake Meyers considering he was just playing in Sugarland two weeks ago. So, the options are somewhat limited.
OPTION 1 – Have Kyle Tucker and Aledmys Diaz both play more CF/OF
One way to solve this would be to have the two best bats of the group (Tucker and Diaz) part of the everyday lineup. Tucker has primarily played LF but has recently seen some action at center field. Diaz is a primary utility infielder but has played 19 career games as an outfielder. Plugging Tucker in at center would allow Diaz to mix in with Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley with the corner outfielder-DH rotation that Dusty Baker has been employing.
The problem is this would pull Diaz away of his true defensive effectiveness as an infielder. Additionally, this would force Tucker to be the primary defensive outfielder at center – something that he might not be quite ready for. I’d also be hesitant to start Diaz every day, considering his recent health history since he joined the club.
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OPTION 2- Trust and play rookie Chas McCormick more
The other option would be to validate the Myles Straw trade and bank on Chas McCormick’s bat. Having a productive McCormick would simplify the bottom of the lineup for Dusty Baker. McCormick could be the primary centerfielder and would let Brantley and Tucker play their natural defensive outfield position. The problem with this solution would be it takes away valuable ABs from Diaz, who’s hitting .297 and has been great since coming back from injury.
The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. A proper mix of Diaz and McCormick gives Houston the best chance to get a higher level of bottom-lineup production without compromising the defense. If Diaz can remain healthy and McCormick can trim down the SO rate closer to league average (he’s at 30% right now), Houston’s offense will raise to another level. (And hey, if either catcher or Jake Meyers want to go on an offensive tear anytime soon – that’d be helpful).
If the Astros end up winning the World Series this year, it’ll be because of their deep pitching rotation and potent offensive at the top of the lineup. But if Houston can have a bottom-of-the-order that can get hits, or get on base, or just not become a “automatic out “come playoffs – their chances will increase even more.
The bottom of the order has entered the ninth with a close game on Wednesday and Friday, and while not coming away with wins, adjustments will come once Bregman returns. The Astros are back in action on Friday at 7:10 p.m. with Zack Greinke matching up against right-hander Bailey Ober.