Where do the Houston Astros go from here? The 60-game sprint may not be an indicative sample size of future performance, but it may have been more telling for the Astros than any other team. They made the playoffs as a team with a sub-.500 record and went ahead and beat the Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, and took the Tampa Bay Rays to a decisive seventh game, erasing a 3-0 deficit in the process.
The lineup looks about the same for 2021, with one huge absence. We can say the same about the starting rotation. We saw the best and the worst of the Astros in 2020. We saw a team still capable of playing with the upper echelon ballclubs and a team that could tremendously struggle as escalating payroll costs and impending free agency threaten the roster.
We also saw the organizational depth on display in the forms of Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez, and Kyle Tucker. What the 60-game sprint told me was that this is a team that remains here to stay. Are the dominant Astros of 2017-19 a thing of the past? Probably. This won’t be a team that wins 311 games over the next three full seasons. This won’t be a team that outscores the opposition by 280 runs, as was the case in 2019. This won’t be a team that waltzes to the AL West title.
This also won’t be a team that bottoms out, falling to obscurity just a few seasons removed from a World Series title and a couple seasons removed from a loss in Game 7 of the Fall Classic. Instead, this will be a team that reaps the fruits of a development plan that other teams should look to emulate. A team that plugs in the right free agent signings and locks in on the right trade acquisitions. A team that will find more payroll flexibility after 2022 and will almost assuredly use that in a positive way, possibility with a Trade Deadline move over the summer, a la Zack Greinke in 2019.
Are these all things that you were aware of heading into 2021? Perhaps they are. Perhaps you already knew that the Astros would be a legitimate contender for not only the AL West title, but also the World Series. But, I didn’t want you to lose sight of any of those facts because of a 29-31 regular season. A season in which the Astros used as many pitchers in 60 games as they used the previous season in 162 games. A season in which the Astros shaved nearly three years off of the average age of their pitching staff and still found playoff success.
This Astros team starts 2021 with a clean slate. There is no CODEBREAKER scandal hanging over them from the sign-stealing scheme that got AJ Hinch fired and forced the Astros to retool the front office. There is no World Series hangover. There is no concern over the loss of Gerrit Cole. Justin Verlander pitched six innings of one game before sitting out the season and then having Tommy John surgery. That had a major impact on 2020.
This is a young, hungry, uber-talented team that is built to win now and to continue winning down the road, with an owner committed to spending and a system committed to producing Major League talent.
Expectations have been tempered. Is it possible that the Houston Astros could be flying under the radar?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL West
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Los Angeles Angels||+375|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-5 (4.41/4.50)||+300 (5.90/4.05)|
|3rd Order Win%||27.5-32.5||116.5-45.5|
|Record in One-Run Games||10-14||24-19|
Additions: Steve Cishek, Steven Souza Jr., Jason Castro, Pedro Baez, Ryne Stanek, Jose Siri, Luke Berryhill
Losses: Cy Sneed, Dustin Garneau, Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski, Chase De Jong, Josh Reddick, George Springer, Brad Peacock, Cionel Perez, Brandon Bailey, Humberto Castellanos, Jack Mayfield, Rogelio Armenteros, Carlos Sanabria, Joe Biagini
This is the type of offseason that will create overreactions. The Astros lost George Springer to a high-profile free agent deal with the Blue Jays. Bullpen fixtures like Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, and Cionel Perez were traded. With Justin Verlander out for basically all of 2021, I have no doubt that people will overrate and overvalue those losses.
I actually like the additions of Pedro Baez and Ryne Stanek to the bullpen. I like the reunion with Jason Castro. The Astros also have one of the best player development staffs in baseball, so they’re typically replacing proven Major Leaguers with other ones or young guys that have upside.
I’m hoping perception is a little low on this team and it seems to be based on the betting odds.
|Batting Average (BA)||.240 (20th)||.274 (1st)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.312 (23rd)||.352 (1st)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.408 (16th)||.495 (1st)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.311 (18th)||.355 (1st)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||100 (17th)||125 (1st)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.273 (25th)||.296 (16th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||19.7% (1st)||18.2% (1st)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.6% (19th)||10.1% (1st)|
There is a lot to unpack here with the drop-off from 2019 to 2020. The Astros really fell off the map offensively. They dropped 34 points in batting average, 40 in OBP, 87 in SLG, 44 in wOBA, and actually graded out as an exactly average offense by wRC+. Because wRC+ is park-adjusted, it does take into account the fact that the Astros played in a lot of really good pitcher’s parks for the majority of their season last year.
This was nothing like the Astros teams we’ve seen in recent seasons, even though most of the players were the same. Houston even led the league in K% again last season and still had major issues on offense. Furthermore, in a season that had the highest BB% since 2000, the Astros dropped all the way to 19th in that department.
When you consider that George Springer, who led the team in SLG, wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR, is gone, it is hard to fathom how the Astros bounce back offensively and resemble the team that we’ve seen the last several seasons.
