Archive for Astros

How Ken Giles Became a Minor Leaguer

Ken Giles did not have a good night on Tuesday. Called upon in the top of the ninth inning to protect the Astros’ 4-0 lead over the A’s, he served up three straight singles over the course of eight pitches, allowing one run and bringing the tying run to the plate in the form of Matt Olson. On the heels of a visit from pitching coach Brent Strom after back-to-back hits by Mark Canha and Jed Lowrie, manager A.J. Hinch didn’t like what he saw, and after a first-pitch single by Khris Davis, came out to get Giles, who… didn’t like what he saw either. The closer appeared to have some choice words as he handed over the ball.

The A’s wound up tying the game in the ninth, with all three runs charged to Giles’ room, and they went ahead, 5-4, in the top of the 11th. The Astros nonetheless rallied for two runs in the bottom of the inning, scoring the winning run in bizarre fashion, when A’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy made a hash of Alex Bregman’s swinging bunt:

Giles was reportedly not in the clubhouse after the game, and by Wednesday afternoon, he was a Fresno Grizzly. He’d been optioned to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in what general manager Jeff Luhnow called “a baseball decision.”

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/5

Monday through Wednesday notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

7/2

Brewer Hicklen, OF, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: HM   FV: 35+
Line: 4-for-6, 2B, HR

Notes
Hicklen has some statistical red flags if you’re unaware of the context with which you should be viewing his performance. He’s a 22-year-old college hitter with a 30% strikeout rate at Low-A. But Hicklen hasn’t been committed to playing baseball for very long, as he sought, late in high school and throughout college, to have a football career. He went to UAB as a baseball walk-on and eventually earned a football scholarship as the school’s defunct program was to be reborn. But Hicklen’s physical tools stood out as he continued to play baseball (plus speed and raw power), so he was drafted and compelled to sign. He hasn’t been focusing on baseball, alone, for very long and has a .300/.350/.525 line in his first full pro season. He’s a toolsy long shot, but so far so good.

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Colin Moran on How He Turned a Corner

Colin Moran was at a crossroads. The 2016 season was over, and the left-handed-hitting third baseman had just slashed .259/.329/.378, with 10 home runs and 124 strikeouts, in Triple-A. His pair of big-league cameos had been every bit as abysmal — in 25 plate appearances for the Houston Astros, he logged three base hits and one free pass. Truth be told, the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft had essentially gone from prospect to suspect due to his lack of production.

Moran recognized that fact. Moreso, he did something about it. As Tony Kemp, his former teammate, related to me last fall, Moran came to the conclusion that his “swing doesn’t play in the big leagues,” and told his hitting coordinator, “I need to switch something.”

He did just that, and the results speak for themselves. Moran returned to Triple-A in 2017 and slashed an eye-opening .301/.369/542, with 18 home runs in only 350 at-bats. (A facial fracture, courtesy of a foul ball, knocked him out of action for six weeks.) His turnaround season included seven games with the eventual World Series champs, for whom he went 4-for-11 and hit first MLB long ball.

The 25-year-old University of North Carolina product is now a Pittsburgh Pirate, having been traded from Houston to the Steel City this past January in the five-player Gerrit Cole deal. In 248 plate appearances for his new club, Moran is hitting .265/.347/.419 with seven home runs. He shared the story of his career-altering adjustments prior to a recent game at PNC Park.

———

Colin Moran: “In a perfect world, I would have made the changes earlier. That’s something I think about a lot. It often takes a bad year to get to, ‘Alright, let’s change some stuff, let’s figure out what works,’ and unfortunately that’s what happened with me. It’s preferable to think forward rather than wait for that bad year.

