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Previewing the ALCS: Meeting the Astros offense

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Looking at Houston’s very talented lineup.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

We have a few days without baseball here, which means we have a few days to think about Boston’s upcoming opponent in Houston. They certainly don’t have the same emotional power against Red Sox fans as the Yankees, but they very much have an argument for being the better team. In fact, despite Boston’s regular-season win total, I think most will predict Houston to win this series and then go on to win the World Series. They obviously knocked the Red Sox out of the postseason in last year’s ALDS and then went on to win a championship. You could now make the argument that they’re even better. So, yeah, this one won’t be easy. We’ll start our preview with the Astros offense, which somehow may be the worst part of their roster.

Catcher

Starter: Martín Maldonado (404 PAs, .225/.276/.351 74 wRC+, 9 homers, 0.9 fWAR)

Maldonado has not always been the Astros’ starting catcher, and in fact he spent most of this season on a different roster. Houston traded for the backstop in July from the Angels, hoping to shore up their presence behind the plate. Offensively, Maldonado isn’t a very intimidating presence. He’s almost never going to draw a walk, he strikes out at an above-average rate, and he doesn’t turn enough balls in play into hits to make up for that. His power also isn’t much to worry about, though he certainly has the ability to run into a long ball every now and again. The right-handed bat is better against lefties than righties, but he’s well below-average for both. Where Maldonado really thrives is defensively, however. He was the Gold Glove winner in 2017 — and it’s not as if he had the name value or offensive prowess to argue that award was undeserved — and Baseball Prospectus rates him as above-average in terms of both framing and throwing. He’s not going to play every day, but when Maldonado is in the lineup it should be something of a break in the nine spot.

Depth: Brian McCann (216 PAs, .212/.301/.339 82 wRC+, 7 homers, 0.5 fWAR)

Once upon a time, just about ten years ago, McCann looked like a future Hall of Famer with the Braves as one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball. His career didn’t turn out to be quite as good, but he’s been a very good player for most of his career. Now, however, the lefty is on the back nine. He’s somehow only 34 — I seriously thought he was at least 37 by this point until I wrote this sentence — but he struggled with both health and production this year. McCann did look better at the end of the year, and at his best he can still hit for some pop.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

First Base

Starter: Yuli Gurriel (573 PAs, .291/.323/.428, 13 homers, 1.2 fWAR)

Gurriel is still somewhat new to the majors, having just finished up his second full MLB season, but he is already 34 years old. He and his younger brother Lourdes (of the Blue Jays) came over from Cuba a few years ago, and Yuli was perhaps the biggest star on the island before he defected. He hasn’t quite been a superstar since coming to the majors, but he’s a very solid player. The righty is going to put the ball in play in just about every plate appearance, as he walked just four percent of the time and struck out at just an eleven percent clip. Gurriel will do a solid job at turning those balls in play into hits, but the power is the big question. He never has the look of an elite power hitter, but last year he was very solid before falling off a bit in 2018. He did post a .211 Isolated Power in the month of September, for what it’s worth, and he was much better against lefties both overall and in terms of power. Look for him to spend at least the first two games of this series against Chris Sale and David Price in the middle of the Astros lineup.

Depth: Tyler White (More on him below)

Second Base

Starter: José Altuve (599 PAs, .315/.384/.449 134 wRC+, 13 homers, 4.8 fWAR)

Altuve was, of course, the AL MVP in 2018, and while he won’t win that award two years in a row he is still an outstanding player. The small-statured infielder suffered through some health issues this year, but when he was on the field he was largely the same as ever. He’s not going to strike out much, he’ll walk at a high, though not exorbitant, rate, and his batting average on balls in play is going to be high. Altuve is a great athlete who can make an impact in the field and on the bases as well. The one area in which Altuve really took a step back in 2018 was the power. After he somewhat shockingly posted a .202 Isolated Power in 2017, he followed it up with a mark of just .135. If the Red Sox can keep him in the yard, they can keep him in check even if it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the bases on a consistent basis. In terms of splits, the righty was actually significantly better against right-handed pitching in 2017, though he was above-average against pitchers of both handedness.

Depth: Tony Kemp (295 PAs, .263/.351/.392 110 wRC+, 6 homers, 0.9 fWAR)

Kemp was surprisingly productive when filling in for Altuve earlier in the year, though there is some belief he was playing over his head a bit. Still, he showed off fantastic plate discipline and that alone was enough to make him a safely above-average producer at the plate. In this series, don’t expect him to get any starts but he could be a pinch-hitting option as well as a pinch-running option.

Third Base

Starter: Alex Bregman (705 PAs, .286/.394/.532 157 wRC+, 31 homers, 7.6 fWAR)

There shouldn’t be much of a race for MVP this year, and Mike Trout will probably be Mookie Betts’ biggest competition, but Bregman is going to get some top five or even top three votes this year. The Astros third baseman is one of the very best young players in baseball, and it looks like he could emerge as the best player in this very young and talented offense. The number two overall pick in the same draft in which Boston selected Andrew Benintendi, Bregman hasn’t missed a beat at the highest level. He walks more than he strikes out, he hits for well above-average power, he plays good defense at the hot corner (he’s a natural shortstop) and he makes an impact on the bases. Simply put, there aren’t a lot of better overall players than Bregman, and he has the cockiness and swag to match the talent. Perhaps most impressive for the Astros star was his consistency this year, as he started the year with a 114 wRC+ in the first month of the year and then never had a month with a mark worse than 142.

