Analyzing Houston Astros Hitters For 2020 – 60-Game Season Update

Set aside the controversy and focus on the fantasy.

2019 was a remarkable year for offensive output in baseball. The Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees each crushed over 300 homers, both breaking the single-season record of 267 previously set by the 2018 Yankees. The Houston Astros also surpassed the previous record, and did so while posting a wRC+ better than every team in baseball history with the exception of “Murderer’s Row.” However, nobody has been banging their proverbial trashcan about this accomplishment because of the high heat commissioner Manfred brought upon the organization for their 2017 sign-stealing scandal. Even if the players have fallen out of grace with fans of the game, they should not fall off of anyone’s draft board for 2020.

(Last Updated: 7/1/2020)

60-Game Season Update

 

Remember when we were worried about how the Astros’ hitters would perform when playing on the road? The trash can cheating scandal feels like a lifetime ago. Some were downgrading Houston’s hitters because of the psychological toll that fan booing and daily interviews about the scandal would have on the players. Being a villain isn’t easy.

In an MLB without fans in the stadium and with physical distancing, Houston’s players won’t (or may not) hear the booing fans and will have reduced interaction with the media. How the MLB continues during a pandemic will be the main storyline and will distract from the fallout of the Astros’ cheating scandal. All hitters should benefit, or at least not be downgraded, from the new protocols and the distraction that post-shutdown baseball provides.

The Astros’ roster doesn’t look all that different from when we last saw it in October 2019. Their one significant off-season addition/subtraction was Dusty Baker coming in to replace the suspended (and later fired) A.J. Hinch. With George Springer, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick all free-agents at the end of the season (with Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Roberto Osuna, Lance McCullers Jr., and Carlos Correa at the end of 2021) this might be the last chance for this group of players to play, and win, together.

 

Trending Up

Alex Bregman‘s low in NFBC drafts is 25. Jose Altuve‘s low is 57. That shows just how much both were being dinged for the cheating scandal. Dusty Baker’s main role as Astros’ manager is to be the main point-person for the team and to be the one to absorb the brunt of the cheating-related hostilities.

Baker is also a manager who trusts his veterans. The Astros have a strong core of players including Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, and Carlos Correa all of whom should play as much as they are able.

The player who benefits the most from the delayed season is Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez was not at 100% health in February and March and knee soreness was hampering his preparations for the 2020 season. The benefit of three months of additional rest and preparation should, hopefully, have helped Alvarez get back to full strength.

Another benefit for Alvarez will be how fantasy hosting sites assign playing time eligibility. In a shortened season, eligibility rules could be shortened and a DH-only eligible Alvarez could gain in-season eligibility at other positions depending on how much movement there is in the Houston lineup. Certainly, we could see players ramp-up slowly in late July and early August meaning that Alvarez could see time in the field. Combining that needed real-life roster flexibility and shorter fantasy eligibility could really benefit the managers who take Alvarez’s DH-only discount. Keep in mind, too, that the DH in the National League will mean that Alvarez will be able to play in any NL ballpark.

 

Trending Down:

Poor Kyle Tucker. What does this guy have to do to catch a break? Maybe the in-season flexibility that managers will need to rest players will benefit Tucker, but Dusty Baker’s managerial tendencies have been to favor veterans over young players. Though fantasy managers have a hard time understanding why Josh Reddick would play ahead of Tucker, we can’t do much about it.

The short season might help Tucker gain opportunities to play, but he must seize those opportunities when they are given. With Springer and Reddick as free-agents, Tucker has the spot for next season if he can prove that he deserves the role, but with a veteran manager and core players on the move, the Astros’ might have to run their veterans hard instead of taking chances on youth. Every win is more valuable and every loss more devastating, so Houston might look to take their final dance with the players that brought them, rather than looking ahead to the next one.

George Springer has spent most of his time in Houston atop their lineup, and fantasy managers have benefitted from his high plate appearances and his accumulation of stats. After playing 162 games in 2016 (leading the league with 744 plate appearances), Springer has missed time due to injury in each of the following years. While Springer will play as much as possible, the compressed schedule will hurt his chances of playing every single day and the cut in games will not allow him time to build the counting stats as we would see in a longer season.

 

Projected Lineups

vs. LHP

vs. RHP

 

Original March Edition

Roster Changes

 

 

Hitter Previews

 

Catchers

 

Martin Maldonado (C | Batting 9th)

2019: 46 R, 12 HR, 27 RBI, 0 SB, .213/.293/.378 | C #32

2020 ADP: Undrafted

 

If defensive WAR were a fantasy statistic, Martin Maldonado would be a worthwhile selection. Unfortunately, it’s not, making Maldonado irrelevant outside of 15 team AL-only leagues.

 

Strengths: None

Weaknesses: R, RBI, AVG

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

He somehow hits 15 home runs and maintains a batting average above .240 for the second time in his career.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

It’s difficult to see a scenario that’s worse than what Maldonado typically provides, but his defense is strong enough where his batting average could fall below .200 and he would not see a significant drop in playing time.

 

2020 Projection: 40 R, 10 HR, 40 RBI, 0 SB, .225/.290/.370

 

Infielders

 

Yuli Gurriel (1B | Batting 5th)

2019: 85 R, 31 HR, 104 RBI, 5 SB, .298/.343/.541 | 1B #9

2020 ADP: 139.0 (1B #14)

 

To be frank, I don’t quite buy the power spike Yuli Gurriel had in 2019. Among qualified batters, Gurriel’s SLG-xSLG differential of .119 ranked fifth in the league, indicating our expectations for 2020 should be a bit more catered than the .485 many projection systems are pegging him for. In fairness to him though, teammate Alex Bregman ranked fourth on that list, and I’m much more bullish on his production for 2020 than I am Gurriel’s. Minute Maid Park definitely could have aided Yuli’s homer output for 2019, as we know it lends itself to more pulled homers for right-handed hitters than any other park, but did he change his hitting profile? Yes. Year-over-year, his pull percentage was up five percentage points, but when broken down to home/road splits the increase was starker at home (5.6 pp to 2.7 pp), as was his HR/FB% increase. He’ll still be playing half of his games at Minute Maid in 2020, but I would anticipate a decline in his HR/FB% given he’ll be 36 years old and the ball may not be as lively.

 

Strengths: RBI, AVG

Weaknesses: HR

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

Gurriel’s age 35/36 season is more Joey Bats than Joey Votto, and he again finishes with 30+ home runs.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

Flyballs and line drives come back down to earth, dragging Yuli’s home run total below 15 for the second time in three years.

 

2020 Projection: 73 R, 19 HR, 90 RBI, 3 SB, .285/.330/.467

 

Jose Altuve (2B | Batting 2nd)

2019: 89R, 31 HR, 74 RBI, 6 SB, .298/.353/.550 | 2B #9

2020 ADP: 25.7 (2B #1)

 

Per Ryan Bloomfield’s definition, Jose Altuve was a line drive machine for three straight years heading into the 2019 season. Last year, Altuve’s line drive percentage dipped from 25.5% to 19.7%, with two-thirds of that being re-distributed to pop-ups. Despite this less than desirable redistribution, Altuve’s barrel percentage was the highest of his career, and he eclipsed 30 homers for the first time while stepping to the plate fewer times than any season since 2011. Although I cannot say for certain, this data suggests that Altuve may have been selling out a bit for power, which also explains why his batting average dipped below .300 for the first time since 2013.

What was likely most disappointing for Altuve owners last season is the stolen base output falling well short of expectation. On a per plate appearance basis, he averaged 4.0% SB/PA between 2016 and 2018. Last season, that number fell to an uninspiring 1.1%, generating the lowest stolen base total of any player who fell into the top 25 in sprint speed. Assuming that he attempts to swipe more bags in 2020, Altuve should be a safe bet for at least 17 steals if he runs at the same rate he did in 2018.

 

Strengths: R, AVG, SB

Weaknesses: None

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

“Mighty Mouse” reminds us why we considered him one of the two best fantasy assets in the game with a 25/25 season.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

Altuve stays conservative on the base paths, hits less than 20 homers, and finishes outside the top 10 at arguably the second shallowest position in fantasy.

 

2020 Projection: 103 R, 22 HR, 83 RBI, 21 SB, .308/.371/.487

 

Alex Bregman (3B | Batting 4th)

2019: 122 R, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 5 SB, .296/.423/.592 | 3B #3

2020 ADP: 10.0 (3B #1)

CAREER Home Road
K% 14.6% 13.7%
BB% 12.8% 12.7%
OPS .874 .946

 

2019 Home Road
K% 12.8% 11.3%
BB% 15.7% 18.8%
OPS .923 1.109

 

How does a player with slightly above average exit velocity compile a 90th percentile xwOBA and 99th percentile plate discipline? Of Baseball Savant’s top 25 hitters in xwOBA, only Anthony Rizzo has a lower average exit velocity than Bregman. However, aside from Bregman, only Anthony Rendon has a zone contact percentage greater than 90% and an out of zone swing and miss percentage less than 30%. In addition, only he and Carlos Santana had non-negative BB%-K% in 2019, but the difference between Santana and the 46th best BB-K% is the same as the difference between Bregman and Santana.

Despite deserving a higher barrel percentage than he amassed last season, back-to-back 40+ homer seasons is highly unlikely. What is virtually guaranteed though is a third straight 100/30/100 season with stolen base upside higher than every other 3B aside from Jose Ramirez.

 

Strengths: R, HR, RBI, AVG

Weaknesses: None

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

It may be a cop-out to call a repeat of 2019 the best-case scenario, so I’ll go with 2015 Mike Trout as the benchmark.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

Bregman is far too talented to bust at age 26, barring injury of course, but anything short of a combined 180 R+RBI would be hard to swallow for a first-round price tag.

 

2020 Projection: 116 R, 32 HR, 104 RBI, 13 SB, .288/.407/.586

 

Carlos Correa (SS | Batting 7th)

2019: 42 R, 21 HR, 59 RBI, 1 SB, .279/.358/.568 | SS #27

2020 ADP: 70.8 (SS #12)

 

Since 2015, Carlos Correa has played more than two-thirds of the season twice, and greater than 68% of the season once (2016). Despite a sprint speed decline of only 0.4 feet/second since 2016, he has not attempted a steal more than three times in the last three years. With an ADP of 70.8, there is no better time to invest in the 25-year old shortstop.

Let’s take Correa’s statistics from the last five seasons and convert them to a per plate appearance basis. In doing so we’re providing the most weight (28%) to Correa’s second-worst season (2016), and the second most weight to his worst season (2018), in which he played through a back injury. Taking these rates and extrapolating them across 600 plate appearances, we arrive at 79 R, 26 HR, 94 RBI, and .845 OPS. If we remove 2018, knowing that playing through the injury severely limited his performance, per Jeff Zimmerman, his line would be 80 R, 28 HR, 97 RBI, .874 OPS, and 2016 would still be accounting for roughly 35% of that stat line. Using the outputs from ATC projections, that OPS would be the second-highest among shortstops, only trailing Trevor Story’s .883.

Correa’s talent is undeniable and 2020 could finally be the year we see it on full display.

 

Strengths: HR, RBI

Weaknesses: SB

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

Correa plays 140 games, which allows him to slash 100/30/100 for the first time in his career.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

Injuries continue to plague him, and he once again plays in less than 100 games.

 

2020 Projection: 81 R, 31 HR, 94 RBI, 6 SB, .281/.366/.505

 

Outfielders

 

Michael Brantley (LF | Batting 3rd)

2019: 88 R, 22 HR, 90 RBI, 3 SB, .311/.372/.503 | OF #20

2020 ADP: 88.5 (OF #26)

 

Michael Brantley is the kind of player that typically gets overlooked in drafts because most people don’t find batting average to be sexy. Looking at players drafted around him, people are more likely to take their chances with an Andrew Benintendi rebound despite Beni trailing Brantley in every category except stolen bases from the second half of 2018 through the culmination of the 2019 season. Sure, you can argue that Brantley came to the plate 25 more times than Benintendi in that time frame, but when you consider the difference in batting average is .041 in favor of Brantley, those extra at-bats make his case even more compelling.

Looking at Brantley’s batting average from a more micro view suggests that the variance typically associated with the category should be tighter than most. Sorting by xBA on Baseball Savant, both his 2018 season and 2019 season found their way into the top 15. There were four other players who also accomplished this, but only Brantley and Anthony Rendon also finished with two top 15 seasons in K%, Out of Zone Swing and Miss %, and In Zone Contact %. Our own Ben Pernick was a bit premature in crowning David Fletcher 2019’s King of Contact, as that title rightly belongs to Michael Brantley.

Even if double-digit stolen bases are no longer in the cards, he’s an extremely strong four-category contributor for 2020.

 

Strengths: R, HR, RBI, AVG

Weaknesses: SB

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

Brantley wins the AL batting title while contributing 200 R+RBI.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

Power begins to decline, forcing him to re-configure his approach mid-season. This loses him the three spot in the order, driving his counting stats down.

 

2020 Projection: 85 R, 23 HR, 85 RBI, 8 SB, .304/.373/.484

 

George Springer (CF | Batting 1st)

2019: 96 R, 39 HR, 96 RBI, 6 SB, .292/.383/.591 | OF #12

2020 ADP: 38.3 (OF #12)

 

Like Bregman, George Springer performed better away from Minute Maid Park in 2019, generating a 1.012 OPS on the road compared to a .932 at home. Sure, 2018 saw Springer perform significantly better at home than on the road, but his totals from the last three seasons show extremely similar home/road profiles (.867/.888 OPS).

By Alex Chamberlain’s deserved barrel percentage, Springer was the eleventh luckiest among hitters who had at least fifty logged batted ball events, suggesting the observed power surge is unsustainable. However, his xBarrel percentage of 9.6% is still better than his actual barrel percentage for 2017 and 2018, so in combination with the increase in average launch angle and average exit velocity over the years, there is evidence that some of these gains are more than sheer luck. Regardless of whether he ends up closer to 30 homers or 40 homers, Springer will continue to be an elite source of runs that is second only to the “Super Elite” and Charlie Blackmon.

