Contact Lens

With the signing of outfielder Michael Brantley, the Houston Astros just took a team strength and made it a dominant factor. The 2017 World Champs were the second best overall at making contact at the plate this past season at 78%, trailing only Cleveland’s 78.7%. Brantley moving from the Indians to the Astros almost guarantees a shift at the top.

Brantley represents a significant free agent acquisition for the Stro’s in that he fits the offensive model crafted by the entire organization since the studiously analytic Jeff Luhnow took over as General Manager in 2011. In the ensuing eight seasons, the Astros have risen from the middle of the pack in contact rate to near the top of the list. Houston sported three hitters in the top 20 in all of baseball for contact rate led by veteran Yuli Gurriel’s 88.3%(13 HR/85 RBI/.751 OPS) ranking him fourth. All-Star Alex Bregman (31 HR/103 RBI/.926 OPS/51 doubles) came in 14th overall at 85.7% and former MVP Jose Altuve was 18th with 85.2% (13 HR/61 RBI/.837 OPS).

The only way to improve upon that heart of the lineup is to add a player cut from the same cloth and Brantley seems custom made. In 2018 the former seventh-round pick came back strong from two injury-plagued seasons to become an All-Star with 17 HR, 76 RBI, 12 SB and an .832 OPS. Add in his third-ranked contact rate in the big leagues (89.5%) and Brantley will take what the Astros do best and only serve to make it better.

On the surface contact rate seems superficial and it has largely been a fringe statistic in analytics…until recently. Since 2012 major league teams have sought to stifle opposing offenses with an escalating number of defensive shifts taking advantage of many hitters that proved to be predictable in their results. And no team faced more shifts in 2018 than the Astros. According to baseballsavant.com, Houston hitters faced defensive shifts on 37% of their plate appearances. The Rays were in a distant second place at 30%. In spite of this, the Astros maintained an effective offensive attack ranking sixth overall with 797 runs scored. Through significant injuries to Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Brian McCann the Astros averaged 4.9 runs a game.

Putting the ball in play is at the heart of the Houston attack. The Astros tied for eleventh in HR’s in 2018 with 205 while generating the sixth most effective offense in the bigs. Opposing teams tried everything they could but the Astros spraying the ball to every inch of fair territory made a big difference. Only McCann ranked in the top one hundred (23rd/67% of PA’s v. shifts) hitters in defensive shifts faced in all of baseball. Right fielder Josh Reddick was the only other Houston player to approach the top one hundred at #106/29.1% v. shifts. Bregman, who had an MVP conversation year, saw 18.1% of his PA’s versus the shift to rank 161st. All other returning Astros hitters ranked no higher than 344th (George Springer).

So where did all the shifts come from? Situational defenses rather than doctrinal ones. The Astros ranked seventh in team on-base percentage (.329) which put a lot of baserunners out there forcing defenses to compensate. Baserunners plus a high rate of contact means a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. Combine all that with having to go up against a rotation of Verlander, Keuchel, Morton, Cole and McCullers and teams facing the Astros were pressed to try anything they could to cut off runs.

How does this all add up? Michael Brantley stands to sharpen an already strong offensive approach for the Astros. A team that ranks second in contact rate, seventh in on-base percentage and sixth in runs scored adds a player that just posted numbers better than their team rankings. Subtract more predictable hitters like McCann, Derek Fisher and Evan Gattis and Houston becomes one of the more difficult teams to defend…maybe the most difficult. A batting order looking like this should be a scary sight to American League teams:

  1. Springer CF
  2. Brantley LF
  3. Altuve 2B
  4. Bregman 3B
  5. Correa SS
  6. Gurriel 1B
  7. Reddick RF
  8. Chirinos C

Another aspect of the Brantley signing for the Astros is introducing a left-handed bat into a nearly all right-handed hitting lineup. Brantley in the first third of the order and Reddick in the last third should provide just enough of a lefty presence to negate any match-up advantages opposing pitching staffs would otherwise hold.

What this all means is that the Houston Astros are the prototype modern day offense. Lots of contact, strong on-base presence, using all fields in a power-friendly ballpark all sum up to fewer gaps in their attack than almost anyone in the game. And these are all factors that serve to negate the effect of defensive shifts. It should be clear to everyone paying attention that the Astros have a definite offensive plan. They’ve refined it over most of a decade and it’s already netted them a world championship along the way. This cements in the minds of baseball fans that Jeff Luhnow and his staff know what they are doing and are making moves that will stoke more championship fires in Houston

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