The Runner Sports

Astros Launch K Control: Max Contact On O, Avoid Bats From Mound

From their apogee high atop the rarefied air of 30 games above .500, everyone craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the 59-29 Houston Astros (through games of July 8) has a theory of what got them there.

Chemistry? Sure. Manager A.J. Hinch is a master of blending disparate personalities into a cohesive whole. A mix of youthful vigor and the sage wisdom of experience? Box checked. Just witness the 40-year-old Carlos Beltran sitting on the dugout bench and passing on hitting tips and advice to…well, anybody. Confidence? Really? Chasing the 60-win mark by All-Star break? By the buckets-full.

Every Win Begins With “K”

Two little-known stats scream out from the American League Western Division ether: The Astros lead all major league teams in strikeouts. Longtime Astro fans will knee-jerk the “So what else is new?” reply. But, this figure comes from the pitching staff! The Astros have struck out 887 opponents (for a 10.2 K/9), streaking past their nearest rival (the L.A. Dodgers) who have 848 Ks (in 4.1 more IP, for a 9.7 K/9). Conversely, the Minnesota Twins’ pitching staff has managed just 593 total strikeouts in 767.2 IP, (for an almost 7 K/9), ranking last in MLB.

Contact at the plate has been paramount for Houston: The Astros are dead last (30th) in MLB in offensive strikeouts, with 588 (an efficient 17.3% Ks per plate appearance), trailing the Cleveland Indians’ 603 Ks, who have needed 139 fewer plate appearances to strike out 15 more times (18.5% K/PA). By contrast, Tampa Bay leads baseball in offensive Ks, with 861 (273 more whiffs than Houston in one less plate appearance than the Astros…3,398, for a whopping 25% K/PA).

Oddly enough, the Rays are two games over .500 in the AL East, nipping at the Yankees’ pinstripes for 2nd place. Wonder where Tampa Bay would be if they cut down on their strikeouts….even just a little? Rays fans…want a little perspective on what a 25% K/PA rate can get you? In Houston’s beyond horrendous 51-111 (.315 winning percentage) 2013 season, their K/PA rate was 25%. Consider this a cautionary tale.

What’s more, the Houston Astros top all 30 MLB teams with 142 home runs (through games of July 7), and while we’re at it, doubles, with 192. Did someone say total bases? Yep. Top of the heap with 1,506. The Washington Nationals are second, with 88 fewer TBs, or the equivalent of 22 Bryce Harper homers. One more: The Astros’ .497 slugging percentage is, not surprisingly, sitting atop all of baseball, .27 points over the 2nd place Nats.

For a team with such jaw-dropping power and run production, strikeout rates and totals ought to be sky-rocketing, not leading both leagues in contact frequency and efficiency. Curiously, the Astros are a distant 18th in walks, with 280, so their #1 team ranking in OBP of .353 isn’t aided by being patient, and working the walk, like so many Astro teams before them. But, your daddy’s Astros featured pop-gun offenses; the new millennial Astros are cocked, fully-loaded, and go up swinging with a plan to physically maim and disfigure an opposing pitcher’s ERA.

Gone With the Win

These impressive two-way numbers point to a run differential, so far, of +149 for Houston, second only, somehow, to the Dodgers’ video game-like +159. Most stunning, though, is the Astros’ road run differential of +114, dwarfing their nearest competition, Boston’s +41 road diff. The Astros are well on their way to topping the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 top overall run differential of +270. The Astros begin play in Toronto, Sunday, July 9, with a road record of 32-11.

The Atlanta Braves can attest to Houston’s road dominance, as the Astros laid waste to Atlanta, 26-8, in a two-game sweep at SunTrust Park, July 4, extending the fireworks to the 5th. Astro bats combined for 35 hits in the two games, holding the Braves to 16, while Atlanta hurlers got Houston to strike out 12 times, to 18 whiffs imposed by the Astro moundsmen.

Watching Houston play, you might notice quite a few wild cuts, and players lunging mightily at pitches seemingly meant for one dugout or another; the difference, at least in 2017, is that they’re actually hitting a lot of these heretofore missed pitches. A lot of the credit should go to Houston’s hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, and his assistant, Alonzo Powell. Hudgens joined the team after their dreadful 70-92 2014 season, where he saw the Astros go from 2nd (to the Cubs) in baseball with 1,442 Ks in 6055 plate appearances (24%) to nearly catching the Cubs again, in 2015, with 1,392, but improving the percentage of strikeouts per PA to 23%. Baby steps.

Compare that with the numbers from 2016, where Houston ended the season ranking 4th in baseball with 1,452 offensive Ks in 6,204 PAs for, still, a 23% K/PA rate. The reigning World Champ Cubs, last year, turned in a #9 MLB ranking in offensive Ks, for a respectable 21% K/PA rate. But, seeing as how the ‘Stros were chasing the Cubs for the top spot in baseball for contact futility two years running (’14 and ’15), the Cubbies’ improved contact, last season, proved instrumental to their success.

Power in Prime Time

Speaking of Tuesday’s All-Star Game, let’s see where Houston’s American League squad starters for the game [Jose Altuve (2B), Carlos Correa (SS), and George Springer (OF)] fare in their high contact contributions.

Related: All-Star Futures Game: Following in the Footsteps of Altuve, Correa, and Springer, Astros Prospects Tucker, Fisher, and Alvarez Named to Team

Reigning AL Batting Champ Altuve is topping the league batting race, with a .342. He’s sporting a nifty 12.3% K/PA, while Correa (.320) has an 18.7% rate. Springer, former “swing-from -the-heels” champ, is batting .307, with a 22% K/PA, which is an improvement over his 2015 and 2016 rates of 24%. But, you can forgive a lot for a leadoff hitter who’s second only to the Yankees’ great Aaron Judge in both home runs (27), and runs scored (74). Judge, by the way, is carrying the restrictive yoke of a 29.1% K/PA halfway through ’17. Pitchers shudder at the prospect of an eventually improved Judge wielding the gavel at a K/PA rate near 20!

As for Houston’s mound contributions to the All-Star Game, Dallas Keuchel has ridden his 9-0 record and 1.67 ERA to mid-season prominence, despite a  month on the DL due to neck discomfort. His strikeout ratio, though, is 8.2 K/9 in his 75.2 IP.

Fellow All-Star Lance McCullers, Jr., himself only recently off a two-week stint on the DL, has pitched, this season, to a 7-2 record, a 3.05 ERA, and a K/9 ratio of 10.4, through games of July 7.

Springer put the Astros’ first half into perspective, recently: “We have a lot of fun. We know who we are. We understand who we are as a team. It’s been fun to go out there and experience this with 25-plus guys. It’s been a special first half for us. Obviously, there’s a long way to go. We have to keep playing the same way.”

I suppose the inevitable question, at this point, is “Can the Astros keep it up?” None of the above stats point to anything but sustainability, and even if the Houston pitching staff crumbles, and opposing pitchers can suddenly conquer Astro bats, the Orange Nine have a 16-game lead in the Western Division.

It’s good to be King.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle