The Astros are not a good baseball team. But, as Tyler Kepner detailed in the New York Times this weekend, they are a baseball team with a plan. Whether or not that will lead to wins this season is another matter, but the fact that they have a plan is shining through, even amidst the deluge of runs allowed.
Through their first 25 games, Houston is tied for 15th in runs scored. They have outscored the Angels, Brewers and Dodgers, to name a few. And the team’s wOBA is also relatively healthy. Overall, the team ranks 14th with a .312 wOBA, and they hold steady at 18th when you remove pitchers from the equation. Houston’s walk rate ranks just 23rd, but the team is seeing its fair share of pitches. At 3.82 pitches seen per plate appearance, they currently rank 19th. It’s a mark that is below the major league average, but then, not every player in Houston’s lineup needs to see a lot of pitches in order to be successful.
For instance, Jose Altuve is seeing just 3.27 P/PA, but he is hitting a healthy .327/.375/.426, good for a .348 wOBA and 121 wRC+. Marwin Gonzalez is hitting similarly well — .300/.344/.517, and is seeing just 3.53 P/PA. So the Astros are not being extremely rigid in their philosophy that everyone has to see as many pitches as possible. Now, chances are Gonzalez is nowhere near that good, but he did post similar AVG’s and BABIP’s once he adjusted to his last two levels (Double-A in ’11, Triple-A in ’12), so it’s certainly worth it for the Astros to see what they have there. If Gonzalez becomes a two-win player he’ll be a nice little piece for Houston to have around until Carlos Correa is ready.
And that’s just what the Astros appear to be doing. Gonzalez alternated with Ronny Cedeno for the first six games of the season, but since then he has started 14 of the 19 games at shortstop. We see the same thing happening at most other positions on the diamond as well. While the team is middle of the pack in terms of pitcher age, their hitters — at an average of 26.9 years old — tie with the Royals for the youngest in the game. Among their qualified hitters, only Rick Ankiel and Carlos Pena are over 30. And it’s not just Gonzalez who has played well thus far.
At the start of last season, Jason Castro was a catcher coming off multiple knee injuries that knocked him out for the entire 2011 season. A prospect with a sterling defensive reputation, Castro came back in ’12 and had a rough season behind the dish. Anecdotally, he didn’t do any better — his 39 average rating in the Fans Scouting Report was among the worst on the Astros. But perhaps it simply takes catchers longer to come back from knee injuries. Certainly that makes sense — I can hardly bend my knee at all when it hurts, never mind squatting on it for three hours a night. This season, in the early going, Castro seems to be doing much better, particularly with framing the ball, and his hitting is in the same neighborhood as last year. Castro also has the makings of a two-win or better player, and he is still just 26 and has not yet started the arbitration process. He probably won’t be a star, but any championship team needs plenty of two-three win players.
There are plenty of other experiments going on in the early season. Is Matt Dominguez’s glove good enough to support his bat? Is Chris Carter more than a platoon player? The team has even set up backup projects. When the team quickly soured on Brett Wallace after he came out of the gate slowly, they turned to a job share between Pena and Brandon Laird. Laird is already 25, only has 87 major league plate appearances under his belt, and is coming off a season in which he slugged .414 in Triple-A, so he’s probably not going to light the world on fire, but it’s worth a shot to see if there’s anything there. In center, there may be a more concrete opportunity, as prospect Robbie Grossman is getting a shot in place of Justin Maxwell — who has turned into a nifty platoon player himself. Grossman hasn’t had a smooth transition thus far, but it’s only 23 plate appearances for a 23-year-old.
The Astros aren’t going to be a contending team until they put together a decent pitching staff. But in the meantime, they are going about things the right way. Yes, they are playing Pena nearly every game, but essentially everywhere else there is a youngster getting his chance to shine. If a couple of them pan out, then the team will be able to pair them with Altuve and high-level prospects like Jonathan Singleton and George Springer and be able to have a formidable offense in a year or two. And if they don’t, at least Houston will know that it wasn’t for lack of trying to turn their lemons into lemonade.