“My swing was off when I got called up in 2016. Things didn’t feel all that great with it — I didn’t know why — and I got exposed, especially at the top of the zone. I remember my first at-bat. You kind of know in the batter’s box when guys are attacking a weakness, and the first few pitches were up and in. It was like, ‘Man.’ Read the rest of this entry »


Daily Prospect Notes: 6/19

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Forrest Whitley, RHP, Houston Astros (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 20   Org Rank:FV: 60
Line: 4 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 7 K, 0 R

Notes
This is the best pitching prospect in baseball, wielding ungodly stuff that spiked when he dropped about 60 pounds throughout his senior year of high school. He’s also on Driveline’s weighted-ball program. He’ll show your four plus or better pitches over the course of an outing. Whitley has yet to allow a run since returning from suspension. The suspension might be a blessing in disguise for Houston, who could now conceivably weave him into their playoff plans without fear of overworking Whitley’s innings count.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

Fringe Five Scoreboards: 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013.

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion among the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels, and (most importantly) FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel* and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing Longenhagen and McDaniel’s most recent update have also been excluded from consideration.

*Note: I’ve excluded Baseball America’s list this year not due to any complaints with their coverage, but simply because said list is now behind a paywall.

For those interested in learning how Fringe Five players have fared at the major-league level, this somewhat recent post offers that kind of information. The short answer: better than a reasonable person would have have expected. In the final analysis, though, the basic idea here is to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.

*****

Josh James, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Every time James produces a strong start — an event that has occurred with considerable frequency this season — FanGraphs contributor and traveler within the world of ideas Travis Sawchik sends a note to the present author that reads, “His name is JOSH JAMES.” While I can’t argue with the literal sense of Sawchik’s message — namely, that this right-hander’s given name literally is Josh James — I suspect that my colleague is attempting to communicate something more profound than a single datum from James’s biography. Have I pursued the topic? No. Not because I’m afraid to, either — but rather because I am infested by indifference.

James made one start this week, recording an 11:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 23 batters while facing Houston’s affiliate in Fresno (box).

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The AL West and One-Run Success

Sunday’s Mariners-Rays game in Tampa Bay ended in memorable fashion, with Seattle right fielder Mitch Haniger failing to make a sliding catch on Carlos Gomez’s bloop, mishandling the ball while attempting to pick it up, but recovering in time to throw home, where Johnny Field, who had been running on contact from first base, was out by a country mile. Catcher Mike Zunino could have paused to make an omelette between receiving the ball and applying the tag:

The play preserved the Mariners’ 5-4 lead and gave them not just their 41st victory of the season but their 21st in games decided by one run. With the Astros also winning, 8-7 over the Rangers, Seattle and Houston remained tied atop the AL West. If you haven’t been paying attention lately, the Mariners — while missing the suspended Robinson Cano and overcoming a 5.70 ERA/4.77 FIP from Felix Hernandez — have spent every day since June 2 with at least a share of the division lead. They’ve done this despite the fact that the Astros have by far the better run differential — the majors’ best, actually:

AL West Leaders
Team W-L WPct Run Dif 1-Run W-L WPct Other W-L WPct
Mariners 41-24 .631 20 21-9 .700 20-15 .571
Astros 42-25 .627 127 6-12 .333 36-13 .735

Now there’s something you just don’t see every day: two teams whose run differentials differ by more than 100 but are basically even in the standings. Those one-run games are the reason. The Astros, who would be on a 109-win pace if they had merely gone .500 in such games to this point, actually won a pair of ’em on Saturday and Sunday, but when it comes to such those contests, they’re still tied for the majors’ fourth-lowest winning percentage and fourth-lowest win total in one-run games. The Mariners, on the other hand, have five more one-run wins than any other team and eight more than any other AL team, though they’re merely third in winning percentage:

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The Continuing Evolution of Justin Verlander

One of those baseball facts that might stick with me forever is that, after getting traded from the Mariners to the Astros, Randy Johnson put up a 1.something ERA. Specifically, including the playoffs, Johnson appeared in 13 games with Houston, and his ERA was 1.42. To be that dominant, in that era, under those circumstances, after having struggled before the deal — well, I don’t know what else there is to explain. I haven’t forgotten about it for 20 years. I’m sure I’ll remember for at least 20 years more.

