Archive for Astros

Collin McHugh Continues to Trust His Slider

On Wednesday, Collin McHugh pitched well against the Ben Zobrist-less Oakland A’s. Zobrist’s absence made the A’s a weaker version of themselves, but they were still a tougher opponent than the hapless Rangers he saw five days earlier. While McHugh only tossed 5.2 innings and faced just 23 batters, he tied Trevor Bauer for the single-game strikeout lead for 2015 with 11. Although unlike Bauer, McHugh walked zero A’s instead of five Astros.

This is largely noteworthy because Collin McHugh was one of the most prominent breakout players from a year ago, and we’re dying to know how much of that breakout we should take to heart. In 2014, McHugh was a 3-4 win player, who could have been a solid number two starter on almost any team in the league and he posted those numbers in under 160 innings. If McHugh is actually that able, the Astros have five more seasons of a very good pitcher who can help anchor their next playoff rotation.

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Reviewing Jon Singleton’s Contract One Year Later

One year ago, Jon Singleton was a consensus Top-100 prospect. Eleven months ago, he was making around $8,000 per month in Triple-A. Ten months ago, he was was promoted to the majors where the Major League Baseball minimum salary would have paid him a little over $300,000 for the rest of the season. Just yesterday, he was sent back down to the minors where he again would have been making around $40,000 for the season. He is not making $40,000, however, because Singleton signed a controversial contract last year guaranteeing him $10 million before he reached the majors. He’ll make $2 million this season, and every month he spends in the minors he will make 50 times as much money as he would have without his contract.

Nothing is going to change the fact that the Astros likely got a bargain when they signed Singleton. They lowered his potential arbitration salaries and received an option for a free agent year while only guaranteeing $10 million. Even if Singleton does not become a successful major league player, guaranteeing him less than what the team is paying Scott Feldman this year was an easy choice. For Singleton, the choice was not likely so easy.

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Division Preview: AL West

Yesterday, we kicked off our look at each division by going through the NL West. Today, we’ll do the AL version from the land of pitcher’s parks.

The Projected Standings

Team Wins Losses Division Wild Card World Series
Mariners 88 74 45% 25% 9%
Angels 87 75 36% 27% 8%
Athletics 83 79 14% 21% 3%
Astros 78 84 5% 9% 1%
Rangers 73 89 1% 2% 0%

There are two pretty strong contenders at the top, two somewhat interesting teams hanging around the middle, and a likely also-ran. The top of the AL West is unlikely to be as strong this year as it was a year ago, but the low-end of the division should be somewhat better, and the race is open enough to remain interesting all year long. Let’s take a look at the teams.

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On Brady Aiken, the Astros, and Our Lack of Knowledge

Yesterday, 2014’s top overall draft pick Brady Aiken announced that he had undergone Tommy John Surgery, leaving him as a bit of a lottery ticket for this upcoming draft. Aiken, however, made sure to emphasize that he doesn’t regret walking away from the Astros final $5 million offer on the day of the signing deadline.

Since last summer, a lot of people have wondered how I could have turned down a multi-million-dollar signing bonus after being picked first in the draft. Now, I know they’ll probably be wondering about it again. I can honestly say I don’t regret not signing. It was a very difficult decision, but it also was an informed decision based on circumstances only a few people know the truth about. My family and I planned for all the possible outcomes. We weighed the pros and cons, talked with friends and mentors and doctors whose opinions we value and discussed it over a number of family dinners. This wasn’t a decision we made lightly.

The money wasn’t the only factor to consider. I wanted to play somewhere I felt comfortable, with a support system I felt would lay the groundwork for a successful and long career. Making sure I had that in place was worth the frustration of not being able to get on with my career sooner.

My family was smart, and we accounted for all of the possible risks. Having gone through this process, I really encourage other players to take the time to be fully educated about what they are getting into and to plan for the unexpected. Having a solid plan helped me through the ups and downs. Even now, I know I made the decision that made the most sense for my future.