Strengths: R, HR, RBI

Weaknesses: SB

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

Springer is the MLB leader in runs scored and maintains his power gains.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

The bathwater hasn’t been changed since October, leaving us with an end result more stale than the 2018 season.

 

2020 Projection: 112 R, 36 HR, 99 RBI, 9 SB, .282/.364/.520

 

Kyle Tucker (RF | Batting 8th)

2019: 57 R, 14 HR, 56 RBI, 5 SB, .275/.319/.409 | OF #166

2020 ADP: 151.3 (OF #42)

 

If Roster Resource is the source material for the lines I’m to provide about the hitters, then consider this going off-script. Aside from outfield defense, the only thing preventing Kyle Tucker from usurping Josh Reddick’s role as the everyday RF is himself. Tucker has been virtually unstoppable in the minors for the last two seasons, posting a 20/20 season in 2018 and a 30/30 last year. His short time in the majors last year was also significantly better than his initial call up in 2018 where he was well below the Mendoza line. Something Tucker has done particularly well in the minors that Reddick has not done throughout his career: hit left-handed pitching well. Granted, the caliber of pitchers in the MLB is higher than that in AAA, but if Tucker can keep the gap between his lefty and righty splits tight (.011 OPS difference last season), he’ll accrue close to 500 plate appearances and provide an excellent power/speed bargain for his cost.

 

Strengths: R, AVG

Weaknesses: RBI

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

Tucker starts the season in RF and hits the ground running, allowing him to accumulate enough plate appearances for a 25/20 season.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

He struggles early, and the short leash creates an undesirable platoon with Reddick.

 

2020 Projection: 74 R, 22 HR, 74 RBI, 21 SB, .261/.320/.460

 

 

Designated Hitters

 

Yordan Alvarez (DH | Batting 5th)

2019: 58 R, 27 HR, 78 RBI, 0 SB, .313/.412/.655 | UT #86

2020 ADP: 29.8 (DH #1)

 

How similar is Yordan Alvarez’s 2019 to what we saw from Gary Sanchez in 2017 and Rhys Hoskins in 2018? The HR/FB rate is essentially the same as Hoskins’s was (32.9% to 31.6%), but Alvarez’s barrel percentage topped both of theirs in a sample size that’s nearly 70% larger. One knock on Alvarez is his whiff percentage was slightly below average for hitters with at least 250 plate appearances last season, and given his struggles against high heat in the post-season, albeit a small sample, the likelihood of Alvarez exceeding his already lofty projections are low.

Even though I do not anticipate a 40+ homer season like all the industry projections seem to, his batted ball profile is too radiant to fade entirely.

 

Strengths: R, HR, RBI, AVG

Weaknesses: SB

 

Best-Case Scenario

 

2017 Aaron Judge, but the Runs and RBI are reversed.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

 

I wouldn’t consider an 85/33/85 season a failure for any young player, but that would certainly be a disappointing result for his third-round price tag.

 

2020 Projection: 88 R, 35 HR, 104 RBI, 2 SB, .274/.362/.538

 

Playing Time Battles

 

From a fantasy perspective, the lack of depth for the Astros serves as an extra layer of stability for those projected to start. As I mentioned in Tucker’s write up, the main battle will be between him and Reddick, but I believe the Astros are willing to extend the leash on Tucker and let him take over the job as both he and the season progress.

 

Projected Lineup

 

Projected Lineup v. LHP
Order Player Position Bats
1 George Springer CF R
2 Jose Altuve 2B R
3 Michael Brantley LF L
4 Alex Bregman 3B R
5 Yuli Gurriel 1B R
6 Yordan Alvarez DH L
7 Carlos Correa SS R
8 Kyle Tucker LF L
9 Martin Maldonado C R

 

Projected Lineup v. RHP
Order Player Position Bats
1 George Springer CF R
2 Jose Altuve 2B R
3 Michael Brantley LF L
4 Alex Bregman 3B R
5 Yuli Gurriel 1B R
6 Yordan Alvarez DH L
7 Carlos Correa SS R
8 Kyle Tucker LF L
9 Martin Maldonado C R

 

Conclusion

 

Even with a dark cloud looming over the organization, the talent is there for another strong year at the plate. They have had an above-average offense every season since 2015, and their lineup is arguably deeper than it has been in any of those seasons.

Alex Drennan

Alex is a self-proclaimed rational Mets fan, yet he buys into the team's false hope every April. He's usually disappointed by mid-May.

  • Avatar txsock says:

    Tucker’s avg projection of .61 seems a bit low, but I’d be happy with the rest of it.

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