What May Be Important for the Astros for the Postseason (Part 2)

It is the homestretch of the MLB season, and Astros fans are eager and seemingly worried about how many things can impact the team’s chances in the postseason. In part one, we discussed what is really important right now for the Astros for the postseason. As a review, those factors were:

  • The health and effectiveness of Verlander, Cole, and Greinke — Importance rank: 10
  • The health of the starters including Correa and Gurriel — Importance rank: 8
  • Luck; the randomness of the MLB postseason — Importance rank: 10

As a follow-up, here are four more factors that may be important for Astros fans to care about. The last three factors in this posting tend to be discussed a lot but are not as important as the three in part one. If an issue does not make either of these lists, it is unlikely to materially impact the Astros chances in the postseason; do not be distracted by it. Now, let’s dig into the remaining factors that may impact the Astros this postseason.

The new factor: the ability to get hits with RISP
Importance rank: 6

Honestly, I am surprised I left this off the original framework for this article. Typically, I have assumed this factor is basically another aspect of luck and would correct itself. The Astros have an historically epic ability to get on base and to create run-scoring opportunities (wRC+ of 125 — second among all MLB seasons since 1900). They do not have an historically epic run-scoring total (third in the league this year — good but not epic). The table below shows this situation in more detail:

The Astros are best in Creating Runs (see Baseball Reference’s definition of this statistic), OPS, and wRC+. Yet the Astros are third in actual runs scored per game.

Why?

Some of this is due poor baserunning: the Astros are the fifth worst team in baserunning by some advanced metrics in Fangraphs.

The other very interesting factor is the relatively poor performance of the Astros’ batting with runners in scoring position. Let’s compare the Astros across the season and in RISP (Runners in Scoring Position) situations. We can compare the Astros to the league average and against the top offenses.

In this table, we see the Astros’ dominance as a top offense overall. Notice that their OPS only marginally increases, and their wRC+ drops in RISP situations. In comparison, the league in general improves with RISP significantly more. The best offenses in MLB are even better. Across all the metrics, the Astros’ percentage is the worst of the other top teams. So why do the Astros drop off relatively in these situations? Their BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play) also drops, which is also unusual. This BABIP drop indicates that the Astros are not making standard contact in these situations or they are unlucky. I choose to believe it is luck. If it is, then it is nothing to worry about and it may correct itself. However, let’s see if there are any players on the team that are the most affected by this BABIP with RISP phenomenon. The sample size can get small here, so one needs to be careful to assess whether the data is statistically significant.

There are a few players that seem to have the biggest gaps between their full season performance and RISP performance.

  • Bregman: This one is shocking. Bregman’s OPS with RISP is 91% of his OPS across the season. His wRC+ is even worse at 80%. Are teams pitching around him? His walk rate is essentially the same. His BABIP with RISP is an inexplicably low 0.220. He has been tremendously unlucky with RISP. Look for this to get better in the last few weeks of the season; this would help the team’s performance.
  • Chirinos: He, too, is dragged down by an unusually low BABIP with RISP. He may get better.
  • Marisnick: The sample size is getting small for Marisnick. Marisnick seems to be getting good hit quality. Perhaps he is trying too hard for the big hit.
  • Reddick: Reddick’s strikeout rate rises from 11.6% in all situations or 11.1% in non-RISP situations to 13.4% with RISP. This is a large increase and explains the difference in performance. Perhaps he is trying too hard and swinging at pitches he would otherwise take.
  • These four players have a worse performance without RISP. However, two players the Astros traded have an even larger drop: Kemp and White. In fact, if these two are factored out, the team OPS RISP percent goes from 102% to 103% and the wRC+ RISP percent goes from 98% to 101%. The relative team RISP performance improves without Kemp and White and this factors into why they were ultimately traded.

So, what does all of this mean for the postseason Astros?

  • Expect the team to be better than the team has been all year.
  • Expect Bregman to be better than he has been.
  • Expect a pinch hitter will be deployed for players like Chirinos, Reddick, and Marisnick in a critical situation. Look for Diaz and Alvarez (in a non-DH game) to pinch hit.

How important is this issue? Usually when the Astros have struggled to score in a game, they have not hit well with RISP. They have rarely failed to get RISP. I still believe that luck drives most of this issue and that it will not slow the Astros down in the postseason.

The health and timing of returns for key members of the bullpen including Pressly, Peacock, and possibly McHugh
Importance rank: 5

This issue will likely cause the most debate because it seems to be affecting team performance currently. As a reminder, in part one we stated that the Big 3 (Verlander, Cole, and Greinke) could pitch 105–120 innings of a projected total of a maximum of 171 postseason innings. They could, but I don’t think they will. I don’t think they will need to. To facilitate that, the bullpen needs to be at full strength — or does it? Pressly and Peacock are making steps to an imminent return to the Astros. The recent Astros bullpen performance may make one think that Pressly, Peacock, and McHugh are critical to their success in the postseason. Critical is too strong a word, and here is why.

The following table projects the postseason pitching staff with Pressly and Peacock in it. This staff projects to have a postseason ERA of 2.93 when the postseason innings are allocated.

What if Pressly and Peacock suffer a setback and are not available for the postseason?

In this scenario, Pressly and Peacock are replaced by Valdez and Devenski. This modified staff projects to have a postseason ERA of 3.05 when the postseason innings are allocated. This equates to two runs over the 19 projected games. How important are those two runs? It depends when they happen.

Can anyone be an effective long relief pitcher or number 4 starter?
Importance rank: 4

Recently, Miley has struggled as a fourth starter for the Astros. As shown in part one, Miley will start a maximum of three postseason games, as long as Verlander, Cole, and Greinke are healthy. Those three starts are important; however, if the Astros are down in ALDS, Miley is not likely to start ALDS game 4.

Under the scenario that Miley continues to struggle, Peacock, James and/or Urquidy will be called upon more to fill that void and the Astros may utilize an opener strategy that pairs Miley with Peacock to get through five or six innings.

Even this perceived weakness may not be as critical when you compare the relative strengths of the long and short groups of the Astros staff vs. the Yankees and the Dodgers.

The Astros’ fourth starter and long relief corps is on par with the Yankees. The Dodgers’ long group has a significant advantage, but their closer and short group are comparatively the worst.

Overall, assessing whether Miley, Peacock, James, and Urquidy are effective may be a challenge. However, their biggest postseason rivals have similar pitching concerns.

The effectiveness of the young Astros bench members — Tucker, Diaz, Toro, Straw
Importance rank: 3

The last factor that may matter in the postseason is whether the group of relatively young bench players (Tucker, Diaz, Toro, Straw) will produce in the postseason. Here is the reality: Two of these four players are not even likely to get a chance, and the playing time for the other two will be limited. I projected the playing time of the batters in the postseason, assuming the Astros play all possible 19 games.

If the postseason started today, I believe the Astros would choose to include Diaz, Marisnick, Straw, and Maldonado on the roster. I believe the Astros will have Tucker on the ALDS roster. Barring injuries, I believe these players will get very limited playing time. While it would be nice to see this group succeed, it is not likely to be critical to postseason success.

That is it. These seven factors are the issues that Astros fans should really monitor and understand as the team heads to the postseason. The team looks strong on these factors and Astros fans should not worry about other issues. If you have another factor for me to consider, contact me at @LarrytheGM on Twitter.

#TakeItBack

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