The second paragraph is the latest in a long list of complaints Aiken and his representatives — primarily Casey Close — have lobbed at the Astros. It is not news that the negotiations between the Astros and Aiken’s camp were contentious, and as Mike Petriello wrote after it all fell apart, both sides came out of it looking poorly. And while yesterday’s news certainly seems to validate the Astros medical concerns about the risk potential of Aiken’s elbow, I have to mostly agree with Evan Drellich that using this news to proclaim that the Astros were right and Aiken’s camp were wrong is drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence to support it. Let’s just quote Drellich’s piece:

What did the Astros believe?

There appears to be a public assumption that the Astros’ stance was that Aiken would fall apart, that they wanted nothing to do with him.

The situation wasn’t nearly that black and white. In simple terms, the team had to weigh the value of signing Aiken vs. the value of receiving the second overall pick in 2015. (Baseball Prospectus had an in-depth piece on the negotiation logic.)

The fact that the Astros offered Aiken $5 million on the final day of negotiations, above the minimum $3.1 million they had to offer him to be compensated with the second overall draft pick this year, is important. If the team were so sure Aiken’s health would fail, why would they raise the offer?

(An interesting but impossible to prove counter argument would be that the Astros reacted to public opinion in raising the offer, against their better judgment.)

“Basically, we tried to engage the other side, Casey Close three times today,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said July 18, right after an afternoon deadline passed. “Made three increasing offers and never received a counter, really they just never engaged, for whatever reason there was no interest. There just didn’t appear interest to sign on their side.

“Very disappointed. I think this is a player we wanted obviously we took him 1-1. You know we would have liked to have signed him and (Jacob) Nix and (Mac) Marshall, all three of ‘em. But you can’t do that without the other side wanting to be a part of it, so we move on.

“We made that offer a while back, the 40 percent offer. But we came up from that three times without ever receiving a counter.”

The fact that the Astros made multiple offers to Aiken is a point in favor of the fact that Aiken had some value even with the medical concerns, but we also have to remember that the Aiken negotiations weren’t being held in a vacuum; the Astros needed Aiken to sign in order to have enough money to sign Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall. They weren’t just making offers based on Aiken’s own personal risk/reward, but on the total value of being able to sign Aiken, Nix, and Marshall while staying within their bonus pool allotment. If they put a high enough value on Nix and Marshall, it could have been a net positive to pay Aiken even if they were 100% convinced that he was going to need Tommy John surgery and wouldn’t have been worth his own bonus, so long as it left them enough money to sign two other players who they thought they were getting value on.

Of course, we can’t know if the Astros were actually 100% certain that he would need this surgery. It’s almost impossible to be sure of anything in life, and while Aiken’s ligament did tear last week, the fact that something happens does not prove that it was an inevitability. We can add this data point to the list of things we know and say it’s now more likely that the Astros correctly analyzed his risk profile than it was before he blew out his arm, but this doesn’t prove that they got it right. It suggests it, to some slightly larger degree than previously known, but just as you don’t want to judge a decision by its outcome on the baseball field, so too should we not assume that the Astros definitely had this figured out just because Aiken’s elbow did eventually give out.

And that’s the problem with drawing conclusions from our perspective; there are just too many things we can’t know about this entire situation. Something clearly happened between Jeff Luhnow (or one of his employees) and Casey Close that rubbed both of them the wrong way, but what it was and who was to blame is something that we have no real evidence of. We could build a speculative case against the Astros based on the fact that this isn’t the only time they’ve had some issues with negotiating contracts with players, but even if the Astros somehow screwed up the Ryan Vogelsong deal, that doesn’t prove they were definitively to blame in the Brady Aiken situation.

We can guess at things. We can attempt to decide which side’s version of self-serving comments we put more credibility into, and maybe even be comfortable with our speculation about which side was more likely at fault in all of this.

But the reality is that it’s all just uneducated guessing. The real evidence, the kind of stuff that would allow us to form opinions that are worth anything, is not public and almost certainly never will be. So we’re just left with just enough information to be dangerous. There is enough out there to give us a false sense of certainty that we can have a real opinion on what probably happened, but not enough to really support a strong opinion either way. The amount of information we have about this situation is the equivalent of knowing a batter’s batting average with runners on base in Wednesday afternoon games.

While it’s tempting to say that this news proves the Astros were in the right all along, I don’t think we can actually say that with any confidence. We just don’t know enough. All we can really say is that something went down, we don’t know who is to blame, and the whole situation sucked for everyone involved.