We’re living in the middle of a similar fact. One that’s gone on longer, one that must be considered even more impressive. After getting traded from the Tigers to the Astros, Justin Verlander has put up a 1.something ERA. Specifically, including the playoffs, Verlander has appeared in 23 games with Houston, and his ERA is 1.36. In Verlander’s most recent start, against the Yankees, he allowed one run. That’s right on his season average — he’s allowed 12 runs over 12 starts. After allowing seven runs in the season’s first month, he allowed five in the second. Hitting Verlander of late has been more or less impossible.

Verlander was traded last summer, and was immediately good. We’ve already gone through a bunch of stories examining his turnaround, highlighting, especially, the improvement of his slider. That was a common conversation last fall — the one about how Verlander got better by making use of Houston’s slow-motion cameras. Yet Verlander only continues to grow. He remains, you could say, a work in progress, and he’s made a further adjustment in 2018 to get the most out of the pitches he has.

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The Astros’ Quiet Catching Advantage

CLEVELAND — In the seventh inning on Friday at Progressive Field, Astros starting catcher Brian McCann did not come out for his scheduled at-bat. Instead, fellow catcher Max Stassi appeared out of the third-base dugout as a pinch-hitter. Astros manager A.J. Hinch had elected to pinch-hit for his starting catcher with another catcher to face Indians left-hander Tyler Olson, owner of considerable splits. We don’t often see a manager pinch-hit for his starting catcher, but the decision worked: Stassi singled.

The Astros have not exactly made it a regular practice, but it was the eighth time they have pinch-hit with a catcher for a catcher this season in order to gain the platoon advantage. But the Astros are one of the teams that has regularly tried to do this with the left-handed McCann and right-handed Stassi and Evan Gattis. (With McCann going on the DL on Tuesday, the Astros’ aggressive catcher platooning will be placed on hold, probably.)

In an age where managers try to leverage handedness as often as possible, catchers have the lowest platoon advantage (41.4%) among all non-pitchers, according to research assistance from Sean Dolinar. Shortstop is next (42.8%) and is the only position that doesn’t enjoy a platoon advantage the majority of the time. What they share is status as specialized, glove-first positions:

Platoon Advantage by Position
Position PA Platoon Adv %
P 1572 40.1%
C 5883 41.4%
1B 6359 61.7%
2B 6328 60.8%
3B 6275 53.5%
SS 6173 42.8%
LF 6318 59.8%
CF 6244 51.9%
RF 6304 54.7%
DH 3137 50.7%
PH 1568 67.5%

If a club is looking for a position from which to extract more value by facing more opposite-handed pitchers, catcher is the untapped positional market.

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The Astros’ Staff Is the Best Ever*

*Or would be, if the season ended today.

We know the Astros’ pitching staff has been absurdly dominant.

The truth is, they’re historically dominant at the moment.

Just a season after the Indians became the first team to strike out 10 batters per nine innings, set a record with a 27.5% strikeout rate, and finish with the highest pitching WAR total of all time (31.7), the Astros are a threat to top those marks.

The Astros have already recorded 11 WAR this season, while the next closest pitching staff, that of the Red Sox, has 7.9. The Astros are on pace to shatter the Indians’ WAR mark, and their 10.35 strikeouts per nine and 29.6% strikeout rate would also be records. Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Justin Verlander — who was outstanding against Wednesday — all have sub-2.00 ERAs.

(The Astros and Indians met last weekend, with the Astros taking two of three games, and Houston travels to Cleveland for a four-game series beginning Thursday. Get your popcorn ready.) Read the rest of this entry »


When Lance McCullers Stops McCullersing

This is Jake Mailhot’s third post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot.

Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan wrote a pair of articles, each about a pitcher who appeared to be McCullersing. That term, of course, is a reference to Lance McCullersJr., who in 2016 began throwing his excellent curveball more often than his fastball. He’s led all of baseball in curveball usage since then. He wound up throwing his curveball an astonishing 75% of the time in Game Seven of the ALCS last postseason. That appearance was peak McCullersing.

He started off this year throwing his curveball around the same amount as last year, 48% of the time. But when the calendar flipped to May, something changed. Just look at this graph of his secondary pitch usage in 2018.

