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Entries in Houston Astros (16)


Lowrie Deadly with Two Strikes

New Astros GM Jeff Luhnow made an upside play this past offseason by trading incumbent closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox for shortstop Jed Lowrie (and Kyle Weiland). Lowrie, while waylaid by mono and wrist and shoulder injuries in Boston, nevertheless represented a switch-hitting, up-the-middle-player under team control through 2014. The move has paid off handsomely for Houston, as Lowrie leads all shortstops in OPS+ (143) and is tied with J.J. Hardy for the lead in homers (11) while Melancon hopes to return to the majors after a demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.

Lowrie's big year is a result of his two-strike slugging. Most hitters are helpless with their backs against the wall, but Lowrie is thriving in such situations. He has the highest two-strike slugging percentage among qualified batters, and it's not even close:

Highest slugging percentage with two strikes in 2012

BatterSlugging Pct.
Jed Lowrie .637
Adam Jones .543
David Ortiz .536
Martin Prado .508
Prince Fielder .495
Paul Konerko .478
Ryan Braun .470
Josh Reddick .458
Andrew McCutchen .444
Joey Votto .438
MLB Avg. .274


Jed has jacked a major league-leading nine home runs in two-strike counts. Whether a result of the 'Stros lacking many other potent hitters or a belief that the ultra-patient Lowrie won't chase off the plate, pitchers are giving him more offerings in the strike zone with two strikes (45 percent) than the average hitter (41 percent). If Lowrie keeps making opponents pay, that may well change.


Jose Altuve Shortens His Strike Zone

At a listed five-foot-five, Houston's Jose Altuve faces an uphill climb to big league success. He's the most vertically-challenged hitter in the majors since Al Montreuil had a cup of coffee with the Cubs four decades ago. And the list of short guys with good bats and meaningful careers is, well, short. According to Baseball-Reference, Topsy Hartsel, Willie Keeler, Bill Keister, Charlie Duffee and Albie Pearson are the only batters standing 5-foot-5 or under with at least a league-average OPS while getting at least 2,000 career plate appearances. The first four of those fellows began their careers before the Spanish-American War and the Wright Brothers' famous flight.

While Altuve has a tall task in front of him, he raked in the minors (.327/.326/.481) and has shown improvement with Houston in 2012 after a shaky rookie stint last year. Altuve had an 81 OPS+ in 2011. But in 2012, he has a 174 OPS+. A major reason for the uptick is improved plate patience: Altuve has already drawn seven walks in 77 plate appearances after taking just five free passes in 234 plate appearances in 2011.

Altuve has one of the smallest natural strike zones this side of Eddie Gaedel, but he made it much bigger than it had to be last year by swinging at anything from his eyes to his ankles:

Altuve's swing rate by pitch location, 2011

The Astros' second baseman swung at 42% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, one of the ten highest rates in the majors and much higher than the 28% MLB average. This year, however, Altuve is showing a far more selective approach at the plate:

Altuve's swing rate by pitch location, 2012

His chase rate is down to 23% in 2012. That, combined with a decrease in his number of cuts on in-zone pitches, means that Altuve has boosted his average number of pitches seen per plate appearance from 3.06 last year to 3.92 (the MLB average is about 3.8). History shows it's hard for little guys to last in the majors. But Altuve could have a long, productive career if he can complement his contact skills with a good eye.



Livan Livin' on the Edge

Viva Livan! After sixteen years, seven teams and 3,121.2 innings pitched, Livan Hernandez has latched on with the Houston Astros for the 2012 season on a minor league deal. Hernandez, who served as a mentor and coach to young Nats starters last September after another season of innings-munching with his beer-league softball velocity (84.4 mph with his "fastball," besting only knuckleballer/mountain man R.A. Dickey), will try to earn the fifth starter's spot and give prospects like Jordan Lyles more time to develop in the minors.

Despite possessing stuff that wouldn't get him a spot on some varsity high school squads, Livan has managed to soak up innings and post a not-terrible 90 ERA+ (10 percent worse than the league average) over the past three seasons. Hernandez has one of the 10 lowest strikeout rates (five per nine innings) among starters over that time frame, but he has stayed afloat due to a quality walk rate (2.5 unintentionals per nine).

Livan hardly pounds the strike zone, having placed less than 40% of his pitches over the plate from 2009-2011 (the league average for starters is about 49%). Rather, he's the best in the business at stretching the strike zone and getting favorable calls from umpires on the corners.

Most umps call strikes on left-handed hitters on pitches that are actually a little off the outside corner:

Average called strike rate by pitch location for left-handed hitters, 2009-2011

But Livan gets even more calls on the outside corner versus lefty hitters:

Hernandez's called strike rate by pitch location vs. left-handed batters, 2009-2011

Those generous calls on outer-third pitches add up. Hernandez has gotten called strikes on out-of-zone pitches thrown to lefties 19% of the time since 2009, way above the 13% average for righty starters to lefty hitters. Colby Lewis is the only righty starter that has received more outer-third calls versus lefties. Put another way, Livan got 397 called strikes on out-of-zone pitches to lefties over the past three seasons. A starter with a 13% rate of called strikes on off-the-plate pitches to lefties would have gotten 272 called strikes.

Livan lives on the edge against right-handers, too. Check out the average called strike rate by pitch location for righty starters vs. righty hitters, and then Hernandez's:

Average called strike rate by pitch location for RHP vs. RHB, 2009-2011 Hernandez's called strike rate by pitch location to RHBs, 2009-2011

Livan has gotten called strikes on out-of-zone pitches to righty hitters 16% of the time since 2009, second in the majors to Jake Peavy and nearly double the average for RHPs versus RHBs. Hernandez has received 294 called strikes on out-of-zone pitches to righties since '09. The average righty pitcher would get 150 called strikes.

Think about that -- Hernandez got 269 extra strikes by getting calls on the corners over the past three seasons. Living on the edge has allowed Livan to keep playing a glorified game of catch at age 37.