Incoming Missiles From Houston’s Outfield
by Jim Silva
When the Astros visited Oakland earlier this month, it was a homecoming for Josh Reddick who came to the A’s in a trade and left the same way. Now playing for his fourth team, Reddick came into his own while with Oakland and because of that and also because of his personality, he was treated with the love reserved for a prodigal son returning home. Serenaded by the PA announcer and fans with his walk up song, all of Oakland made it clear that their love affair with the rifle-armed right fielder was not over. Here is the clip:
But Reddick has moved on to oranger pastures, taking his talents to Minute Maid Park, changing the Astros outfield. An already tough team is now better with the addition of Reddick as we will see as we explore the ‘Stros outfield for 2017.
Before I get to our boy Josh, let me say that one reason the Astros outfield is so interesting is because they have many parts that they can use in many places. So far this season the Astros have played 8 different players in the outfield and that’s in just the first 28 games. This is in part by design and in part a result of some early injuries. The main players in the mix are the aforementioned Josh Reddick, George Springer, Norichika Aoki, and Jake Marisnick. One of the alignments the Astros went with early, and probably the alignment that manager A.J. Hinch prefers based on comments in interviews, was Reddick in left, Marisnick in center, and Springer in right. That is certainly their best defensive alignment (and it isn’t horrible offensively either!), but it leaves Aoki and Beltran fighting for time on the field (Beltran being the primary DH) and Aoki fighting for at-bats. If The ‘Stros want to ditch Marisnick in favor of some on-base goodness, then they play Aoki in left, Springer in center, and Reddick in right. They sacrifice some outfield defense that way, but it allows them to get Aoki’s on-base ability in the lineup along with Beltran’s offensive mix of on-base ability and power at the DH spot. But “What Happens If Jake Marisnick Hits?”, aside from a band starting up with that exact same name and the Gross Domestic Product of Riverside, California (Marisnick’s hometown) increasing ten-fold?
The traditional captain of the outfield has been the center fielder and the Astros have two good ones in George Springer and Jake Marisnick. With Marisnick on the DL early in the season, Springer took over in center, but the young outfielder is off to a rough start with the bat. Nobody believes he won’t break out of it and have another excellent season. Speaking of breaking out, 2016 was a breakout season of sorts for Springer, in part because he was healthy all season allowing him to reach 500 plate appearances for the first time in his three seasons in the majors. At 27, Springer is solidly in his prime and his power, speed, on-base ability, and arm make him one of the most exciting players to watch in all of baseball. If only he could bake! But Springer is not without flaws. While he draws plenty of walks to make up for it, Springer has a propensity for striking out. His career rate is 25.9 % while league average is usually around 21%. His strikeout rate has slowly improved and his walk rate has mostly remained stable so the strikeouts aren’t a big concern.
Springer’s early struggles in 2017 are likely a mirage as his average on balls he puts in play (BABIP) are below league average (which is .288) – a recent 9 for 25 streak has it up to .257 from a low below .200. It is also possible that Springer’s increased defensive responsibilities in centerfield are weighing on him. He has played center before but was primarily a right fielder before this season. There is probably nothing there and the young stud will likely right the ship soon as balls that he puts in play start to fall in or out (of the park). Having a talent like Springer in center or in right makes the Astros the envy of almost every team in baseball.
And then there’s that Marisnick guy. Jake Marisnick is either an excellent, glove first, fourth/fifth outfielder who makes outs at the plate like Colonel Sanders makes biscuits, or he is a starting centerfielder with speed and a little bit of power. Marisnick, a former top prospect for the Marlins, was the starting center fielder when teams broke training camp, even though he has just over 1000 plate appearances in the majors that say he is a 69 wRC+ offensive black hole. The Astros are at their best defensively with Marisnick in center and Springer and Reddick on the corners – essentially a three centerfield defense. The problem is that Marisnick has yet to deliver anything close to major league average offense over the course of a full season. But hope springs eternal in April and Marisnick got off to a tremendous start, playing his usual excellent defense, hitting a pair of bombs, and getting on base at a .400 clip. That is the Jake Marisnick the Astros have been waiting for since they traded for him in an eight player deal with the Marlins in 2014. He wouldn’t be the first player to break out at age 26 and if it is real then he makes Aoki superfluous. Unfortunately, a concussion put Marisnick on the DL and he is only making his return now in the first week of May.
