What makes the Astros defense great?

By Mark Simon

This shouldn’t come as a surprise if you watched them during the ALCS: The Houston Astros led the American League in Defensive Runs Saved with 89 in 2019. Houston’s defensive excellence is the product of a collective effort. Thirty players on other teams had more Runs Saved than the Astros leader, George Springer, who had 11.

Astros Defensive Keys
* OF led MLB in Catch Rate on Flies & Liners
* Infield led AL in Shift Runs Saved
* Carlos Correa makes many great plays, few mistakes
* Martin Maldonado, Robinson Chirinos: great pitch blockers
* Zack Greinke: Nimble on the mound

A great outfield

But Springer was part of an outfield that combined to save 45 runs with its defense, the second-highest total in the majors and 19 runs more than the next-best AL team (the Yankees, 26).

The Astros caught an MLB-high 62% of fly balls and line drives hit to the outfield (but not out of the ballpark) this season. Springer, Jake Marisnick, Josh Reddick, and Michael Brantley were the players integral to that.

Springer split his time and his Runs Saved between center field (6 Runs Saved in 75 games) and right field (5 in 59). That was a big jump from 2018, when he cost his team five runs with his defensive play. He’s usually best on fly balls to the shallowest part of the outfield (you’ll see that’s a trend here). Watch him on deep balls in right field. The numbers indicate that’s not his strength.

Marisnick is the team’s best ‘go back and get it’ outfielder, hence a valuable center fielder. He’s totaled at least 10 Runs Saved in a season as an outfielder four times. Since 2014, he ranks seventh among outfielders in Runs Saved despite ranking 60th in innings. He finished 2019 with five Runs Saved, with his strength being catching the shallow fly ball rather than the deep fly, as it had been in years past. The Astros have been using him as a defensive closer this postseason, bringing him in to protect late-game leads.

Jake Marisnick on Shallow Fly Balls
Opportunities* 78
Plays Made 59
Expected Plays Made 50
Plays Above Expected 9**
* Balls with Catch Probability >0%
** T-2nd among CF

In Game 6 of the ALCS, he replaced Brantley (with Springer and Reddick moving so Marisnick could play center). But Brantley is no slouch. He made a great diving catch to preserve the Astros lead that game. Brantley tied for the lead among left fielders with 10 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019.

The Astros play Brantley an average of four feet shallower than the average left fielder plays at Minute Maid Park. That likely helped him too in catching shallow flies, as he fared well above average in doing that. You saw that in the LCS catch.

Springer just missed DJ LeMahieu’s game-tying home run in the ninth inning of Game 6. That kind of ball is one that Reddick has made his season on. He’s snagged five home run robberies this year (here’s one), matching Carlos Gomez (2013) and Lorenzo Cain (2019) for the most in a season since Sports Info Solutions began tracking them fully in 2004.

Reddick’s nine Runs Saved in right field are largely boosted by those five catches. Otherwise, Reddick is a slightly above-average glove (he has a nice catch in Game 6 too). It will be worth watching how he throws. His Outfield Arm Runs Saved dipped from 3 to -3 from 2018 to 2019. He averaged five assists without a cutoff man from 2016 to 2018 but had only one unaided in 2019.

Shifts key to infield success

The Astros recorded 35 Shift Runs Saved in 2019, the third-highest total in the majors and easily the most in the American League. Houston put Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman in position to succeed, and those players made plays pivotal to the team’s success.

Most Shift Runs Saved – 2019 Season
Dodgers 48
Diamondbacks 44
Astros 35
Cardinals 30

There’s versatility there if needed. When Correa got hurt, Bregman moved from third base to shortstop and Gurriel moved from first base to third base. The team survived until Correa returned. When Correa’s healthy, you can see he is a difference maker with plays like the double play conversion in Game 6 of the ALCS.

SIS tracks Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors using a set of rules devised by Bill James that rewards both Web Gem-type plays and things like a nifty double play turn and punishes for things like slipping and falling or failing to convert a makable double play.

Correa averaged the most Good Fielding Plays per 1,000 innings and the fewest Defensive Misplays per 1,000 innings among shortstops in 2019. He’s the highlight reel star this year after Bregman played that role in years past.

Carlos Correa vs. Trea Turner
Good Fielding Plays Misplays & Errors
Carlos Correa 25 9
Trea Turner 16 35

Bregman, Gurriel and Altuve are the consistent ones. Altuve’s not as nimble as he used to be, but Gurriel helps make up for that by the ground he covers at first base (and he helps his teammates out – Gurriel had only one Misplay & Error related to catching a throw).

In all, the Astros turned 76% of ground balls and bunts into outs last season, the third-highest total in the majors.

Pitch and Catch

Behind the plate, the Astros split between Martin Maldonado and Robinson Chirinos. Maldonado is Cole’s personal catcher and could start if the Astros use a bullpen game again. Maldonado has a reputation of being one of the best defensive catchers in the game. He ranked among the best pitch blockers this season and is typically one of the leaders in pitch framing and basestealing deterrence, though he was just a smidge above average in both this season.

Cole’s fine with that. He has a 1.30 ERA and a nearly 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the 90 1/3 innings Maldonado has caught him.

Gerrit Cole By Catcher (includes postseason)
Maldonado Chirinos
ERA 1.3 2.44
K-BB Ratio 7.6* 6.2
Innings 90 1/3 103 1/3
* 9.8 in regular season and LDS (137/14)

Chirinos is a below-average pitch-framer and average when it comes to basestealing deterrence. However, he’s an outstanding pitch blocker. His 96% block rate on potential wild pitches was highest in the majors. Chirinos was Verlander’s personal catcher. He’s caught every pitch Verlander has thrown this season.

As for the Astros pitchers, Cole and Verlander have one Misplay & Error between them and handle their positions well. They pale in comparison to Greinke, who might be the best fielding pitcher in baseball. He led all pitchers in putouts and tied Max Fried for the lead in assists. He also limited basestealers to 2-for-6 in stolen base attempts. This is something Greinke has been good at for a long time. He ranks second among pitchers in Defensive Runs Saved since the stat was first tracked in 2003.

We know that the Astros can pitch and that their best defense is when the ball isn’t hit at all, which happens often for Cole and Verlander. But it’s a great luxury to have the defense they do. It puts them in position to win their second World Series in three seasons.

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