Depth: Tony Kemp

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Shortstop

Starter: Carlos Correa (468 PAs, .239/.323/.405 101 wRC+, 15 homers, 1.6 fWAR)

Before the season, if you were going to pick a perennial MVP candidate on this Astros roster you would have selected Correa. He is a former number one overall pick (though his selection at the time over Byron Buxton was largely due to financial reasoning) who steadily got better early in his career before a breakout 2017. This past year, however, was a massive disappointment that has been impacted by injury just about all year. In fact, he is reportedly still feeling some pain, especially when he swings and misses. He was still a very slightly above-average hitter despite the disappointment, and he’ll still draw walks at a high rate. However, he’s striking out more than ever before and he’s been unable to hit the ball with authority on a consistent basis like he did earlier in his career. Talent-wise, I don’t doubt that Correa will be back as early as next year. However, it seems as though he is still in pain, and as long as Red Sox pitching doesn’t serve up meatballs they should be able to prevent him from taking over a series like he’s capable of. It is worth nothing, however, that he did hit well against lefties this year to the tune of a 127 wRC+.

Depth: Tony Kemp

Left Field

Starter: Marwin Gonzalez (552 PAs, .247/.324/.409 104 wRC+, 16 homers, 1.6 fWAR)

Gonzalez was one of the biggest breakouts in 2017, showing off an All-Star caliber bat out of nowhere while also being able to play all over the diamond in a super-utility role. Although he’s still been solidly valuable in 2018, he has not been nearly the same player. He’s still drawing walks at a good rate, but other than that he’s taken a step back in just about every area. He’s whiffing more than last year and his strikeout rate is back to being worse-than-average. His BABIP has regressed back to a solid level rather than a near-elite one. His biggest step back came in terms of power, though, as his ISO dropped from .226 to .162. It’s actually a bit strange, though, because his batted ball profile didn’t really change much and according to Fangraphs he actually made hard contact more often than he did in 2017. That may be the reason for his second-half resurgence when he posted a 134 wRC+ with a .218 ISO. Gonzalez, a switch-hitter, was roughly the same caliber hitter against both righties and lefties.

Depth: Tony Kemp

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Center Field

Starter: George Springer (620 PAs, .265/.346/.434 119 wRC+, 22 homers, 2.9 fWAR)

Springer, like seemingly everyone else in this lineup besides Bregman, has taken a step back from last year. Obviously he was still a very good player, and the former UConn star (and Matt Barnes’ former teammate) has just as much talent as he always has. His production was markedly worse, though, thanks to another major dropoff in power. He still kept his strikeout rate below 20 percent and walks at a well above-average rate, but he just didn’t put the ball over the fence like he had in the past. There is a definite theme throughout this lineup that I can’t really get to the bottom of, but all I can say is for all of the drop-offs in power this year I’m not really confidence in any of them being an indicator of true-talent. That is definitely true of Springer, who still has the ability to go deep every time he comes to the plate. He did look much more like his 2017-self against lefties, posting a 131 wRC+.

Depth: Jake Marisnick (235 PAs, .211/.275/.399 85 wRC+, 10 homers, 1.0 fWAR)

Marisnick is not going to provide too much at the plate if/when he does play, but he could get some starts as explained later. There is some real power in his bat, but more often than not it isn’t allowed to come to the surface thanks to poor plate discipline highlighted by his 36 percent strikeout rate this past year. However, Marisnick can be useful to Houston as either a pinch runner or a late-game defensive replacement in the outfield.

Right Field

Starter: Josh Reddick (487 PAs, .242/.318/.400 99 wRC+, 17 homers, 1.1 fWAR)

It’s really interesting to see how the Astros play this position in the first two games of this series as Reddick probably won’t be out there. The former Red Sox prospect is mostly a platoon player for Houston, and with Sale and Price taking the mound to start the series Reddick will likely be saved for a late-game pinch hitting appearance. When he does play, though, Reddick is going to avoid strikeouts and draw walks, with the wildcard in his performance being quality of contact. He will always be a threat to put it over the fence, though his power has been inconsistent over his whole career, but his BABIP plummeted this year. If the Red Sox can prevent him from getting his singles, they’ll be able to keep him at bay in this series. As far as when a lefty pitches, it seems the Astros most-used strategy has been Springer in right field and Marisnick in center.

Depth: Jake Marisnick

Designated Hitter

Starter: Tyler White (237 PAs, .276/.354/.533 144 wRC+, 12 homers, 1.5 fWAR)

White was, somewhat quietly, a major breakout contributor for the Astros and he broke onto the scene at the perfect time around midseason when Houston’s lineup was in a real rut. His playing time, or lack thereof, puts some doubt into the sustainability of his numbers, but nothing looks all that unsustainable. He’s going to strike out a bit, but not much more than average, and he’ll draw his walks while also hitting for power. He has gotten very pull-happy this year and I’d expect some shifts to try and take hits away, but largely it’s going to be on pitchers to try and get some whiffs to slow him down.

Depth: Evan Gattis (451 PAs, .226/.284/.452 99 wRC+, 25 homers, 0.0 fWAR)

Gattis has had a fascinating career, and he actually spent most of this season as Houston’s DH. He can’t really catch anymore, though in an emergency he’ll play back there in a pinch. He’s basically just a right-handed bat at this point, and he’s really just a bat off the bench who can provide some late-game power in a pinch hitting spot. The bad news for Houston and Gattis is that he’s best used against a left-handed reliever, and the Red Sox only have one of those with Eduardo Rodriguez in the bullpen. If Rodriguez does enter late in a game, though, expect Gattis to get a chance.