Houston has struggled a bit to put someone in left field who they could just leave alone and let play, which is interesting since that is usually the easiest outfield spot to fill. So Houston attempted to address their outfield issues this off-season by signing not only free agent Josh Reddick to play mostly left field or right, allowing Springer to inhabit rightfield or centerfield, but also by claiming Nori Aoki off waivers to share left field duties. While you can’t have stars at every position, Aoki is an interesting choice to play left for a team reasonably hoping to make it to the World Series. At 35, and definitely in the midst of his decline phase, Aoki brings offense (career wRC+ of 106) to left field, but not the kind one normally expects to find in one of the least defensively challenging spots on the field. He has always been more of a get on base with a single or double, maybe steal second, draw some walks, and hit around .285 kind of guy than a smack 30 home runs dude. The diminutive outfielder has never hit more than 10 home runs, and his ability to steal bases has apparently declined to the point where he probably shouldn’t try anymore (caught nine times in 16 tries last season). He got off to a hot start, hitting well over .300 and getting on base at nearly a .400 clip, but is back down around .350 now and his weakness, outfield defense, is showing. Houston is mostly batting him near the bottom of the order making kind of a second leadoff hitter – not a bad use of his strengths. He would make a non-traditional designated hitter if they decide 40 year old Carlos Beltran isn’t cutting it anymore, although Beltran had a revival of sorts last year hitting. At some point they will likely have a decision to make with Aoki and Beltran serving similar purposes on their bench (when one is DHing). Aoki is an excellent find on the cheap if you’re into that kind of thing. It seems that Seattle was more interested in putting together an excellent defensive outfield so chose to part ways with Aoki getting nothing in return – a puzzling move – but it’s the other off-season move for Reddick that improves the Astros chances of extending their post-season run.
Josh Reddick is not a superstar and although he put together a 5.0 WAR season in 2012 with the A’s, he was never destined to be a superstar. But the Astros don’t need a superstar to play right because they already have a potential outfield superstar in Springer, another budding superstar at shortstop – Carlos Correa – and a bona fide superstar at second base in Jose Altuve. What they need from Josh Reddick is a solid 3.0 WAR season with some power, a decent batting average, and some of that good ole gold glove outfield play (or at least something close). In the two seasons where Josh has managed 500 plate appearances he has launched a total of 52 home runs – 32 and 20. He has spent the majority of his career playing in pitchers parks so it will be interesting to see if he can up his power game and hit somewhere close to .280 while getting on base at a .330 clip. All of those numbers are in reach, the caveat being that Reddick tends to spend time on the disabled list, hence the small number of seasons with at least 500 plate appearances. When he does play, his combination of defense, power, and strike zone management fit nicely into the Astros tapestry. Reddick’s on base percentage has crept up each of the last two years to .345 (in 2016), so he fits in many places in the batting order keeping in mind that if he is facing a tough lefty then he might be overmatched. Reddick can even play a solid centerfield as he showed when Jake Marisnick went on the DL and George Springer was unavailable. As I mentioned before, Manager A.J. Hinch wants Reddick in left and Springer in right when everyone is healthy (assuming Marisnick can hit enough to warrant starting him in center), and Reddick’s defensive talents will play up in left field.
So where does all that versatility leave us? Jake Marisnick playing well makes Nori Aoki’s life more difficult because Norichika can’t play center. If Aoki starts, then Marisnick is probably his late inning caddy taking over when the Astros have a lead and want an excellent defensive alignment to preserve it. If Marisnick is the starter in center it would be hard for Aoki to get to 400 plate appearances with Houston because he can only play the outfield corners or DH, a spot he would split with Carlos Beltran. It’s possible that the Astros will get him time in the lineup playing all three outfield spots keeping the starters fresh, spelling Reddick against tough lefties and Aoki against balls hit toward him in the air. The Astros are a much better team with Marisnick getting on 33% of the time and playing outfield defense than they are with Aoki getting on 35% of the time and playing outfield defense. If Marisnick picks up where he left off then the Astros outfield is even tougher than tough and Nori Aoki becomes a bench bat, a 4th outfielder, or possibly trade bait. Springer always plays!
It is worth noting that the Astros excellent farm system is full of young, athletic outfielders with high ceilings, like Daz Cameron, Teoscar Hernandez, Kyle Tucker, Ramon Laureano, and Derek Fisher, just to name a few. Tucker is the most highly touted of the young outfielders and their top outfield prospect, but he is 20 and playing at high-A, so it is unlikely that he will impact the Astros this year or even the next. Hernandez got 100 at bats in Houston last season and showed some exciting power and speed, as he had in the minors, but also a lack of plate discipline. He is only 24, so it’s possible that he still has some development left. Laureano is at double-A and not tearing it up, Cameron still has a long way to climb, but is still young. Fisher is at triple-A and will provide help assuming the deep parent club has some kind of outfield disaster, but he is blocked at this time. He is an intriguing power-hitting bat and drew 83 walks at double-A and triple-A last season. He is 22 and while he isn’t the top outfield prospect in the system, his speedy ascent through the minors and his offensive profile make him the surest bet to make it to Houston as soon as there is an opening.
Managing all this talent is a burden, and that burden falls on the head of A.J. Hinch, Stanford alum, and former A’s “next best hope” at catcher, making him yet another former catcher managing in the majors. Hinch is only 42 and already in his fifth season managing in the majors. One reason that Hinch is a good fit with the Astros is that he embraces the wealth of information that the sabermetrically inclined Astros mine for him. The Astros manager uses shifts, has quickly embraced a flexible view of bullpen use, and in this recent article by Travis Sawchik (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-astros-have-an-outfield-shift/) even talked about the possibility of using, in certain situations, a four man outfield based on data made available to him by the front office. Look for Hinch to use Reddick, Marisnick, Aoki, and Springer (as well as some of the young guys and their DH, Carlos Beltran) in some interesting alignments and lineups to get the most out of their varied talents. Gotta put that Stanford degree to work somehow!