ASIDE FROM COLE AND STRASBURG, THERE ARE OTHERS HOUSTON COULD ADD FOR IMMEDIATE HELP

3 free agents and why the Astros should pursue them

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Obviously the talk of free agency this offseason for the Astros is centered around Gerrit Cole. Will he come back? Will he get bigger money elsewhere? All of that remains to be seen, but in the meantime, there are other players out there that can help this team get better immediately. When you look at the roster as it currently stands the obvious position group that needs to be addressed is catcher.

Both catchers from last season are free agents, with Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldanado hit the open market with Houston probably hoping to keep at least one, if not both of them. If they do dabble in the available backstops out there this winter, there is one that could provide an instant upgrade both offensively and defensively. On the pitching front, there are a few starters out there that have the skillset and characteristics that the Astros look for when adding talent to the organization. With that being said, here are three possibilities that Houston should consider adding this off-season.

The bottom of the order was a bit of an issue for the Astros late last season, especially in the playoffs. Even with a big World Series from Robinson Chirinos, they didn't get much offense out of their catchers. Both Chirinos and Maldanado were not only good defensive receivers but great teammates and clubhouse guys. They were beloved by their squad and that goes a long way in a 162 game season, but both were lacking in the box with a bat in hand. Chirinos got off to a hot start but overall it was a hit or miss proposition with the latter the more frequent result.

Jeff Luhnow could bring one or both of them back, but if he wants to upgrade the position there is a player out there that could add immediate offensive punch to an already potent lineup. Yasmani Grandal is one of the most productive offensive catchers in the game. He just put up another stellar season for the Brewers that had him hitting 28 home runs while knocking in 77 RBI. Although he has never hit for average, a career .241 hitter, he did draw 109 walks and has something that the Astros and all playoff teams covet, solid defense, quality fielding and a knack for keeping runners off the bases. He also has postseason experience after several years with the Dodgers, which is an added bonus. He is expected to fetch a salary in the 42 million dollar range for a 3-year deal, so he won't come cheap, but he could pay some serious dividends.

If the Astros lose the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes and don't choose to get involved in the pursuit of Steven Strasburg, Zack Wheeler might be a potential replacement for the Houston rotation with his big arm and 3.77 career ERA. Wheeler and the 'Stros have long been linked to potential trade scenarios as rumors had the Mets and Jeff Luhnow discussing a possible deal for months leading up to last season's trade deadline.

He seems to bring to the table the kind of career and skill set that the Astros covet, a strong-armed, hard-throwing right-hander that needs to be schooled on the fine art of pitching. By that I mean, honing his skills including the 2 seam and 4 seam fastballs, improving his spin rate and implementing analytics and advanced scouting methods. The same way the Houston organization was able to have a positive impact on Charlie Morton and Cole, the potential is there with Wheeler to be the next veteran pitcher to experience immediate success with the Astros.

One other name to keep an eye on this offseason if you are an Astros fan is Michael Pineda. Another right-hander with an above-average fastball that needs to become more of a pitcher and less of a "thrower." He was 11-5 last season with a 4.01 ERA for the Twins before being suspended for PEDs. That suspension will roll into the early part of the 2020 season and thus make him an affordable addition to the rotation if Luhnow and his staff deem him worthy.

He could be next season's Wade Miley, an affordable, innings-eater that could benefit from a change of scenery and the opportunity to learn and work with an organization that has a pension for improving pitchers with their scientific formula of stats, scouting, and advanced teaching techniques. Pineda made 8 million dollars last season and with the suspension preventing teams from offering up a long-term, lucrative deal, you could probably get him for a one-year, "make good" contract in the neighborhood of 5 million a year. That would be a bargain for a veteran starter with potential, like Pineda even if he was your fifth starter next year.

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TO BE THE MAN, YOU GOTTA BEAT THE MAN!

The answers in the outfield are becoming clearer than the Astros hoped

*Note: Some Advanced Statistics, courtesy of Baseball Savant, do not include Thursday night's game against the Diamondbacks. Others, courtesy of Fangraphs, do include Thursday night's game*

The Corpus Christi Hooks Twitter account confirmed that Yordan Alvarez is alive and able to take swings, meaning the slugger's return to the Astros lineup is getting closer. Alvarez will get a bulk of the DH at-bats. With Springer being the primary center fielder, and Brantley being the primary left fielder, Dusty Baker will have to choose between Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker for his primary right fielder. Who should he choose?

