Series Preview: Reds vs. Houston Astros

053112-astros_medium The Reds head to Minute Maid Park to take on the Astros this weekend. The Astros are kind of a "meh" team, which is a lot more than I thought I'd be able to say about them at this point in the season. Their offense started off pretty strong this year, but has cooled over the past few weeks and now rates as essentially equivalent with that of the Reds. They've been avoiding outs better than the Reds (this has been the Reds' main deficiency), but they've shown less power. Their starting pitching has been solid, even if a bit below average. Meanwhile, their bullpen has been putting up good numbers, even if some regression might be expected. Fielding is hard to read. UZR thinks they've been good, but everything else indicates that they've been sub-par.

Speaking of which...shhh, don't say anything, but something might be happening with the Reds' fielding data...

My favorite thing about the Astros? They hired Mike Fast, formerly of StatSpeak, Hardball Times, and Baseball Prospectus. Mike helped me out a ton when I was doing my Scouting Reds Pitchers pitchf/x series during spring 2011, and is one of the best minds I've encountered in the sabermetrics community. For that reason alone, I'm glad they're leaving the Reds' division next year.

Park Factors: Minute Maid Park

Runs: 0.98

Home Runs: 1.04 LHB / 1.04 RHB

The most obvious unique characteristic about Minute Maid Ballpark is the Crawfish Boxes, which stand just 315 down the left field line. Here's a figure from Hit Tracker that superimposes the already short fences at Great American Ballpark with that in Houston:

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via hittrackeronline.com

The blue dots are home runs hit at Minute Maid Park in 2012. As you can see, that short left field porch makes for an enticing target for batters, while balls hit to straight-away center field are where hitters' dreams go to die.

Given this, I'm pretty surprised to see the FanGraphs home run park factors identical for both left- and right-handed batters. To the best of my knowledge, these are multi-year park factors, so we shouldn't be dealing with small sample effects. Maybe it has something to do with the wind patterns when the roof is open. I dunno.

Position Players

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Minor note: I found a bug in my spreadsheet that was causing nFRAA to over-weighted for players who have played more than one position. This has now been rectified.

You should know about Carlos Lee. And you probably know of Jed Lowrie from his days with Boston. But the two most interesting players on this team to me are Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez.

I got to herald Jose Altuve last year when he came up with the Astros. His biggest claim to fame at the time was his lack of bigness. He's a short guy, listed at 5'7", and that might be generous. This year, however, he's been among the best performing second basemen in baseball, hitting .309/.357/.464. He's showing good doubles power and excellent contact rates to go with what is reportedly solid fielding at second base. I don't know if it's real, but it's a great story.

J.D. Martinez was a guy I had my eye on entering this season. He had a fabulous season in AA in 2011, hitting .338/.414/.546 before being promoted to the big club, where he held his own to the tune of a .274/.319/.423 batting line. He hasn't exactly set the world on fire this year. But the one large positive I see is his walk rate, which is sitting pretty at nearly 13%. If he can get his power to start to come through, he might start inching up into the above-average or better territory by the season's end.

Man, the Reds' bench sucks.

Probable Starters

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As of press time (i.e. last night when I was writing this), the Astros hadn't yet announced a starter for game 3. It probably is not going to be prospect Jordan Lyles, who was just up with the big club to pitch the second game of a double-header on Monday. As the 26th man for that game, he was sent down immediately following the game...and as far as I know cannot be recalled for the normal 10(?) days following his demotion.

Nevertheless, the game 1 & 2 pitchers are enough for the Reds to worry about. J.A. Happ is a guy that I've never taken seriously. Over the last two seasons, he's posted strikeout rates in the mid-7's per nine, but with terrible walk rates in the 4.8 bb/9 territory. This year, however, something seems to have clicked, at least in the early-going. He's striking out a batter per nine, and has his walk rates closer to average territory. This might end up being the 29-year old's career season if he can keep this up.

Wandy is Wandy: a valuable, steady pitcher who isn't in the top tier of pitchers, but could be the second-best guy on a lot of pitching staffs. His xFIP has been incredibly consistent over the past five years: 3.70, 3.57, 3.55, 3.72, and 3.68 this season. He is showing a dip in his strikeout rate this year, but it has been matched by a concomitant drop in his walk rate. This is the kind of thing that could reflect a change in approach more than a change in stuff.

Bullpens

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I added a new feature! The last column on the right shows "pLI," which is the average leverage index experienced for each pitcher in 2012. Leverage index tells you how important the innings have been that pitchers have thrown in to date. 1.0 is average, 0.5 means half as important as an average inning, while 2.0 means twice as important as an average inning.

The Reds' data are currently in flux, but you can tell that Dusty sure likes his roles. Chapman, Marshall, and Ondrusek have been the go-to guys in late and close situations. Arredondo is sort of a floater, while the other guys (Hoover, Simon, and LeCure) are usually used when the game is not on the line. Marshall's pLI is on the decline, while Chapman's is on the rise. I continue to be concerned about what will happen when Logan Ondrusek's luck catches up to him. Fortunately, the Reds do seem to have options once Ondrusek starts to get hit.

As for the Astros, former starter Brett Myers is back in the closer role. This did two things. First, it allowed them to keep more young starters in the rotation (though Kyle Weiland is hurt, and Jordan Lyles is in AAA for ineffectiveness, albeit against good offenses). Second, it may allow them to increase his trade value--clearly his stuff still plays well in relief, and it was questionable how well he'd throw as a starter this season. The Astros also have several other nice options in the bullpen in late innings--this has not been a pushover squad by any means. I expect him to be shipped off at some point this summer.

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