Well, I’ll start by saying that outside of Springer, basically everybody is back. We’re talking about some dudes with some serious track records. Jose Altuve was limited to 48 games and posted a poor .278 wOBA with a 77 wRC+. Over the previous six seasons, Altuve’s lowest wRC+ was 124, meaning in his worst season, he was 24% better than league average. I think it’s safe to assume he’ll bounce back. He did turn 30 last year and has a body type and plays a position that makes him more susceptible to the aging curve, but we’re not at that point yet. Out of 130 players with at least 50 batted balls of 95+ mph, Altuve was 125th in batting average.
Alex Bregman went from back-to-back MVP-caliber seasons to something of a dud last season with a .345 wOBA and a 123 wRC+. Imagine calling a 123 wRC+ a dud, but that is the bar that Bregman has set. Bregman had no batted ball luck last season with a .254 BABIP. Bregman had the lowest pop up rate of his career and still lagged in BABIP. That will change. I would anticipate that he’s back to raking.
Michael Brantley is maybe the most projectable hitter in baseball. He was good last season and he’ll be good again next season, but what was lost in all of the Astros drama last season is that Kyle Tucker burst on the scene with regular playing time and had a .349 wOBA with a 126 wRC+.
If Yordan Alvarez returns from his chronic knee injury, it will be Tucker in right field with Brantley playing the short porch of the Crawford Boxes in left. Center field would appear to be the only outfield weakness, but Myles Straw did walk a ton and steal a lot of bases on his way up the ranks. I’m not sure how well he hits, but he could provide value in other ways. He’s projected to be a very good fielder.
I have no idea what we get from Alvarez. The knee is an ongoing issue and one that won’t be fixed anytime soon. It more or less relegates him to DH duties. But when he can stand in there four times a game, he is a weapon. He slashed .313/.412/.655 with a .432 wOBA and a 178 wRC+ in 369 plate appearances in 2019. If we add his minor league numbers, he hit 50 home runs between Triple-A and the big leagues. He makes violent, authoritative contact.
The only spots we haven’t covered yet are shortstop and first base. I’m not a huge Carlos Correa guy, as we’ve seen the numbers oscillate back and forth throughout his career, but he should be better than what we saw last season. If nothing else, his 7.2% BB% is going to go up as a guy with a career 10.5% mark. I’d assume he’s got a 110-115 wRC+ this season.
Yuli Gurriel really bottomed out. He went from a 132 wRC+ to a 79 wRC+ and basically lost his power. There is no reason not to expect league average or better from him. Between Martin Maldonado and Jason Castro, the catcher position should be productive.
My guess from last season is that the Astros just didn’t really care. The season felt like a gimmick to a team that has been dominant in the AL West for a long period of time. The Astros didn’t walk as much as we had seen in the past and seemed to mostly go through the motions for a while before eventually becoming a playoff team with a losing record.
Houston’s 11.8% HR/FB% was 26th in all of baseball. They were sixth at 17.3% in 2019. Between apathy and the park factor handicaps by playing all West Division games, I think this offense fell much farther than it should have. I am buying a lot of stock in this offense this season. They are coming into the season underappreciated and undervalued and I’m eager to take advantage.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.31 (13th)||3.66 (2nd)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.33 (11th)||3.98 (3rd)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.43 (14th)||3.80 (1st)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.5% (13th)||27.9% (1st)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.7% (20th)||7.5% (4th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||71.5% (14th)||76.8% (1st)|
I have a high degree of confidence in the offense. The pitching staff is the area of the team that scares me. Gerrit Cole left prior to last season and did his usual thing for the Yankees. The Astros clearly missed him, as they fell from a bona fide top-five pitching staff to around league average.
Cole wasn’t the only loss. Justin Verlander had Tommy John surgery and threw just 73 pitches for the season. Losing Verlander just a few months after losing Cole is unimaginable. We’re talking about 212.1 innings of a 2.50/2.64/2.48 pitcher slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP) for Cole in 2019 and 223 innings of a 2.58/3.27/3.18 from Verlander. We’re talking about 626 strikeouts in 335.1 innings. It was going to be impossible to replace Cole to begin with, but then Verlander went out and we all knew that the Astros were up against it.
As it turned out, they found a way. And they did some things that have me feeling pretty bullish on this rotation for this season. Zack Greinke was solid again, though his 4.03 ERA will stick in the craw of those stuck in 1995 with their analysis of pitchers. Greinke had a 4.03 ERA, but a 2.80 FIP and a 3.51 xFIP. His 68.5% LOB% and .321 BABIP were to blame. Greinke hadn’t had a LOB% that low since he was with the Brewers in 2011. That was his highest BABIP allowed since 2005.
Greinke is elite when it comes to hard contact suppression and exit velocity. In no way did his numbers from last season support a .321 BABIP. He’s a bounce back candidate in the traditional ERA metric and I’d expect something between his 2.80 FIP and 3.51 xFIP.