How do you boil down picking between two players to one question? What is the most important thing to judge a hitter on? The answer

The better player is the player that does the most damage consistently.

Sounds easy, right? But how do you judge that?

  1. Hard Hit %
  2. BB:K
  3. Contact %

Why these three? Well, hitting the ball hard usually leads to damage, so it is good to hit the ball hard. A player that walks and strikes out roughly the same amount is generally pretty consistent, so BB:K ratios closer to 1:1 (this is extremely rare, and a vast majority of MLB hitters are worse than 1:2) are good. Lastly, players that make contact a lot not only can generally do more of the little things like moving runners over, lifting a ball with a runner on third, or executing a hit & run, but also they generally don't swing and miss at their pitch when they get it. Action happens.

Kyle Tucker has a hard hit % of 38.5% so far in 2020. That is 55th in MLB amongst players with at least 25 batted balls (Tucker has 26). For context, Padres star third baseman Manny Machado is ranked 54th with 38.9%, thorn-in-the-Astros-side Kole Calhoun is t-58th at 37.9%, and Padres star shortstop Fernando Tatis leads the big leagues at 66.7% (wow).

So, more than 1/3rd of the time Tucker makes contact, he hits it hard. That's pretty good...But how often does he make contact?

Tucker has a contact % of 75.6%, meaning he makes contact with the baseball three out of every four times he swings the bat. That is 88th amongst qualified hitters. He is 1% worse than the slumping Jose Altuve, tied with that guy Kole Calhoun again, and about 1% better than the also-slumping George Springer. Tucker is far from elite at putting the bat on the ball, but he isn't terrible either.

However, despite hitting baseball's hard one-third of the time and making contact three-thirds of the time, Tucker strikes out entirely too much. His 29.3% K-rate is the 35th worst in baseball, and he doesn't offset the strikeouts with a lot of walks either. Tucker walks just 7.3% of the time, which is the 62nd lowest. Ultimately, Tucker has a BB:K ratio of 0.25, which is 49th in MLB right now.

Lastly, while it isn't part of the criteria above, Tucker doesn't have a very diverse batted ball portfolio. Tucker hits the ball to the pull side 65% of the time, and he's hit it on the ground 50% of the time. Eventually, teams will start placing heavy shifts on him, and those balls that have snuck through holes in the early parts of the year won't anymore.

But, is Josh Reddick any better? While none of Tucker's numbers blow you away, they aren't terrible, and he's a young prospect that needs playing time to develop.

Reddick has a 31.3% hard hit % so far in 2020, about seven percentage points below Tucker. 31.3% places Reddick in 96th place, between players like Marcus Semien and Yuli Gurriel. So, Tucker has Reddick beat here, but it isn't by a landslide.

Reddick has a contact % of 80.5%, which is 50th in MLB right now. He's better than Tucker by 5%, and he's in the top quartile in baseball. Reddick also sprays the ball around when he makes contact, hitting the ball to center field 43.8% of the time, right field 37.5% of the time, and left field 18.8% of the time. His ground ball rate is also 31%, almost 20% lower than Tucker's. That would explain why Reddick and Tucker's Barrel % (hard hit baseballs hit in the most desired exit velocity) are within a percentage point of one another despite Tucker having a seven point hard hit advantage.

Lastly, Reddick doesn't strike out very much. He strikes out 14% of the time, which is the 34th best K% in baseball (funny enough, Gurriel and Brantley are 33rd and 32nd). While Reddick doesn't walk a ton either, he walks more than Tucker, clocking in four percentage points better at 11.6%. That results in a BB:K ratio of 0.83, which is tied with Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman for the 30th best in MLB.

Throw in the fact that Reddick plays significantly better defense, and it's really a no-brainer who should play. Astros fans might want the sexier and newer model in Tucker, but it isn't time to trade in old reliable just yet. When Yordan Alvarez returns, Josh Reddick is the right answer in right field.

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