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Whiffing and Winning: A Houston Astros preview

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A look ahead at the AL West leaders

Everyone looks out of sync, but then again, they're just getting used to this.
Everyone looks out of sync, but then again, they're just getting used to this.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Houston Astros are the latest data point in a very real ongoing debate in the baseball community: Are too many strikeouts a serious problem for a lineup?

The South Side Sox podcast has had a couple interesting discussions regarding the great attention being paid to strikeouts around the baseball community. Back in February, Keith Law discussed with Josh the increasing emphasis that organizations are placing on contact rates in player development, largely in response to the recent era of depleted offense. Prior to that, Josh and I talked about a piece written by Buster Olney that took a look at the output of strikeout-prone and strikeout-averse lineups. The piece asserted that lineups built with high-strikeout players are generally streaky and allow opposing pitchers to get out of jams too easily. This, Olney posited, made the construction of the Houston Astros 2015 offense a risky proposition.

In 2014, the Astros had the second-highest strikeout rate in baseball to only the Chicago Cubs. True to projection, the story this season is pretty much the same. Again, the Astros find themselves second in baseball in strikeout rate.  Again, only the Cubs are worse. Yet, you can't really describe Houston's offense as ineffective in either season. Both years, they've found themselves with a team wOBA close to league average. While the 2014 squad's 21st-place finish in runs scored can be considered a point in Olney's favor, particularly given the hitter-friendliness off the Juice Box, the 2015 team is currently fifth in runs despite all the whiffs. So far, the gamble is paying off.

The expected trade-off for employing a high-strikeout hitter is that he'll reward you in the power department. It's therefore fitting that power, particularly in the form of home runs, has been the force the Astros have used to combat strike three. Houston leads all of baseball in home runs by a comfortable margin, and they've done it despite a down year from Chris Carter, whose 37 bombs tied him for second in all of baseball last season. Carter's the worst contact hitter of them all, so the Astros have had to get plenty of production from elsewhere.

Fortunately, the other complementary players on the team have stepped it up to chip in homers. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the best sources of production has been newly signed Colby Rasmus, who has more or less mimicked Carter's 2014 triple-slash line. About half of Rasmus' plate appearances have ended in an extra-base hit or a strikeout. Leading the way in the home run department is third baseman Luis Valbuena (you're reading this right), a lefty whose platoon splits have widened in recent years. Valbuena's OPS+ sits at just 86 at the moment because he's not being platooned and portsiders are eating him for lunch (.130/.184/.283), but there's something to be said for the run production certainty of a homer. Even new DH Evan Gattis, who's been horrible, has had the decency to launch ten out of the park.

These complementary guys back up the true stars of the show, second baseman Jose Altuve and right fielder George Springer. Altuve emerged as one of the best players in the American League last year by hitting .341 and swiping 56 bases. The speedy often-leadoff hitter breaks the mold of swinging and missing throughout the rest of the Astro lineup with his great contact skills. He's not a pure slap hitter either, as he's likely to tally double-digit home runs this year. Springer, on the other hand, perfectly fits the strikeouts-and-power mold of the bulk of the Astro lineup. What sets Springer apart is a walk rate that allows him to get on base at a decent clip despite the whiffs.

The Astros also have quite the catching tandem in Jason Castro and Hank Conger, both of whom draw great praise for their defense (also, because it's the Astros: power). Throw in a couple of guys that have absolutely murdered the ball in small samples in Jed Lowrie (who's out until after the All-Star Break) and the currently hot-hitting Preston Tucker, and voila, a strikeout-laden offense that has supported one of the best records in the American League. The formula will further improve later in the season, as Law's current number-one prospect in all of baseball, Carlos Correa, figures to take over at shortstop.

However, with the Astros, it's not all about the slugging lineup. Houston has received unexpectedly great work from their pitching staff, led by ground ball machine Dallas Keuchel at the top of the rotation. Keuchel is backed by Collin McHugh, a late bloomer who has very good control and relies heavily on his slider.  These two guys were afterthoughts heading into 2014, and now they're the top two pitchers on one of the American League's most successful teams. Baseball is awesome.

More intriguing still is Lance McCullers, a prospect who made his major league debut earlier this year. McCullers comes packing mid-90s heat and a powerful curveball. His success in the show will depend on whether he can suppress the gopher ball, as he yielded an astronomical amount last season at (admittedly hitter-friendly) High-A Lancaster.

Not intriguing at all are Scott Feldman and Fausto Carmona, veteran back-end types that just kind of hold their own and remind everyone that having John Danks as your fifth starter isn't some sort of insurmountable handicap. The filler at the back end of the Houston rotation is particularly forgivable in light of how effective their bullpen has been. Luke Gregorson has been uninspiring as a closer, but setup guys Will Harris, Josh Fields, Tony Sipp, Joe Thatcher, and Chad Qualls have all kept runs off the board while posting very good strikeout numbers. There's a great argument to be made that the Astros have the deepest (and possibly best) bullpen in the American League.

While the Astros have made themselves a great counterargument to the thought that excessive strikeouts at the plate are a severe problem, it's important to keep in mind just how much they've had to do here to succeed in spite of that. The lineup slugs homers like crazy, the starting pitching has been above-average, and the bullpen has been superb. However, once a team (or a player, for that matter) has shown the ability to be successful, the method by which outs are made becomes an afterthought. Strikeouts are a weakness, but it's a weakness that can be overcome.

And if there's any team that has shown an ability to overcome weaknesses this season, it's the Astros. Houston has been put through years of being one of the worst teams in baseball, has the second-lowest payroll in the league, is in a division that most projected to be tough, has a new manager in A.J. Hinch, and has recently had a number of off-the-field debacles with their TV deal, the draft, and leaked electronic communications. Their roster is largely a squad of waiver claims, inexperienced prospects, reclamation projects, and a few unremarkable veteran free agents sprinkled in at the back of their rotation and bullpen. Yet, despite all these handicaps, they currently have the most commanding lead of any first place team in baseball. Again: baseball is awesome.

Predicted record and finish: 88-74, first place, AL West

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. George Springer - RF

SP1. Dallas Kuechel - LHP

2. Jose Altuve - 2B

SP2. Collin McHugh - RHP

3. Preston Tucker - LF

SP3. Scott Feldman - RHP

4. Evan Gattis - DH

SP4. Roberto Hernandez - RHP

5. Colby Rasmus - CF

SP5. Lance McCullers - RHP

6. Luis Valbuena - 3B

CL. Luke Gregerson - RHP

7. Chris Carter - 1B

RP1. Will Harris - RHP

8. Jason Castro - C

RP2. Chad Qualls - RHP

9. Marwin Gonzalez - SS

RP3. Tony Sipp - LHP