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The Houston Adjustment

Outside my apartment is a deep and endless sea of orange. I live in Houston, where the Astros just dispatched the Yankees en route to their first American League pennant. While it’s hard not to get caught up in the city’s infectious enthusiasm, mostly I wonder when Milwaukee will experience a similar moment. I grew up in Wisconsin, where my summers were soundtracked by Bob Uecker and the highlight of my year was a trip to County Stadium. My favorite baseball player was, hands down, Jose Valentin. I liked Mark Loretta a lot, too.

Over the last several years, I’ve become increasingly invested in the minor leagues, and particularly in the diverse groups of dreamers and washouts that populate a minor league roster. At times, I think I’ve almost forgotten that the major league team exists. It was nice, this season, to be reminded of that.

It was nice to follow the Astros this season, too: they’re an easy team to like. It’s fun to see a club emerge from a multi-year rebuild in such noisy fashion; it’s fun to drive downtown and see a generational player like Jose Altuve laying a claim to baseball history; it’s fun to win!

The Astros and the Brewers also share a deep and interesting bond. GM David Stearns came to Milwaukee from the Houston organization, as did Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Jonathan Villar, and Josh Hader. Meanwhile, Mike Fiers and Nori Aoki suited up for Houston this year. On the surface, the clubs have a lot in common.

Prior to this season, the two teams shared something else, as well: Strikeouts. In 2015, Astros batters struck out 1,392 times, good for second-most in baseball. That year’s Brewers whiffed 1,299 times, good for tenth most. The next year, both teams’ lineups generated even more breeze. The Brewers ranked first in the majors with a staggering 1,543 strikeouts, thanks in part to the heroic efforts of (former Astros first baseman) Chris Carter and Jonathan Villar. Houston was fourth in baseball with 1,452 whiffs of their own.

But something was slowly shifting in Houston. Between the starts of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the Astros added bats like Yuli Gurriel (11.0 strikeout percentage in 2017), Nori Aoki (11.8), and Josh Reddick (13.3). They imported Brian McCann (14.5) to handle primary catching duties. Alex Bregman, in his second season of big league action, trimmed his strikeout percentage from 24.0 to 15.5. George Springer, who once looked like a prototypical 3 True Outcome outfielder, has cut his whiff rate from 33.0 in 2014 down to 17.6 this season. Jose Altuve posted a career worst strikeout rate of 12.7, well lower than every qualified Brewer batter. While Milwaukee struck out more than ever in 2017, leading the majors with a record 1,571 Ks, Houston pulled off a remarkable about-face. They ranked last in the majors in strikeouts, with a modest 1,087.

Brewers fans (and baseball fans in general) heard time and again this year that strikeouts don’t matter. Baseball is becoming more extreme than ever, with strikeouts and home runs spiking across the board. And yet, the Brewers and the Rays, the whiffingest teams in baseball, experienced well-documented troubles pushing runs across the board. Meanwhile, the Astros took the next step by parting ways with some of their most strikeout-prone players and teaching the rest of the roster how to put the ball in play. If it were some other team, it might be tempting to dismiss these results as some sort of fluke. But these are the Astros, who have built a reputation as one of the more cutting-edge organizations in the game.

Time will tell if David Stearns deploys a strategy similar to that of his previous organization. To his credit, the Brewers roster has youth on its side. Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw, and Orlando Arcia—all caught somewhere between “rookie” and “veteran” status—saw improvements in their strikeout rates from 2016 to 2017. In another few years, Santana could be making the George Springer adjustment while Lewis Brinson (18.2 whiff rate at Class-AAA Colorado Springs this season) settles in as a star centerfielder. By then, it could be the Brewers bringing in free agents to reshape the organization’s identity. Imagine DJ LeMahieu sliding into the keystone in 2019, for example. Contact-oriented prospects like Lucas Erceg and Mauricio Dubon may also be competing for roster spots if they’re not cashed in for a mid-season pitching acquisition.

Until then, Brewers fans will likely have to live with the whiffs. But take heart; a few seasons ago, it was the Astros threatening to break strikeout records. It wound up working out pretty well for them.


 

Photo Credit: Thomas Shea, USAToday Sports Images

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