But Greinke isn’t under the microscope here. Instead, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier are. Let’s start with Valdez because he is sort of the poster child for all of this. The single most important development in 2020 for the Astros is that they harnessed Framber Valdez’s control. Valdez walked 13.4% of batters in 70.2 innings in 2019. He walked 5.6% of batters in 70.2 innings in 2020. His K% spiked from 20.7% to 26.4%.
Valdez didn’t throw first-pitch strikes at that much higher of a rate. His swinging strike percentage even fell. Hitters chased a little more, but not that much more. What happened? How did the Astros take a guy with huge control problems and turn him into a guy with an 86th percentile BB%?
Valdez shelved the fastball and threw more sinkers, a pitch that he could get on top of and command more. The trade-off was increased exit velocity, but Valdez pounded the zone with the sinker. He has a plus-plus curveball already. The Astros also worked on a changeup with him that wasn’t his best pitch, but at least gave him something that tunnels like the sinker.
I’m not sure everything that happened with Valdez sticks, but he looks a lot more like a viable rotation piece than he did. Valdez had a 5.86 ERA with a 4.98 FIP in 2019. He had a 3.57 and a 2.85 last season. While I’m not expecting a full repeat of that with fewer pitcher’s parks, I still think he can hold an ERA and a FIP under 4.00.
Along those same lines, the Astros took a kid in Cristian Javier with walk issues in the minors and helped him survive his first big league season with an 8.4% BB%. The K% numbers from the minors didn’t fully translate, largely because he threw Ball 1 to over 55% of batters, but it is a good starting point for some things to work on. Javier is a regression candidate with a 3.48 ERA and a 4.94 FIP, but he induced a lot of weak contact last season.
Jose Urquidy doesn’t have the same walk issues. His issues are more on the command side. He had a 2.73 ERA with a 4.71 FIP in 29.2 innings last season. He’ll likely slot in as the #4 starter to open the season. The other piece of this puzzle is Lance McCullers Jr., who has more of a track record than the other three. McCullers actually looked great after missing all of 2019. He was limited to 55 innings, but he gave the Astros some great work while he was out there.
The Astros rotation has a very high ceiling. Unfortunately, the floor is lower than I expected when I really went in and did a deep dive. The Astros are living kind of dangerously with Valdez and Javier. Urquidy won’t benefit from as many good pitcher’s parks. Greinke and McCullers have to do a lot of heavy lifting.
We’ve also seen a bullpen rebuild on the fly. Ryan Pressly should be the team’s closer/fireman, but beyond that, roles are pretty wide open. Pedro Baez is frustratingly slow, but he’s got a 3.03 ERA and a 3.61 FIP in 356 career relief innings. He’s been solid for the Dodgers and now he’ll look to do that for the Astros. Joe Smith will be back after opting out of last season and the side-winding righty will have another comrade in arms in Steve Cishek if he makes the club.
I’m not sure what we can reasonably expect from Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor, who had some good and some bad last season. The Astros will have to stretch out guys like Brandon Bielak, Forrest Whitley, Luis Garcia, and Bryan Abreu as starters, so they won’t be relief options. The bullpen, like the rotation, seems to have a fairly wide range of outcomes.
Positives & Negatives
I can’t quantify this and I’m not sure that athletes would come right out and say it, but I really feel like the Astros didn’t care last season. They didn’t care, made the playoffs, and still made a big postseason push to showcase how dangerous of a team they really are. Dusty Baker is not a big analytics guy, but I don’t believe that had a negative impact on the ballclub or its engagement level in the season.
COVID wound up overshadowing what we found out about the Astros with regards to their sign-stealing scandal and cheating. I don’t know if opposing fans will even really think about it at games now and give the Astros a hard time. I’m not sure Houston has that “us against the world” mentality that I would have expected to spawn from it. It might as well be eons ago with everything else that has gone on.
Houston Astros Pick & Prediction: Over 86.5
I usually don’t double down with picks. The Astros are one of my World Series wagers because I think they are the likeliest AL West champion and that would put them in the ALDS immediately. At 25/1, I think that is a really good price for a really good team.
But, I’m going to look to do it here with the over. When the Astros had to care, they cared and they looked good doing it. It was only a small sample in the playoffs, but given that they used 26 different pitches in 60 games with an offense that fell off the map, they did pretty damn good to sneak into the playoffs and play pretty well when they got there.
I like to try to prey on unders as much as possible because when you look at win total lines, they are inherently skewed towards the over. When you add them up, there are more wins than what is actually available in 2,430 games, but this win total is too low. You notice, if you’ve been reading to this point, that another over bet for me was the Rays.
It is stunning to me that really good teams that are strong from the top down are being priced lower than they should be simply because of the awkward 2020 season or because of offseason transactions that are being overblown. The loss of Springer will be a big deal for the Astros and of course they’d love to have Verlander, but there are certainly contingency plans in place by this point.
Over 86.5 is on my bet list. Like I said, I like looking at unders as much as possible, but if I can bet what I believe to be cheap overs on teams like the Rays and Astros, I’m going to do it.