What the heck is up with the Astros offense?

If the season were a baseball game, the Astros would be nearing the close of the first inning.

Given their performance so far, Todd Kalas would say something like, “If this is the starting pitching the Astros will give us all game, it should be more than enough to win.”

To which, Geoff Blum would reply, “I dunno man, the bats gotta get something going if they want to score, like, at all. I love my hair.”

The Astros currently sit at a respectable 10-7 (.588 win%), which prorates to a more than respectable 95-win season if it continues at this pace.

The problem is that the Astros should be better at the plate, and they currently sit third in the division behind the startlingly-good Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County (or whatever they’re called this year) and the Mariners.

By WAR, the Astros’ offense sits at 18th in the majors, with a 1.5 that pales piddlingly compared to the Angels’ 5.7, and the 2nd-best A’s (wth?) 3.9.  By weighted runs created plus*, the Astros’ 17th ranking is a below-average 97.

*wRC+ is a catch-all stat that relates total offense to league average, where average is 100. For those not hip to the jive, this stat is a carefully-calculated one that uses walks, slugging, base running, and a couple other odds and ends, then uses historical analysis to predict how many runs will be scored based on past players who have posted similar stats (compared to their own league and era). It’s then normalized to an average of 100.  A 97 means that the Astros are 3% worse than this year’s average offense so far. If you read all that, give yourself a cookie.

SO WHAT IS GOING WRONG?

A lot, actually.

Start with the fact that last year’s AL MVP Jose Altuve is hitting .323, but without any home runs and only two doubles.

But most importantly, the role players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.

Remember that diatribe about wRC+?  Remember this: It’s an expression of how much better or worse a player is than average.  Check out this mess:

Marwin Gonzalez:  63 wRC+ (37% worse than ML average)
Evan Gattis: 59 wRC+ (41% worse)
Alex Bregman: 84 wRC+ (16% worse)
Derek Fisher: 29 wRC+ (etc.)
Jake Marisnick: 17 wRC+ (I mean…really?)

There have been some worse batters in the majors this year than Marisnick and Fisher…but almost all of them are pitchers in the National League. And Colby Rasmus.

But WHY?

In the cases of Bregman and Marwin, there is a luck element at play. Both players are hitting well below their ability on balls in play. Generally, once a player puts the ball into play, he loses control over whether that ball falls for a hit or an out.  The average batting average on balls in play (BABIP) falls close to .300 every year, and so if a batter’s BABIP is much lower than that, he is either doing something very wrong or has been somewhat unlucky.

In the case of both of those hitters, thankfully, it appears that it’s an issue of batted balls finding gloves more often than normal. Bregman’s BABIP of .232 is and Marwin’s of .200 are both probably 100 points lower than those players should be able to sustain.

THAT’S GOOD NEWS!

What that means is that Astros fans can take their fingers off the panic buttons and can expect some normalized luck moving forward. Projection systems agree, predicting both players to be well-above-average batters moving forward.

Fisher and Marisnick are more alarming. Fisher didn’t set the world on fire last season, but right now he is a mess.  An irreparable mess? Probably not. But something is wrong.  Batters don’t strike out at a 45% clip over 14 games (Fisher) or 49% over 13 games (Marisnick) because they’re having a spate of bad luck. That means they’re doing something wrong.

The big problem is that while Fisher is swinging more overall (65% of all pitches this  year compared to 61 last year), he is making worse contact. On pitches inside the zone, he is making contact with 10% fewer this year than last year, down to an abysmal 68% that is almost, but not quite, Chris Carter territory.

He’s not striking out because he’s watching good pitches go by. He’s striking out because he’s missing pitches going through the zone.

A quick look at a heat map for this year shows that pitchers are attacking Fisher up-and-in during 2-strike counts.

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Credit: Fangraphs.com

The Astros have two choices – keep Fisher in the majors and work with him in the major league cages to close this hole in his swing, or send him down to AAA where pitchers probably don’t command well enough to challenge him.  Do the Astros keep trotting out a talented but struggling batter, risking their spot in the standings? Or send him down, where he might not actually be able to learn anything?  It’s a pickle, and a tough one considering Fisher’s former Top 100 prospect status and exciting power/speed combo.

Caveat: The heat map above is based on a very small number of pitches. It doesn’t mean that he has a strikeout problem inside and above the zone (though early returns show he struggles at the top of the zone, per Brooks Baseball (below). It only means that major league pitching staffs have identified that the way to attack Fisher is at the top and inside, and it appears to be working to get him out.

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Marisnick is a similar mess. Without going into that same amount of detail (Marisnick’s primary value, after all, is defense and a bit of pop in pinch-hit situations, whereas Fisher has potential to be an impact starter if he can clean up his bugs), all that can be said of Marisnick is that no player can be successful when they don’t walk at all (zero this year) and strike out in half of their plate appearances.

Everything is in the wrong direction with Marisnick. He’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone, missing more pitches in the zone, missing more pitches altogether (his contact rate is worse than Carter-esque this season), and whiffing more in general, by a lot. Just judging by his plate appearances, he looks like a guy who is trying to prove something, and so he’s pressing.

It’s too late to hope that Marisnick can learn to hit well enough to become a regular, but Astros fans need to hope that Dave Hudgens straightens out his complete lack of plate discipline to make him an even slightly-below-average pinch hit option. Right now, he’s not rosterable.

The final struggling batter, Gattis, is actually hitting the ball TOO much, if that makes any sense. His contact rate this year is way up, almost to 90% from a career average of 77%, and his contact on pitches in the zone is 93% (!). That’s not the Evan Gattis we know and love. Crazily, his overall swing rate on all pitches is down to 40%, which is absurdly low and 10% lower than his career rate.

What that says is that A) Gattis is being very selective of what pitches he swings at, and, B) he’s selecting the wrong pitches.

Brooks shows us that pitchers have decided the book on Gattis is to pitch him DOWN.

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And it works. His BABIP isn’t wacky-low, so some of his hits are finding the grass, but they’re not meaningful. His strikeout rate is way higher than usual, and his ground ball rate has increased while his fly ball and line drive rates have decreased. Pitchers are inducing weak contact, and Gattis needs to adjust.

Overall, there’s no need for Astros fans to fret or panic. It’s not even the end of the first inning yet, and there is plenty of positive to go around. The Astros are still on a 95-win pace, and with normal regression from Bregman and Marwin, that projection should go up.  With a bit more help from the bench or from Gattis, this is a Top-3 Major League offense again.

With no reason to question the starting rotation’s overall dominance (please stop stinking, Lance), and little reason to worry about the bullpen because of small sample sizes, the Astros look fine.

It is frustrating to watch a record-setting offense sputter like this, but fate is a fickle mistress, and while she torments us right now, later in the season we will revel in hilarious games with double-digit scoring for weeks in a row.