The Astros Are Anyone’s Guess

There will be a column posted Thursday morning on this website that makes the case for the Houston Astros to win the World Series this 2020 season.  Something about that just doesn’t sit right.

In some ways, the Astros have felt too good to be true over the past three seasons.  They’ve won 100 games in each of the past three years, including a ridiculous total of 107 in 2019.  They’ve had a super rotation, headed by at least two aces (and occasionally three) that was followed with guys who rose out of the minors and delivered or guys who completely restructed their careers.  Their lineup was arguably the most terrifying in baseball accounting for its balancedness and consistency.  They were decently young – Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and recently Yordan Alvarez will all be baseball players for a long time coming – and had the up and coming prospects that would replace some of their aging contributors.

But it all came crashing down right after Houston fell trying to win its second World Series in three years.  The Athletic wrote a story, the MLB investigated, found out a lot, and two months later reported their findings resulting in three managers and a  GM being ousted and the Astros getting the label of being pure, blatant cheaters.

Look on the surface and you’ll find evidence that suggests Houston not only cheated but benefitted from it greatly.  They won a World Series after being far and away the most dominant team in baseball that year.  They became the first team in MLB history win 100 games in three straight seasons.  They finished 2nd in runs scored, had the second most hits, hit the third most home runs and had the lowest strikeout percentage by 1.4 percent in baseball over the course of 2017-2019.

Houston cheated.  There is no doubting that.  How much it truly benefitted them though is up for debate.  Start looking deeper and you’ll notice that adjusting the statistics above for home vs. away shows that Houston was just as deadly in other teams’ ballparks – where they couldn’t set up their elaborate sign-stealing system – as they were at Minute Maid Park.  They had the lowest strikeout percentage in baseball, this time by 1.3 percent rather than 1.4.   They had the most hits, the third most home runs and scored more than any other team in baseball on the road over the past three seasons.

Those statistics are quite simple though, and don’t always tell the whole story.  Houston was caught knowing what pitch was coming ahead of time.  Basically, if it wasn’t a fastball, a bang would be heard by the batter and thus knew how to attack the pitch or not.  Essentially, swings and misses (whiffs) and strikeouts should be dramatically reduced by Astros batters.  As we’ve seen, strikeout percentage wasn’t dramatically different depending on where Houston played, and accounting for how they faired against certain pitches won’t tell us much either.  Just because the Astros knew an off speed pitch was coming doesn’t mean they didn’t swing at it.  Baseball is a lot easier when you know what is coming at you.  No matter what pitch it is, if you know the pitch, your odds of hitting the ball increase.

Ultimately, the statistical evidence just isn’t there.  Whether that’s because the right data doesn’t exist to find out or because it truly didn’t help Houston is undetermined.  MLB.com’s sabermetrics writer Mike Petriello doesn’t know either, and he’s probably our best bet.

The numbers indicate otherwise (That’s a common theme of this baseball season; stay tuned for Thursday’s column), but it just seems hard to believe that Houston didn’t benefit from their sign-stealing schemes the past three years.  Jomboy videos, the mounts of evidence MLB found in their investigation, the firings of AJ Hinch, Jeff Luhnow, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, Astros’ players subsequent reactions to it all and Jose Altuve’s signaling to not take his jersey off after hitting a walkoff home run in Game 6 of the ALCS to send Houston to the World Series all speaks volumes.  The Astros cheated, and one of the teams of the decade, and perhaps even one of the best teams of all-time, is ruined.

Now that they’ve been caught, the effect that this has on Houston going forward is, just like the effect it previously had on them, unclear.  First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Houston figures to be significantly worse this year talent wise.  Gerrit Cole – arguably the best pitcher in baseball – is gone after signing with the Yankees.  So is Wade Miley, who was a reclamation project that worked out for the Astros last year.  Justin Verlander is old, and struggled mightily in the World Series.  Zack Greinke is way up there in age as well.  Right now, Houston’s rotation looks like Verlander, Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr., who was excellent before having Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2019.  He’ll inject some youth into the Astros rotation and could be a bright spot for them depending on how the arm feels.

Questions surround the remaining two spots.  Josh James has been named as the team’s fourth starter, but a lot of the allure around him hasn’t been met with great results.  James throws incredibly hard, but struggled last season posting a 4.70 ERA and an ERA+ of 99.  Those outings were almost strictly as a reliever too, which makes the move to starting pitching a bit concerning.  Houston converted James to the bullpen once he was called up though – he spent his entire minor league career as a starter and was developed that way.  His arm would beg to differ, but James isn’t someone we should count on.  A shortened season will help, though.

The fifth rotation spot is even more up in the air.  Jose Urquidy was supposed to be in that role, but the second year right-hander has yet to show up at Astros camp with Opening Day on Friday.  We’ve seen this movie around baseball since camps opened back up: those that aren’t there and don’t have a reason for it are likely positive with coronavirus and the teams don’t want that public for good reason (Alavarez is also in the same boat as Urquidy).

With Urquidy’s availability up in the air for what could be a reasonable amount of time, Houston is forced to pivot to other options.  Framber Valdez, Cy Sneed and Cristian Javier have all been deemed viable candidates for the spot, and though all have been highly touted and are younger, none really have any experience.  Valdez has the most and that isn’t saying much – he started five games in 2018 resulting in a 2.19 ERA and pitched in 26 games last year (eight starts) to the tune of a 5.86 ERA.  Sneed has pitched in eight MLB games ever, while Javier – who is just 23 – would be making his MLB debut if he were to get the spot.

Houston’s been notorious for getting maximum value out of pitchers over the past three years, but those results now seem a bit suspicious given what had been going on at the plate.  The Astros pitching was supposed to be what continued to hold steady this season and possibly be their saving grace, depending how affected they were by the lack of cheating mechanisms.  Now, that support system isn’t totally there – it’s full of questions, a lot of which haven’t been answered.  Combining that with pessimism at the plate, and this year could end up being a real stinker for the Astros. In the end, they should probably just feel lucky there won’t be fans to let them know that.