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April 9, 2013

Skewed Left

The Astros' Whiff-Prone Ways

by Zachary Levine

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In our haste to dismiss the small-sample-size happenings of April, or in some cases be the loudest in a group of people loudly dismissing them, sometimes there’s a small something that we forget. Those things actually did happen. What I mean by that is that while these events may not tell us much about true talent, it’s important not to dismiss their impact as quickly as we dismiss their predictive value.

Take two teams that appear to have about .500-level talent. One gets off to a 5-1 start, while the other gets off to a 1-5 start. That means nothing, you say. It’s baseball, and teams have mid-season stretches like that all the time, without us paying much attention.

And that may be true in the predictive sense—we could still expect both teams to play .500 baseball the rest of the way—but those games still happened. The 1-5 team now has to play four-plus games better the rest of the season, which can be a lot for teams of equal talent. The Red Sox’ “don’t panic” 0-6 start to the 2011 season was a great example of this; there indeed was no reason to panic for their future, as they would be a great team for the next five months, but the 0-6 start did happen, and they lost out to the Rays by one game.

The significance of six games is why it’s certainly reasonable to expect—on the other end of the major-league talent spectrum—the Astros to break the American League record for strikeouts, no matter how far off that seems (1,387, set by last year’s Athletics). They already have a lot of them, enough to visibly change what they need to do the rest of the year to get there.

While the Astros’ 82 strikeouts through their first seven games (11.7 per game) put them on pace for 1,898, they aren’t going to strike out 1,898 times. Nor will they, as BP compadre Ryan Lind points out, finish with a higher team strikeout rate (35.8 percent of PAs) than Mark Reynolds’ individual record of 35.4 percent, set in 2010.

To reach the mark established way back in 2012 by the Athletics, and actually set on a whiff by one of Houston’s leading culprits, Chris Carter, the Astros had to strike out 8.57 times per game. Now they need only to strike out 8.42 times per game over the remaining 155. Basically, they’ve already cut their per-162-game target by 23 strikeouts. It took a Joe Saunders outing to get below that 8.42 figure for a night on Monday night, and they still struck out eight times in that one. That looks and is going to keep looking like a good night.

Through the end of their first homestand, the Astros had three of the eight American Leaguers with double-digit strikeout totals and, Monday night against Seattle, the contact-poor got contact-poorer. Now, they have three of the top four on the list including major-league co-leaders Brett Wallace and Chris Carter, who have 13 apiece in just 18 and 27 plate appearances apiece. Telling you that’s the same number of strikeouts Joe Dimaggio had in his 1941 MVP season would be cheap, so I won’t do it.

The full tally, before last night:


Player

PA

K

Brett Wallace

18

13

Chris Carter

27

13

Rick Ankiel

14

12

Carlos Pena

23

8

Jason Castro

23

6

Justin Maxwell

27

6

Jose Altuve

30

6

Marwin Gonzalez

13

4

J.D. Martinez

13

4

Brandon Barnes

8

3

Ronny Cedeno

14

3

Matt Dominguez

22

2

Carlos Corporan

7

2

Thank God—or the Marlins—for Matt Dominguez, huh?

First-year manager Bo Porter, the public poobah of positivity, is certainly taking notice, stressing to Houston reporters the need for his young team to control the strike zone. He heaped credit on Yu Darvish for his 14-strikeout performance that fell an out short of perfection, but put much of the rest of the week’s windiness on his guys and their wide eyes.

A look into the numbers shows that it’s certainly not for watching the good ones.

The Astros actually have a below-average number of looking strikes. Their swinging-strike rates are off the charts, though. Whereas the league averages 16 percent swinging strikes and the whiff-prone Angels are second highest at 20 percent, the Astros have swung and missed on 24 percent of the pitches they’ve seen and whiffed on 33 percent of their swings, with no other team above 28 percent in that category.

Yet there really should be no team correlation here. It’s a collection of guys who love to swing and just aren’t very good at it.

This is probably the most stunning of all: Here are the American League leaders in percentage of pitches that went for swinging strikes at the individual level (minimum 25 pitches seen):

Rick Ankiel, HOU, 47%
Brett Wallace, HOU, 40%

Dayan Viciedo, CHW, 36%
Mark Reynolds, CLE, 34%
Michael Morse, SEA, 33%
Carlos Corporan, HOU, 33%
Josh Hamilton, LAA, 32%
Chris Iannetta, LAA, 31%
Colby Rasmus, TOR, 30%
Mark Trumbo, LAA, 30%
Chris Carter, HOU, 29%
Carlos Pena, HOU, 29%

It’s a lonely walk back to that dugout. Except when you have plenty of company.

And it’s probably fitting. The Astros were the ultimate laboratory creation, molded in a perfectly controlled environment where losses in the present don’t seem to matter to ownership. When they did for some reason decide to go sign hitters, those hitters have been terrible. Cedeno, Pena and Ankiel, playing over Tyler Greene, Nate Freiman and Jimmy Paredes, respectively, are 7-for-51 with no walks and 23 strikeouts.

There’s an argument that all the strikeouts hurt the product enough to turn the fans off with a less exciting game, but that’s like accidentally cutting a dead body with a blade during an autopsy. By that point, it doesn’t hurt that much. The fans who are gone are gone—they’ll be back though, Houston’s a forgiving town—and those who remain weren’t watching them thinking they’d be good. As Sam Miller said on the Effectively Wild podcast on this topic today, they’re no less watchable now than they were heading into this season.

Besides, Carlos Correa has four walks and six strikeouts in 27 plate appearances at the age of 18 in the Midwest League. That’s 100 times more important than any record the Astros will break, or will not break but probably will break.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Carlos Corporan,  Brett Wallace,  Chris Carter

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