That’s… interesting. In his start last night (not included here), McCullers threw his curveball around 40% of the time. That’s pretty normal for him. But it’s been less normal for him of late. In his start against the Angels last Monday, McCullers actually threw more changeups than curveballs, the latter pitch representing just 21.4% of his total count for the night. The last time his curveball usage fell below 30% was all the way back on August 3, 2015, during his rookie year.

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Justin Verlander Finds Another Gear

Justin Verlander had himself a night in Anaheim on Wednesday, throwing his first complete-game shutout since August 26, 2015 and becoming the 33rd pitcher to notch 2,500 strikeouts. What’s more, he did it in a game where the Astros’ sole possession of first place in the AL West was on the line. It’s just the latest chapter of the now 35-year-old righty’s rebirth, one that has returned him to the upper echelon of the game’s starters and positioned him for a run at the Hall of Fame. The pitcher famous for finding another gear with his fastball late in the game has done just that with his career.

Verlander collected his milestone strikeout against none other than Shohei Ohtani, who foul-tipped a 96 mph heater in the ninth inning:

That was one of seven strikeouts Verlander notched on the night, and yes, he was still Bringing It late. He threw his six fastest four-seamers of the night, and nine of his top 11, in the eighth or ninth innings, all 97.5 mph or above according to Brooks Baseball.

Three of his strikeouts came against Ohtani (the second silver sombrero of his brief MLB career), who while avoiding a strikeout in the fourth inning — and even getting the call on this 87 mph slider — nonetheless wound up with his ankles repurposed into a pretzel, with Verlander supplying the mustard:

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

Fringe Five Scoreboards: 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013.

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion among the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels, and (most importantly) FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel* and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on any updated, midseason-type list will also be excluded from eligibility.

*Note: I’ve excluded Baseball America’s list this year not due to any complaints with their coverage, but simply because said list is now behind a paywall.

For those interested in learning how Fringe Five players have fared at the major-league level, this somewhat recent post offers that kind of information. The short answer: better than a reasonable person would have have expected. In the final analysis, though, the basic idea here is to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.

*****

Austin Dean, OF, Miami (Profile)
Selected by Miami in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of a Texas high school, Dean appeared — when Eric Longenhagen published the Marlins list in February of 2017 — to have fallen into a sort of prospect netherspace, possessing too little footspeed and athleticism for center field but too little offensive ability to sustain a corner-outfield role. The Marlins’ assignments appeared to indicate a lack of enthusiasm, as well: after passing all of the 2016 and -17 seasons at Double-A, Dean began the present campaign there, as well.

In this case, however, Dean quickly earned a promotion, producing a strikeout rate and isolated-power mark that still rank second and sixth, respectively, among the 97 total Southern League batters to record at least 80 plate appearances. The early returns at Triple-A have been promising for a player in his first exposure to a new level. In particular, Dean’s contact skills have translated well: among batters with 50 or more plate appearances, Dean’s strikeout and swinging-strike rates place in the 91st and 97th percentile. Meanwhile, he’s produced roughly league-average power numbers. While the offensive burden of a corner-outfield role remains high, Dean could probably survive with slightly less power on contact than most given his bat-to-ball skills.

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The Astros Aren’t the Only Team Whose Pitchers Are Adding Spin

Last week, Trevor Bauer neither confirmed nor denied having made a point about how foreign substances can increase spin rate.

Bauer wants the sport either to enforce rules against pine tar and other illegal, tacky materials used by pitchers (that’s about impossible, as Bauer acknowledges) or make grip-enhancing legal. While employment of a foreign substance resides outside the rules, there is little enforcement of those rules unless they are openly defied.

Spin is thought to be largely an innate skill, difficult to increase dramatically. Generally, the more velocity a pitcher has, the more spin a pitcher is capable of producing. There is a relationship between spin and velocity, so if a pitcher can increase his velocity, he can reasonably expect to increase his spin rate.