A Preview of 2015 Team Defenses

It’s gettin’ to that time of year when folks tend to preview stuff ’round baseball. Our annual Positional Power Rankings will be coming to the site over the next couple weeks, you’ll surely see all sorts of divisional preview pieces pop up between now and Opening Day, and this right here is going to be a preview of team defenses.

We saw last year where a good defense can take a team. The Kansas City Royals were more than just a great defense, but it was evident, especially during the playoffs, how much an elite defense can mean to a ballclub. The same was true, but on the other end of the spectrum, for the Cleveland Indians. Our two advanced defensive metrics — Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating — agreed that the defense in Cleveland was worth around -70 runs last season. In Kansas City, it was something like +50. That’s a 120-run difference! That’s about 12 wins! Those teams play in the same division! Move 12 wins around and the result is an entirely different season! Defense isn’t the biggest thing, but it’s a big thing. Let’s look ahead.

All the numbers used in this piece will come from UZR and DRS. For the team projections, I simply utilized our depth charts and did a little math. We’re going to take a look at the three best, the worst, the teams that got better, the teams that got worse, and then all the rest down at the bottom. For the upgrades/downgrades, I used the difference of standard deviations above or below the mean between last year’s results and this year’s projections.
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The FanGraphs Top 200 Prospect List

Yesterday, we gave you a little bit of a tease, giving you a glimpse into the making of FanGraphs Top 200 Prospect List. This morning, however, we present the list in its entirety, including scouting grades and reports for every prospect rated as a 50 Future Value player currently in the minor leagues. As discussed in the linked introduction, some notable international players were not included on the list, but their respective statuses were discussed in yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read any of the prior prospect pieces here on the site, I’d highly encourage you to read the introduction, which explains all of the terms and grades used below.

Additionally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you towards our YouTube channel, which currently holds over 600 prospect videos, including all of the names near the top of this list. Players’ individual videos are linked in the profiles below as well.

And lastly, before we get to the list, one final reminder that a player’s placement in a specific order is less important than his placement within a Future Value tier. Numerical rankings can give a false impression of separation between players who are actually quite similar, and you shouldn’t get too worked up over the precise placement of players within each tier. The ranking provides some additional information, but players in each grouping should be seen as more or less equivalent prospects.

If you have any questions about the list, I’ll be chatting today at noon here on the site (EDIT: here’s the chat transcript), and you can find me on Twitter at @kileymcd.

Alright, that’s enough stalling. Let’s get to this.

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The Fans, The Metrics, and Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler played 959 innings in center field for the Astros in 2014, which is noteworthy mostly because he was traded to the Cubs on Monday, but also because of how poorly the defensive metrics rated him for those 959 innings. By Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) he was 20 runs below average and by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) he was slightly worse.

Both metrics dinged Fowler for a poor arm, something that’s followed him for his entire career, but for the third time in his career, UZR gave his range horrible marks relative to other center fielders. DRS had previously been friendlier, but didn’t hold back in 2014 with respect to his range.

Fowler’s defense rates poorly by the leading defensive metrics with his career DRS and UZR per 1,000 innings sitting somewhere between -7 runs and -11 runs. Now this is almost exclusively in center field so Fowler gets a few of those runs back on the positional adjustment, but we’re basically talking about a bad center fielder who might be an average guy in a corner. This is all according to the metrics which, as plenty of people will remind you, are imperfect.

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Colby Rasmus, the Astros, and Strikeouts

I don’t think one should require much convincing that the Houston Astros are taking a worthwhile shot in signing Colby Rasmus. Most simply, it’s a one-year contract for a 28-year-old, and it’s worth just $8 million. Rasmus has had a volatile career — last year he finished with a .287 OBP — but he was still overall an average hitter. The season before, he was a lot better than that. The Astros had a role for Rasmus, after dealing Dexter Fowler. If he’s good, he’ll help. If he’s really good, he’ll be worth a qualifying offer. If he’s bad, well, lots of Astros have been bad, and Rasmus alone won’t stop the Astros from getting where they’re trying to go. At the end of the day, 2015 is just a season the Astros have to play out before the seasons they want to play out.

