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Are Astros Better, Or Better And Smarter?

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics
“Hey thanks!”
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

No doubt, bad execution can make you look like you’re dumb. Never was this more evident than with my great-great uncle Perv (after whom my uncle Perv is named), whose only job was to sharpen the guillotine blade, and if you’ve ever seen a criminal’s head hanging by a tendon then I don’t need to tell you about bad execution.

So I’m going to assume that in Jonathan Lucroy’s thick book on how to get various batters out, the section on Evan Gattis probably does not read, “Try fastballs down the middle,” as A’s pitchers kept throwing Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

However, other examples exist that make it look like the Astros have leap-frogged over the A’s not just in raw talent and athleticism, but also in using available information to maximize success.

I am baffled by the A’s continuing insistence on throwing strikes early and often to Yulieski Gurriel, a Ryon Healy like hacker who has walked exactly 7 times this season in 54 games. No doubt Gurriel is blessed with the ability to hit the ball hard, but that’s when he isn’t getting himself out. Throw him strikes and he will mash the ball; throw him balls and he will swing. So watching him continually rake first pitches for RBI hits was as puzzling as it was irritating — Oakland’s pitchers could not have made location mistakes over and over, hanging pitches they meant to bounce, centering fastballs they meant to run in on the hands, could they?

Then there’s Houston’s outfield defense, which I am surprised more teams have not imitated. The Astros routinely place the outfield to the off-field shallow and near the line, exactly where you should be playing (especially with 2 strikes) against the majority of hitters. Unless a hitter possesses the ability to routinely drive balls to the wall the other way, an attribute that describes few hitters, the bulk of the fly balls batters hit to the opposite field are going to be slapped or stroked in front of the outfielder, most often tight to the line.

The Astros take away a ton of opposite field hits through their positioning, giving back few extra base hits in the process, and with a low payroll the A’s need to be availing themselves of these free advantages. I would love to see Piscotty, in RF, Canha/Pinder/Joyce in LF, positioning themselves this way — especially against slap hitters such as Dee Gordon, who recently tormented the A’s with balls poked to LF. When was the last time Dee Gordon drove a fly ball over the LFer’s head? Come on.

Just for funsies, check out the spray chart (the one on the right) for Justin Upton. Upton is a power hitter, far from a “slap hitter,” yet if you scrutinize his spray chart you see how many of the balls he hits to RF are shallow or in front of the RFer compared to the few he hits in which it would behoove the RFer to be playing normal depth. This is true, and then some, for hitters with less power. Let’s position the outfield accordingly this weekend and trust the process even when an occasional ball is lofted over the OFer’s head. It won’t happen often.

It’s not that I don’t think the A’s look at these kinds of things or don’t care. It’s more that they seem to be missing opportunities that are easily employed. Like don’t give in to hackers (also good advice in the tech world), align your outfield dramatically to take away the easiest hits and force batters to hit away from their strengths. Then maybe the occasional blunder down the middle to Gattis will yield just a solo HR in a handy win.

Perhaps you can think of other ways the A’s are missing chances to cheaply employ shrewd strategy to win an unfair game. I read a book once that suggested they used to be really good at it.