The Astros Are in a Sweet Spot

As of Wednesday night, there were 57 position players projected via our depth charts to produce three wins or more. The Astros had four of them: Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Carlos Gomez and George Springer. That they had four of these 57 players isn’t especially unique. Houston is one of five teams to have at least four such players. But what is interesting is just how much room these four have to grow. If they hit their strides at the same time, the Astros could end up being a scary team.

How am I measuring who has the most room to grow? Via the FANS projections, of course. One of the things that I love most about our FANS projections is that they are good for pegging guys who may be on the cusp of a breakout or breakdown. In other words, they generally take into account some of the context that the computer-generated projections don’t (or can’t). We generally like to highlight some of the differences between the FANS projections and the projection systems like Steamer and ZiPS, and often this can be a good way to frame the upcoming season.

Let’s do that right here, grouping together the players on the aforementioned five teams.

Depth Charts vs. FANS, 2016 Projections
Team Players Depth WAR FANS WAR Diff
HOU Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Carlos Gomez, George Springer 14.3 19.6 5.3
TOR J. Bautista, J. Donaldson, E. Encarnacion, R. Martin, T. Tulowitzki 20.0 25.1 5.1
SFG Brandon Belt, Matt Duffy, Joe Panik, Buster Posey 15.1 19.8 4.7
KCR Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez 14.0 17.8 3.8
CHC Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist 19.3 20.8 1.5

The Blue Jays do well here, nearly as well as the Astros, but it should be noted that they are the one team here which features five players and not just four. That the Astros are still capable of producing a higher total difference between the Steamer and FANS figures displays the magnitude of the phenomenon with which we’re working.

Let’s start with Altuve. He’s reached the four-win mark for two straight seasons, so it’s reasonable that the fans would peg him at 4.2 WAR. That figure sits between where the depth charts have him and his career best year, which was 4.8 WAR in his breakout 2014 season. His depth chart projection is lower thanks to some skepticism of his improved defensive numbers in 2015, and rightly so. It was the first year in which he tallied positive advanced defensive stats. While he has always made good plays, his range was always subpar. Since Altuve was roughly as fast last year as he was in previous years — using Speed Score as our gauge — it would then figure that his improved range had more to do with improved positioning. Perhaps that is an effect of his new double-play partner.

Either way, if Altuve is maturing defensively, that would be a good reason to believe more in the FANS projection, which projects him as a scratch defender. The FANS also have him pegged as an above-average runner, which he generally seems to be in even years. Maybe Altuve is a big Giants fan?

The other player with a modest difference between his depth charts and FANS projections is Carlos Gomez. Gomez has had a weird career. He has been to the postseason three times now, but he has never been able to make a major contribution in any. In 2009 with the Twins, he was still pretty green. And in 2012 and 2015, he was banged up. His projections aren’t dramatically different in any one area. But they are light considering Gomez put up 5.7 WAR two years ago. The biggest issue for Gomez will be his ability to hit breaking pitches, as Alex Chamberlain detailed recently. Now, it’s possible that his knee, hip and intercostal injuries in the second half had something to do with this, but he might also be to the point where he’s just perpetually banged up. If he isn’t though… the talent for a big year is still there.

Another player who is immensely talented but often banged up is George Springer. The difference in the projections, though, isn’t a product of playing time — the difference between the two sums is a mere three plate appearances. The major difference is that the FANS have Springer growing into his power more — not in terms of homers, but with doubles and triples. That, and more defensive value. While the power numbers might be optimistic, if he can keep himself on the field, the talent is there to make a difference defensively.

Finally, there’s Correa. It’s not exactly breaking news that Correa is a superstar in the making. But given that he’s so young, the projections are still relatively modest for him. There’s actually a decent chance that Correa becomes the best 21-year-old shortstop of the Integration Era (1947-present). Only four 21-year-old shortstops have topped 3 WAR — Jim Fregosi (3.9, 1963), Alex Rodriguez (4.3, 1997), Cal Ripken Jr. (4.6, 1982) and Francisco Lindor (4.6, 2015). Correa’s depth chart projection of 4.4 WAR has him basically there, and if he is able to get near his FANS projection, he’ll have the top mark easily. The issue with Correa is power — can he maintain that sweet, sweet ISO he posted last season? If he can, he’ll be in some rarified air — his .233 ISO last season was the second-best for a shortstop in the past five years. Such are the expectations for a future star.

The Astros hopes aren’t going to ride on these four players alone, of course. But when looking at the best position players in the game, the fact that the Astros have so many high-value players sticks out, and then when you look at the room for growth each has, they stick out even further. The Astros are kind of a best-case scenario in that they have some of the most talented players in the game, and also those talented players have room to be better than projected. It should be a good season in Houston.

We hoped you liked reading The Astros Are in a Sweet Spot by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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BigChief
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BigChief

Personally, I think Rasmus has the best chance at significantly outplaying his projections. Like the other’s mentioned in this article, he has a ton of tools, but unlike the others in the article he is only projected to have <=1WAR.

JJWattsArmBrace
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JJWattsArmBrace

I am with you on that. He changed the step in his swing towards the end of the season and went pretty insane down the stretch and then in the playoffs. The Astros will need some lineup balance in the upper half of the order before Aj Reed gets called up, and with Valbuena most likely platooning at third and Castro’s regression, Colby could wind up being one of the most valuable players on the team. What this article never really talks about is that the identity of the team last year was the pitching, which was top to bottom arguably the best in the AL. The potential of the Astros next season is off the charts, especially if one of Tyler White and AJ Reed manages to live up to the hype.

troybruno
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troybruno

This feels like the “Got Hot In the Playoffs” fantasy bias… where people meaningfully oversample a 6-game stretch in October and project great things for the year ahead…

Rasmus’ blessing in 2015 was higher ISO than any stop in his career except AA. If you believe in his FB% (anomaly in 2015) and his high HR/FB%, you’re definitely going to be right. I certainly don’t think anyone is projecting him to K less…

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Well, a 0.9 WAR projection would match his worst seasons in the last four years. Rasmus’ record has been inconsistent for sure, but I think he’s more likely to beat that projection than not based on simple probability.