So I don’t think the contract is necessarily that interesting. Rasmus is talented, and he’s trying to bounce back. The Astros, as a team, aren’t as good as the Mariners, Angels or A’s, so it seems like they’ll be fighting the Rangers for fourth in the American League West. A year from now, I doubt we’ll be thinking much about this. But there is one interesting note we can discuss in more detail: Rasmus strikes out a lot. Several Astros strike out a lot. It seems like the Astros are going to strike out a lot.

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Astros and Cubs Complete Swap To Fill Current Needs

Both the Astros and the Cubs are in the process of a long-term build, yes. And in third baseman Luis Valbuena, starting pitcher Dan Straily, and outfielder Dexter Fowler, they’re moving three players that average close to 28 years old. Not everything these teams do needs to be focused on the far-term, though. With the second wild card, this year can be as important as any other.

When the Astros today sent Fowler to the Cubs for Valbuena and Straily, both teams traded from current surpluses to fill current needs.

The Cubs have infielders. With Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Luis Valbuena, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell, they had an infield twice over. Once you factor in bust rates, that’s probably a good way to go about things. Since some in the community think the six-foot-five Kris Bryant is headed to the corner outfield, and Alcantara was already playing in the outfield, they might be have been able to fill both the infield and outfield eventually.

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The Multiple Plans the Astros Might Have Involving Evan Gattis

It’s important to note this trade isn’t official yet. So it’s a little uncomfortable writing up an analysis, given that, who knows, something could go wrong in the physical. But, usually, those go fine, and even when they don’t, like in the case of the Matt Kemp deal, the trade might still go through anyway. So here’s what looks to be happening, in a Wednesday exchange between the Astros and the Braves:

Astros get:

Braves get:

From the Braves’ side, it’s easy enough to understand. Despite the puzzling Nick Markakis deal, the Braves aren’t thinking about 2015, and they know Gattis doesn’t profile great as a corner outfielder, so they’re giving up a piece of value now for a trio of prospects. One of the prospects is very exciting. Another has people who think very highly of him. Even the third guy might have a future. The haul’s good enough to at least temporarily distract Braves fans from the current makeup of the big-league product.

It’s the other side that’s more interesting. Not that the Braves’ side isn’t interesting, but this is the Houston Astros turning prospects into a shorter-term asset. It’s not the first time they’ve done that; last offseason, they gave up a couple pieces for Dexter Fowler. And the Astros have lately made some shorter-term decisions, so perhaps we’re observing an accelerating shift in front-office mindset. But there are a few different ways this could go. It’s not immediately clear where the Astros think they might be in eight or ten months.

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2015 ZiPS Projections – Houston Astros

After having typically appeared in the very hallowed pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past couple years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Houston Astros. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.

Other Projections: Atlanta / Chicago AL / Colorado / Detroit / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Miami / Milwaukee / Oakland / San Francisco / St. Louis / Tampa Bay / Washington.

Batters
Speaking on the topic of happiness, Greek philosopher Epicurus endorsed not the unadulterated pursuit of greater and ever more lavish pleasures, as is frequently believed. Almost the opposite, in fact. By only occasionally indulging in a “pot of cheese,” for example, Epicurus effectively lowered his threshold for pleasure, such that easy attainable goods or experiences could provide it in sufficient quantity.

Compared to other major-league teams, the Astros do not appear particularly strong. Only three of their hitters, for example — or seven fewer than on the Dodgers — are projected to reach the two-win threshold this year. Compared to the 2014 edition of the club, however, this would represent a 200% improvement. A strong collection of young talent in the minors serves as further grounds for optimism.

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Stock Report: November Prospect Updates

I’ve said it before but could stand to say it again: prospect rankings don’t have a long shelf life.  Usually, players ranked in the offseason don’t change much over that offseason, or at least we don’t have a chance to see any changes since they normally aren’t playing organized ball.  Every now and then a player with limited information (like a Cuban defector that signed late in the season) will go to a winter league and we’ll learn more, but most times, players look mostly the same in the fall/winter leagues, or more often a tired version of themselves.