There’s certainly incentive to increase spin rate, as there’s a correlation between spin and whiffs. A 300-rpm improvement is equivalent to a couple percentage points of swinging-strike rate. Bauer has said he can increase his spin rate by about 300 rpms by adding a tacky substance to the throwing hand. It’s conceivable that he did something similar to prove a point during the first inning of his start last Monday:

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You Can’t Blame Tanking for the Lack of Competitive Teams

Tanking is a problem. Professional sports like baseball are built on the assumption that both sides are trying to win. Organizations putting forth less than their best efforts hurts the integrity of the sport and provides fans with little reason to engage. That said, the perception of tanking might have overtaken the reality of late. Competitive imbalance is not the same as tanking. Sometimes teams are just bad, even if they are trying not to be.

Tanking concerns are not new. Two years ago, just after the Astros and Cubs had turned their teams around, the Phillies were attempting to dismantle their roster by trading Cole Hamels. The Braves had traded multiple players away from a team that had been competitive. The Brewers, who traded away Carlos Gomez, would soon do the same with Jonathan Lucroy after he rebuilt his trade value.

The Braves, Brewers, and Phillies all sold off whatever assets they could. Two years later, though, those clubs aren’t mired in last place. Rather, they’re a combined 54-37 and projected to win around 80 games each this season in what figures to be a competitive year for each. While the Braves and Phillies could and/or should have done more this offseason to improve their rosters, neither resorted to an extreme level of failure, and the teams are better today than they would have been had they not rebuilt. While accusations of tanking dogged each, none of those clubs descended as far as either the Astros or Cubs. None came close to the NBA-style tank jobs many feared.

One might suspect that I’ve cherry-picked the three clubs mentioned above, purposely selecting teams with surprising early-season success to prop up a point about the relatively innocuous effects of tanking. That’s not what I’ve done, though. Rather, I’ve highlighted the three teams Buster Olney cited by name two years ago — and which Dave Cameron also addressed — in a piece on tanking.

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Trevor Bauer Might Have Conducted an Experiment

CLEVELAND — In case you’ve not been logged into your social-media account in the past several days, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer has been outspoken about rampant use of pine tar (and other grip-aiding substances) in the game.

Bauer’s position is basically that the playing field ought to be level: either MLB better enforces the pine-tar rule or it makes grip-aiding substances legal. And Bauer knows it would be about impossible to enforce the current rule. Bauer says he has tested pine tar in a lab setting and said it significantly increased his spin rate. He claims it has a greater effect than steroids on performance.

“I’ve melted down Firm Grip and Coca-Cola and pine tar together,” Bauer told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve tested a lot of stuff. At 70 mph, when we were doing the tests, spin rates jumped between 300–400 rpm while using various different sticky substances. The effect is slightly less pronounced at higher velocities — more game-like velocities — but still between 200–300 rpm increase.”

As many in this audience are aware, the greater the fastball spin rate, the more “rise” effect the pitch has, the more it resists gravity, the more swing-and-miss it generates. More spin equals more swing-and-miss. That’s been proven by Driveline Baseball, where Bauer trains, and FanGraphs’ own Jeff Zimmerman.

There is incentive to add spin. And now with Statcast and its TrackMan Doppler radar component in all major-league stadiums, pitchers have had the ability to measure their spin to better understand some of the underpinnings behind their performance in game environments.

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The Astros Just Did Something Pretty Special

The Astros allowed eight runs to the Angels and lost on Tuesday night, thus falling out of first place in the AL West. At this time of year, none of that is a big deal, but what’s noteworthy is that the eight runs surrendered were as many as the defending world champions had given up in their previous seven games combined. The barrage, which included two homers by Andrelton Simmons and one by Mike Trout, broke an eight-game streak in which the Astros had allowed two runs or fewer, the longest in the majors in nearly three years, and put a dent in what has been one of the most stifling early-season run-prevention acts in recent history. You may have heard: these guys are still very, very good.

The Astros’ two-or-fewer streak actually began with a loss, in this case a 2-1 defeat to the Mariners on April 16, but they rebounded with a vengeance, outscoring Seattle 20-4 over the final three games of that series, all of them victories, then allowed just two runs during a three-game sweep of the White Sox. Monday night’s 2-0 loss to the Angels ended their winning streak but kept the prevention streak alive, albeit for just one more day.

