One of the biggest stories of the 2015 MLB season has been the drastic improvement of the Houston Astros. After three years as a comically bad doormat from 2011 to 2013, they made some significant strides last season with a 19-win improvement. This year, they’ve doubled down on their leap and taken the top slot in the AL West as we head towards the All-Star break. It begs the question, “What’s different about this year’s Astros?”
There is no easy answer. They’ve improved across the board. And while pitching and defense have played a major role in their ascendance, I’d like to focus a bit on their offense today. It has improved by more than half a run per game. I’ve put together a slope graph comparing the 2014 OPS+ and 2015 OPS+ of their regular contributors.
In most cases, it’s as easy as a straight line- 2014 Jonathan Villar becomes 2015 Villar, 2014 Marwin Gonzalez becomes 2015 Gonzalez and so forth. However, there are some instances where specific positional at-bats have gone to new players or combinations of players. That’s why you’ll see a dotted line going from last year’s 1B combo (Jon Singleton and Jesus Guzman) going to DH Evan Gattis (Chris Carter took the bulk of the DH at-bats last year, but those became at-bats at 1B this year).
Similarly, to date, wunderkind Chris Correa hasn’t had a full year of playing time. He has basically taken the same percentage of time as last year’s utility player, Marc Krauss. The position-to-position on those two is obviously different but the playing time is comparable. An update of this slope graph later in the season will be treated differently.
What’s interesting is that several of 2014’s big contributors (Altuve, Carter, and Fowler-turned-into-Marisnick) have seen major drops in production at the plate. But it hasn’t hindered them because there are other huge improvements all over the roster. The biggest culprits for their offensive improvement:
-Singleton and Guzman turning into Gattis
-Adding Correa’s electric bat into the mix, replacing playing time for several inferior hitters
-Alex Presley as utility outfielder swapped out for Colby Gump, who has also had a much larger role than Presley
-The transformation from bad to mediocre at the plate by Villar
-Swapping out Carlos Corporan for Hank Conger as the backup catcher
-Robbie Grossman’s at-bats going to Preston Tucker
-And last but not least, Matt Dominguez’s empty performance in exchange for Luis Valbuena’s all-or-nothing 19 HRs and solidly average 99 OPS+
Given the age and exciting talent level, there’s nowhere to go but up from here. Ultimately, the strides are mostly the result of some shrewd moves, coupled with the arrival and emergence of their stable of young talent. It is surely an exciting time to be an Astros fan.