30-odd games into the season, one of the biggest positive surprises has been the play of the Houston Astros. Baseball’s absolute doormat last year rebuilt their front office, adding a slew of really smart people, but expectations were low, since as smart as their director of decision sciences is, he isn’t hitting cleaning.
Two of the Astros’ best producers right now are widely available in most circumstances, and while the fantasy world has gotten wise to Jose Altuve, there is still some value to be had in Houston.
Jed Lowrie (ESPN: 84 percent owned; Yahoo!: 50 percent owned)
It’s too early to call the trade that sent Lowrie to the Astros for the now-demoted Mark Melancon an unmitigated win for the Astros, but that’s certainly the way the needle is pointing at the moment. Lowrie has amassed 1.6 WAR in the season’s first month or so, while Melancon is looking up at replacement level with -0.7 WAR from a BB/9 of 9, a HR/9 of 22.50, and an ERA just a shade under 50. While it is absolutely true that relievers are prone to unreliable extrapolations when their numbers are prorated out for per 9 stats, the underlying performance certainly doesn’t make Melancon look any better.
On his own merits — needing no comparison to Melacon’s abject start — Lowrie has been a great find for the Astros and for fantasy owners. He’s posting a strong batting average on the back of a 24 percent line-drive rate and a .371 BABIP. Even though he is spraying line drives around Minute Maid Park, I expect his .321 average to come down a little bit as his BABIP normalizes, but even with that regression, a .290-.300 average wouldn’t surprise me in the least. His walk rate has been a tremendous asset at 13.4 percent; players in OBP leagues are benefitting from that on its face, while owners in average-based leagues are seeing the benefit tangentially as Lowrie is forcing opposing pitching to work in hittable areas to avoid walking him. Lowrie seems more than willing to take a few strikes while waiting for his pitch, but it hasn’t hurt him much: He has an OPS of .829 when pitchers are ahead in the count.
More hittable pitches have meant a somewhat unexpected power jolt for Lowrie, who has four home runs this season, including a pair already in May. I’m having some trouble pegging how many home runs I expect Lowrie to his this year, due in no small part to the fact that he has never played 100 games at a single level. He’s never been a power monster, even while playing pingball at Stanford, so I don’t expect he’ll make it above 15 HR. The revised ZiPS projections have him at 12 HR and that’s certainly a fair guess; I might wager a pair more, but a lot depends on his ability to remain patient and work opposing pitchers as the season progresses and they learn his weaknesses.
A .290 BA with 12ish HR may not be the type of waiver wire claim that wins leagues, but I still really like Lowrie as a floater or injury replacement. His SS/3B eligibility means that he can be slotted in at SS, 3B, MI, CI, and UTL positions, which makes him a nice option to have coming off the bench as needed.
Chris Johnson (ESPN: 26 percent owned; Yahoo!: 25 percent owned)
While Lowrie is having the better year, Johnson is no slouch himself. After a 2010 season that bears striking resemblance to his current form, he was a major sleeper heading in the 2011 season, but gave owners absolutely nothing for their faith, hitting .251 with 7 HR and 42 RBI. Like Lowrie, Johnson is hitting line drives at strong rate, something that gives me hope in his continued production, but I have some concerns.
In 2010, he was able to sustain a .387 BABIP for 94 games on the back of a solid line-drive rate that was actually a few percent lower than his current mark, so there’s a chance he’ll be able to keep his average up for the foreseeable future. That said, there’s a big difference between maintaining an artificially inflated BABIP for 90 games and keeping it there for an entire season. Those extra 60 games are what make me concerned about Johnson, because if his BABIP falls, he doesn’t have a lot underwriting it. His walk rate is a paltry 2.8 percent — a decline from his already poor 4 percent career rate — which makes him a tough sell for OBP players even if he could keep his BABIP in the .390s.
Johnson does have some power, it would be tough to deny that given his three home runs in the first four games in May, which is where most of his value will come from going forward. The updated ZiPS projections have him finishing the year with 14 HR, but it wouldn’t much surprise me if he were closer to 17-18, provided he stays healthy. Add to that the solid OBP of the hitters ahead of him — Altuve, Lowrie, and J.D. Martinez particularly — and Johnson should have plenty of RBI opportunities, even if a few of his home runs end up being doubles instead.
If Lowrie is already taken, I like Johnson as a decent 3B injury replacement or platoon option at 3B, but I’d be wary of tossing him into the starting lineup and just forgetting about him. For the present, he’ll give owners a good average, a few RBI, and the potential for home runs; I’m just not sure all three of those things will be true eight weeks from now, let alone if they’ll be true in September.