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, the Astros’ eight-game streak of preventing two or fewer runs tied four other clubs for the second-longest of the post-1992 expansion era:

Longest Streak, Two or Fewer Runs Allowed, Since 1993
Team Start End Games W-L
Astros 8/18/15 8/26/15 9 7-2
Astros 4/16/18 4/23/18 8 6-2
Nationals 6/19/15 6/28/15 8 8-0
Pirates 9/16/14 9/23/14 8 7-1
Diamondbacks 8/9/02 8/17/02 8 8-0
Braves 9/4/93 9/11/93 8 7-1

The 2015 edition of the Astros — the one that marked their return to contention — posted the longest such streak since 1992 (Pirates, July 30-August 8), holding the Rays, Dodgers and Yankees to two runs or fewer in nine straight games. The 1982 Cardinals also had a nine-game streak; you’d have to go back to the 1974 Orioles (August 29 to September 7) to find a 10-gamer. Even at eight games, what the Astros just did was pretty special.

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FanGraphs Audio: Eric Longenhagen Has Good Information

Episode 810
Eric Longenhagen was told by a source before publishing his Astros list that right-hander Josh James, a former 34th-round pick and generally obscure prospect, had been recording higher fastball velocities in camp. Given James’ age and modest numbers as a professional, Longenhagen omitted him from the Astros list anyway. In the meantime, however, James has cobbled together one of the best starts in all the minors. Should it have been obvious? Would Longenhagen do anything differently? Those are questions the host of FanGraphs Audio fails to ask explicitly.

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 51 min play time.)

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The Astros May Have Another Ace

Last month in a piece for ESPN Insider, I was tasked with predicting what players might benefit from a change of scenery.

In that piece, this author cited a 2016 paper titled “Turning up by Turning Over” published in the Journal of Business Psychology, which studied 712 players who changed teams in the major leagues from 2004 to -15. The study concluded there are benefits for certain players in changing teams, particularly players that had been in decline. The study asserted there is a real change-of-scenery effect.

Maybe this effect is really just regression to the mean, teams acquiring players after down years. But there is perhaps something to be said for the energy and clean slate of a new environment. There’s also something to be said for being exposed to new ideas and colleagues. While Craig Edwards noted earlier today that the Pirates may have a new emerging ace, their former No. 1, Gerrit Cole, was one of the players I included in my piece about changes of scenery. I wasn’t alone in the belief, as many suspected, that he could benefit by moving to Houston.

And through two starts, the Astros, a team with an overwhelming collection of talent and a 100-win projection, look like they might be developing the last thing the rest of the American League wanted to see: another front-line pitcher.

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The Four-Man Outfield and Position-Less Baseball

One could argue that the first great, widespread data-based departure from tradition this century was the infield defensive shift. Based upon opponents’ batted-ball tendencies, teams more and more began to align their infielders where opposing hitters directed baseballs.

And while one defensive alignment trend, infield shifts, might have peaked, another radical alignment phenomenon seems poised to be adopted more widely.

During the opening week, we saw the Astros give us this alignment versus Joey Gallo:

Over the last decade, we’ve seen four-man outfields on a rare occasion. But I’m not sure there has ever been a defensive alignment where only one non-pitcher or non-catcher was standing on the infield dirt. Only Astros first baseman Marwin Gonzalez had his cleats in the Arlington, Texas infield skin. Now that’s extreme.

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More Than You Wanted to Know About Opening Day Starters

Few pitchers have started more consecutive Opening Day games than Felix Hernandez.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

On the heels of a pair of injury-shortened seasons, it was a rough spring for Felix Hernandez, who was drilled by a line drive in his first Cactus League start. Fortunately, he bounced back in time to build up his pitch count, and when he takes the mound tonight for the Mariners at Safeco Field, he’ll claim a little slice of history.

Hernandez will be making the 11th Opening Day start of his career, putting him into a tie with CC Sabathia for the lead among active pitchers, and the 10th-highest total since 1908, as far as the Baseball-Reference Play Index now reaches. He’ll also be making his 10th consecutive Opening Day start, moving him into a tie for fourth place with Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Steve Carlton as well as Roy Halladay.

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