Afotimber Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve. (Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports)
Thirty-one games into the season the defending World Champion Houston Astros look like a shell of the team that brought home the trophy last November.
We knew there would be huge changes on the Astros pitching staff, as Justin Verlander took his Cy Young and future Hall of Fame right arm to New York to be replaced by the precocious rookie Hunter Brown.
There were changes around the infield, too as Houston opted not to resign the beloved Yuli Gurriel and instead opted to spend $58,000,000 on a three-year deal with aging slugger Jose Abreu.
Then Jose Altuve was injured in the World Baseball Classic. The heart and soul of the Astros will likely be out another few weeks if not longer.
Journeyman Mauricio Dubon didn’t hit much since being traded to the Astros last May, but the team was confident. Dusty Baker loved his defense and Dubon would share time with David Hensley.
The team left Spring Training confident. Yes, they would miss Altuve, but this is a team of mashers from Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Jeremy Pena and that new guy at first, Abreu.
Surely they could hold it together until Altuve returned and provided the spark that makes this team go…
Not so far.
The once powerful Astros lineup is a shell of what it wasIn 2022, the Astros were 12th in batting average, 7th in OBP and 5th in slugging.
So far this season Houston is 20th in average, 21st in OBP and 24th in slugging, staggering drop offs in every category.
That doesn’t even include the drop from fourth to 23rd in home runs, seventh to 22nd in wOBA, or sixth to 21st in wRC+.
The startling lack of power, outside of Alvarez, jumps out as a major issue that no one saw coming.
Dubon has been a great story, hitting in 20 straight games and batting .303, but lost in the feel good celebration is the fact that Dubon hasn’t come close to hitting the ball out of the park, and as a matter of fact, has said that was the key to his turnaround. Stop trying to hit home runs.
But singles require other players, often multiple other players, to do their part too and that hasn’t happened by and large.
In 2022 Altuve connected for 27 home runs, 16 of them leading off. No assistance required.
Abreu was supposed to supply the power that was missing in Gurriel’s bat last season, but he’s only managed four extra-base hits (all doubles) in 125 plate appearances.
Tucker started hotter than normal, but hasn’t had an extra-base hit since April 22 in Atlanta.
Alex Bregman has four home runs and four doubles in 118 at bats.
Perhaps the statistic that gives the best insight into the power outage in Houston, is ISO Power, which tells you how often a batter hits for extra bases.
ISO Power is expressed similarly to slugging percentage, but move the decimal a couple places to the right and you have the percentage of extra-base hits for a batter.
A player like Dubon can make his slugging percentage (.385) look relatively good with a .303 batting average, but he can’t hide from ISO Power.
The MLB median for ISO Power is around .155, meaning around 15.5 percent of at bats result in extra base hits of some kind.
The Astros are at .126, which is only good enough for 26th in the league, and a third of their usual lineup is below .100.
Dubon is at .083, Martin Maldonado at .071 and the $58-million cleanup hitter, Abreu is at .032, which is tied for the worst of any qualified bater in MLB.
The Astros have been resilient over the years, winning despite free agency losses of George Springer, Gerrit Cole and Verlander, along with injuries to Lance McCullers, Jr., Bregman and Carlos Correa.
Early on there were questions about the rotation and recent injuries means the Astros are down three starters from last year’s rotation with Verlander in New York.
Can the Astros turn it around?We’ve been here before, when slow starts in Houston turn into runaway American League West titles, but this feels different.
The leadoff batter isn’t going to make it 1-0 on the first pitch of the game and the cleanup hitter isn’t going to cleanup.
There’s still time, of course, the Astros are only 2.5 games out of first and a hot streak could find them atop the AL West.
We expected some struggles on the mound, double that with the recent injuries. We wondered whether the bullpen would maintain the spectacular performance of 2022, but no one expected this.
An offense that’s no longer feared.