This means that updating prospect rankings before we have a nice sample of regular season games to judge by (say, late April), seems pretty foolish.  The two mitigating factors in the case of my rankings is that I started ranking players before instructional league and the Arizona Fall League started and I also did draft rankings, which are constantly in flux.

I was on the road 17 of the last 18 days, seeing July 2nd prospects (recap here), draft prospects and minor league prospects.  I’ll take this chance to provide some updates to my draft rankings from September and below that, some players that looked to have improved at the AFL, particularly those from clubs whose prospects I’ve already ranked.

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The Astros Get Their Jose Molina

Sometimes, a transaction is so immediately obvious you don’t have to spend any time at all trying to work out the rationale behind it. Other times, a transaction only seems that immediately obvious, because we’re not privy to all of the relevant information. In each case, though, we get to pretend like the move in question is immediately obvious, because we can’t know what we don’t know, and on Wednesday, the Astros made a trade. They got a guy they like, and they like him because of course they like him.

The Astros got one guy for two guys, giving up catcher Carlos Perez and pitcher Nick Tropeano. Perez might take over as the Angels’ backup, and Tropeano might manage to crack the Angels’ starting rotation. But the guy the Astros added is Hank Conger, and though Conger’s is by no means any sort of household name, you could say the Astros just got their Jose Molina. Have I mentioned lately that the Astros employ Mike Fast? Do I even need to?

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Mark Appel Proved Wednesday The Big Stuff Is Back

When our other prospect writers submit scouting reports, I will provide a short background and industry consensus tool grades.  There are two reasons for this: 1) giving context to account for the writer seeing a bad outing (never threw his changeup, coming back from injury, etc.) and 2) not making him go on about the player’s background or speculate about what may have happened in other outings.

The writer still grades the tools based on what they saw, I’m just letting the reader know what he would’ve seen in many other games from this season, particularly with young players that may be fatigued late in the season. The grades are presented as present/future on the 20-80 scouting scale and very shortly I’ll publish a series going into more depth explaining these grades.   -Kiley

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Evaluating the Prospects: Houston Astros

Evaluating the Prospects: RangersRockiesD’BacksTwinsAstrosRed SoxCubsRedsPhilliesRaysMetsPadres, MarlinsNationals & White Sox

Scouting Explained: Introduction, Hitting Pt 1 Pt 2 Pt 3 Pt 4 Pt 5 Pt 6

Amateur Coverage: 2015 Draft Rankings2015 July 2 Top Prospects & Latest on Yoan Moncada

The Astros have an above average system as far as depth and high end talent, though that’s expected given their draft position and international bonus pools the last few years and where they are in their rebuild plan.  The system would obviously look better with LHP Brady Aiken included (I’d rank him 2nd or 3rd, for those wondering), but the top 11 prospects I’ve ranked should all be in Double-A or higher next year.  Help is on the way and there’s two more top-10 picks (here’s an early list of candidates) that will be on thdmis list next year to replace some of the graduating talent.

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Rio Ruiz Keeps Raking, but Scouts Still Have Reservations

When our other prospect writers submit scouting reports, I will provide a short background and industry consensus tool grades. There are two reasons for this: 1) giving context to account for the writer seeing a bad outing (never threw his changeup, coming back from injury, etc.) and 2) not making him go on about the player’s background or speculate about what may have happened in other outings.

The writer still grades the tools based on what they saw, I’m just letting the reader know what he would’ve seen in many other games from this season, particularly with young players that may be fatigued late in the season. The grades are presented as present/future on the 20-80 scouting scale and very shortly I’ll publish a series going into more depth explaining these grades. -Kiley

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The Three Most Distinctive Team Philosophies

Teams are behaving more and more alike. There’s less separation between front offices by the month, and talent is fairly equally distributed, and people everywhere believe many of the same things. There are, of course, better situations and worse situations, but when it comes to team strategies, generally speaking everyone agrees: play the best baseball. Pitch the best pitches, swing the best swings. The Dodgers have a better on-field product than the Rockies, but they try to go about their business similarly. Neither really has a signature philosophy you can observe in the numbers.

Such philosophies are few and far between. People believe one of them is the Diamondbacks and pitching inside, but in reality the Diamondbacks pitch inside as a staff an average amount, and they’ve hit a roughly average amount of batters. They’ve just had a tendency to talk. The Diamondbacks don’t have a team philosophy of brushing hitters back. You don’t see a lot of philosophies that stand out, because successful ones will be copied, and unsuccessful ones will be abandoned. But some do still exist. You’ve presumably heard about each, but I feel like they should be put together in one place. I can think of three standout examples. Do let me know if I’m missing any others.

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How Jose Altuve Got to 200 Hits

Jose Altuve‘s career is notable because he is a 5-foot-5 man from Venezuela making a living as a professional athlete in America. Jose Altuve’s season is notable because of hits. Lots and lots of hits.

Total number of hits isn’t typically something at which we look to evaluate a player’s performance or ability, because not all hits are created equal. 150 hits is not always better than 130 hits. We all know this. But when a player begins to approach or exceed 200 hits – regardless of what those hits are – they’re having a good season. They’re having a season worth celebrating.

Altuve, as of this writing, is at 220 hits. That’s the most ever by a player from Venezuela. That’s the most ever by a player for the Astros. That’s the most by a player in the MLB since Ichiro in 2009. Ichiro racked up 225 that year. Altuve, with six games remaining, is projected to finish with 228. If he does indeed surpass that total of 225, you’ll have to go back to 2007 when Ichiro had 238 hits to find a player with more than Altuve. No matter what happens, the point remains: Jose Altuve has had a remarkable season.

Granted, Altuve is running a .365 batting average on balls in play. We tend to look at BABIP as a measure of how lucky or unlucky a player might have been. Only Starling Marte and Christian Yelich have a higher BABIP than Altuve, so it would be easy to point to Altuve’s BABIP and deem him lucky and due for regression. Which, in part, is true. Altuve’s career BABIP prior to this year was .317 and, really, anyone who has a single-season BABIP over .350 or so experienced some sort of good fortune. But there are things a player can do to help sustain a high BABIP. There are things Altuve has done to help sustain a high BABIP. Let’s see how Jose Altuve got to 200 hits.
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The Year in High Strikes to Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve accomplished something Tuesday night. He played in a major-league baseball game! Wow! And even more incredible than that, he broke the Astros’ single-season record for hits, previously held by Craig Biggio. There are still another two weeks left to play. Of course, not all hits are the same, and we don’t usually spend much time talking about single-season hit totals, but you might prefer this: Altuve’s been great. The hits are one indication. He’s been something in the vicinity of a five-win player, as a 24-year-old in the middle infield. That’s a long-term building block.

So when some people think Altuve, they think hits. When other people think Altuve, they think short jokes. It’s clear that, in order to become the player he is today, Altuve’s had to overcome considerable adversity. A lot of that is simply that players his size tend to get selected against. They receive fewer opportunities. But then there can also be issues on the field, even during opportunities. Maybe it’s more difficult to turn a double play. It’s certainly more difficult to snare a line drive. And there’s the matter of the strike zone. Umpires aren’t great with unusual strike zones, and Altuve’s, obviously, is lower than most.

According to the PITCHf/x settings, the lower part of Altuve’s zone is lower than the average zone by almost three inches. The higher part of Altuve’s zone is lower than the average zone by almost five inches. So you know where this is going, based on that sentence, and based on the headline. I think I put together this same exact post every season. It’s time now to reflect on the season’s highest called strikes to Jose Altuve.

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Let’s Watch Dallas Keuchel Face Mike Trout Three Times

Saturday night, Mike Trout kicked the living crap out of Scott Feldman and the Houston Astros. His first time up, Trout went deep. His second time up, Trout went deep. His third time up, Trout went less deep, but he went deep enough for a double. All of that’s to say Trout had 10 total bases through three at bats. After a performance like that, you could say Trout was locked in. After a performance like that, you could say either the Astros didn’t have a good enough game plan, or the plan was fine and they didn’t execute. We usually don’t know enough to identify which, but, anyway, let’s continue.

You’re super familiar by now with Trout’s alleged vulnerability. You might even be sick of reading about it. Let’s take a look at the pitches that Trout hit off Feldman to see what we can see. We’ll go in order: homer, other homer, double.

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